© Halie Cousineau/ Fodors Travel
Outside of Ravenna, Rome has some of the most opulent mosaics in Italy and this church has one of the most striking examples. Commissioned during the papacy of Innocent I, its late 4th-century apse mosaic represents "Christ Teaching the Apostles" and sits high on the wall perched above a baroque altarpiece surrounded by a bevy of florid 18th-century paintings. Not only is it the largest Early Christian apse mosaic extant, it is remarkable for its iconography. At the center sits Christ Enthroned, looking a bit like a Roman emperor, presiding over his apostles. Each apostle faces the spectator, literally rubs shoulders with his companion (unlike earlier hieratic styles where each figure is isolated), and bears an individualized expression. Above the figures and a landscape that symbolizes the Heavenly Jerusalem float the signs of the four evangelists in a blue sky flecked with an orange sunset, all done in thousands of tesserae. This extraordinary composition seems a sort of paleo-Christian
forerunner of Raphael's School of Athens in the Vatican.
To either side of Christ, Sts. Praxedes and Pudentia hold wreaths over the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul. These two women were actually daughters of the Roman senator Pudens (probably the one mentioned in 2 Tim 4:21), whose family befriended both apostles. During the persecutions of Nero, both sisters collected the blood of many martyrs and then suffered the same fate. Pudentia transformed her house into a church, but this namesake church was constructed over a 2nd-century bathhouse. Beyond the sheer beauty of the mosaic work, the size, rich detail, and number of figures make this both the last gasp of ancient Roman art and one of the first monuments of early Christianity.
Via Urbana 160, Rome, Latium, 00184, Italy