IT is with varied emotions that the thoughtful traveler enters the Eternal City. There are visions of early struggles and civic virtue, of sudden empire and garish opulence, of dissoluteness fed by the loot of cities and the tribute of subject provinces. There are memories of barbarian vengeance and devasted Italy, of ruined fortunes and forgotten arts, of crumbling civilization and life again straitened within the horizon of barbarian ignorance. And then arises that other Rome of the popes, its life still fed by tribute known as Peter’s Pence. And finally there is the Rome of to-day, whose ambitious modernism, masking the monuments of church and empire, has not yet won the suffrage of our hearts. What city is like unto Rome!
The art of Imperial Rome is too closely allied to that of Greece to permit of full consideration in a work from which Greek art is excluded. Roman sculpture and painting are as nearly Greek as Romans were able to make them, which is not so very near, but such significance as they have requires consideration in that connection. Rome was indebted to other peoples for some of the excellences and defects of her art, but it is significant that her art is usually spoken of as Greco-Roman. For the most part, it is obviously a joint product, in which all that is excellent is Greek. During the period of barbarian invasion and disaster, this Græco-Roman art perished, or degenerated into forms so primitive as to bear little resemblance to that from which they originated. When, after a long interval, sculpture and painting revived, it was under conditions so different that Greek influence was little felt, even during the period of conscious retrospect and imitation. All that is best in Christian art is essentially a new product, born of an established faith and a fully organized society. Only after some study do we become conscious of a real connection between this new art and the great art that had perished a thousand years before.
But during this long period of disaster and prostration, there was one art that never died, the Mosaics. This art was known to the Greeks and even to the Egyptians, but it owed little to either. It is essentially a Roman art, and substantially their only creation. This may perhaps account for its vitality, for its survival under conditions which were fatal to the borrowed arts. Be that as it may, it is important to remember that the mosaics witnessed the advent of Christianity, and in their development recorded its early impulses and ideals.
Mosaic is, in essence, a design, pictorial or decorative, which is made by piecing together bits of stone or other hard material. Mosaics are generally classified as sectile or tesselated, though there are many variations and intermediate forms.
In sectile mosaic, a whole pattern or some characteristic portion of it, is cut out of a thin piece of stone carefully selected for color. Thus, in a floral design, a leaf is cut from a piece of green stone, a petal from white or colored stone, and so forth. When these are completed, they are inserted into holes of the same size and shape, cut in black or neutral stone, and the whole is then backed up with cement, and the surface polished. Such are the Florentine mosaics, so popular with tourists. Even pictorial effects with ambitious studies in perspective, are sometimes unwisely attempted. Sectile mosaic seems to have large possibilities, but it has never amounted to anything as art.
Tesselated thosaic is made up of little squares (Latin, tessera, dice) set in cement. Figures and background alike are made by arranging squares of the proper color in lines and masses as required. Obviously, with squares as large as common dice, and lines of cement plainly visible, no very exact representation is possible. Yet, strangely enough, it is this form of mosaic which has risen to honor. Nor have the numerous attempts to file sharp corners and make invisible joints proved satisfactory. We persist in liking best those mosaics which do not conceal their joints or attempt too accurate representation of figures and outlines. The reason for this universal preference is an excellent subject for reflection.
A favorite compromise between these two forms of mosaic is the so-called Cosmatin work, which takes its name from the Cosmati family which worked at it for several generations. This resembles tesselated mosaic in that it is made. of small pieces, geometrical in shape, but not all are squares. There are triangles, diamonds, rectangles, and even pieces of curved outline. These are used to make, not pictures or figures, but borders and rich geometrical patterns, which in turn are set into marble used for pulpits, altar screens and the like thus allying the work to sectile mosaic. Such forms serve to suggest the possible variations of the art.
The Egyptians used mosaic for jewelry, but never discovered its larger uses. The Greeks made floors of selected pebbles, making borders and even figures by arranging colors appropriately. This, however, was but the merest rudiment of the art. To the Romans we owe its development into one of the great arts of the world. They used it for floors, though walls and even ceilings in mosaic occur. Floor mosaic was necessarily made of stone, and the range of color was correspondingly limited. Of the many marbles known to the Romans, only four or five furnished colors sufficiently distinctive for mosaic use. White was, of course, the usual background, though black was occasionally employed, while giallo antico, a dull yellow, rosso antico, a dull red, verde antico, a dark green, and porphyry, a dark purple, completed his list of colors. None of these colors were brilliant or uniform. It is plain that they sufficed for borders, geometrical patterns and the like, where colors are arbitrary, but that they were quite insufficient for pictorial effect. Yet, strangely enough, that was at first the great ambition of the Roman mosaicist. By the first century of our era, the most elaborate pictorial representations were attempted, as we have seen in the “Battle of Issus.” The technique of the art is already marvellously perfect. The tesseræ are very small and closely fitted, and the selection of colors betrays an infinity of pains. But even so, the result probably bears little resemblance to the color beauty of the original.
The great expense and meager results of these pictorial reproductions probably account for the rapid evolution of mosaic ideals. Pompeii itself furnishes an example of the simpler treatment, in the well-known dog which guards the entrance to one of the finer houses. In the vestibule, which is paved with small squares of white marble, is a ferocious dog chained to a corner of the vestibule, and accompanied by the warning motto, “Cave Canem,” look out for the dog. This characteristic Roman joke is represented in plain black upon a white ground. It is essentially a silhouette, but the eyes, the teeth, and a few prominent parts are outlined in white upon the flat figure of the dog. It is probable that if the owner could have afforded it, he would have had his dog represented more realistically, rounding him up into a mental hump on the floor, and perhaps surrounding him with embarrassing suggestions of depth. His choice of subject prepares us for anything. In other and even later cases precisely this is done. A good example is the representation of water fowl in the sacristy of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The work is very fine, and the artist shows a delicate appreciation of his material and resources in suggesting the rounded breasts of his ducks by curving lines instead of by shading, for which his limited range of colors gave him little opportunity. But the rounder his birds are, the harder they are to walk on. He still cares more for good birds than for a good floor.
Ultimately, however, the artist worked out a real mosaic style and learned to prefer it without regard to cost. Bold outline figures with features, limbs and modeling set off simply by lines, are the final outcome of Roman pictorial mosaic. Still better, in many of the mosaics, picture suggestion disappears altogether, and conventional designs, fine rug patterns, take their place as appropriate floor decorations.
As the Roman mosaicist slowly changed from the Greek pictorial manner to a style more congenial to his art, he also slowly modified the subject in a direction congenial to Roman taste. The Roman had little place in his art for the finer human sentiments. He was fond of animals and suggestions of material indulgence. Whole halls in the Vatican sculpture gallery are filled with statues of dogs, sheep, goats and the like, superb in workmanship but totally without higher art significance. The mosaics felt the influence of this Roman taste in an exceptional degree. Animals of every sort, reptiles, fishes, fruit, even food and refuse, are the objects of the artist’s skill. In the later days of the empire these subjects divided the honors with the borders and conventional patterns, apparently receiving the preference whenever means and skill permitted. A typical example is the so-called “mosaic of the unswept floor,” in the Lateran Museum at Rome. The table manners of the Romans were different from our own. They reclined at meals, and fingers took the place of forks. Refuse was thrown upon the floor. If fruit was served upon the stem or meat upon the bone, stem, peel and bone were thrown upon the floor. If eggs were served from the baking dish, the empty dish was set upon the floor. If water or wine were poured from a pitcher, the pitcher was set upon the floor. And upon the floor were the familiar household pets, not merely cats and dogs, but parrots, doves, quails, and guinea hens, all of them familiar denizens of the ordinary household. The picture is not inviting to us, but stone floors and free use of water were extenuating circumstances. To the Roman this litter of refuse and kitchen bric-a-brac doubtless came to have a homey look, suggestive of enjoyments to which he was peculiarly sensible. It is highly characteristic of Roman art that we find this litter of the dining-room carefully reproduced in the mosaic of the dining-room floor.
This art, clever, adaptable, but vulgar and materialistic, was the one living form of art which decadent Rome was able to put at the disposal of the new faith. It will therefore be of interest to trace its development in these transitional days.
Out on the Via Nomentana, perhaps a mile beyond the walls of Rome, is the little church of Santa Costanza, built to receive the tomb of Constantia, the daughter of Constantine. We may undoubtedly assign it to the period of Constantine, that is, to the first half of the fourth century. Like most of the early tomb churches, it is round, in this case consisting of a round central part resting on columns and surmounted by a dome, and an encircling aisle covered with a vault. It was probably once decorated with mosaics throughout, but only the mosaics of the vaulted aisle remain. These, the first mosaics of official Christianity (B 18), deserve the closest study.
First, it will be noticed that these mosaics are not beneath our feet but over our head. Fanciful inferences are suggested but hardly borne out by farther observation. The change of position permitted a change of materials, and the change has already been made. The vitreous gleam from the little squares shows that we are dealing with glass, not marble. This change from floor to ceiling and from marble to glass is a veritable emancipation. New and more varied colors, a more dazzling splendor, a more exalted theme, all seem assured. But the artist seems not to know that he is free. He has glass instead of marble, but instead of the brilliant colors thus made possible, he has painfully imitated the dull colors of his familiar marbles, dull green, dull yellow and dull purple. White is still the background.
If we study the design, we are scarcely more edified. The front sections of the vault are filled with the familiar conventional designs, unfortunately in this case most lean and commonplace. Scanty suggestions of fish, flesh or fowl seem meaningless unless we hazard the guess that the fish frequently met with is the well-known Christian symbol. On either side, one section of the vault is devoted to a vintage scene. The pictorial elements, the wine-press, the cart loaded with grapes, the figures picking the bunches, are neither beautiful nor significant. The suggestion that here is an allusion to communion wine is most unplausible. All savors of the banquet rather than of the sanctuary. Only the vine, which winds itself up into feeble decorative scrolls, is seriously worth remembering.
All these impressions are enhanced as we go farther, round to where once stood the high altar and the sarcophagus of the saint. Here is the most important part of the church ; here, if anywhere, we shall find the new spirit and the symbols of the new faith. It is plain at a glance that the importance of this place was recognized and that the most accomplished artist was here employed. His workmanship is superb. More than the others, too, he has discerned the possibilities of his new material. There are touches of dazzling blue and resplendent gold unseen before. Surely here we may expect to find the new art.
Amazing to relate, we have in this most sacred place, and on a ceiling at that, the mosaic of the unswept floor. Here are drinking horns and beautiful water pitchers edged with gold ; there are oranges and pomegranates and pine cones upon the leafy branch ; there are ducks and quails and parrots and guinea hens ; there are cucumbers and frying pans, and basins. Superb in design and color, but strewn over the surface in disorder, they reveal as nothing else could do, the momentum of habit and ideal which no change in official faith could immediately overcome.
So far we have found no Christian art, but as we are about to leave, we notice by chance two tiny niches over the side entrances. In each we have a central figure that we hesitatingly identify as the Christ, while on either side stands another figure and a little sentinel box-like thing which we learn later to interpret as the sign of Jerusalem or Bethlehem. We can scarce believe that these are seriously intended, as we compare their awkward helplessness with the splendid details of the unswept floor. Critics have even queried whether they are not to be attributed to a later restoration in degenerate times. Such queries are easily set at rest if we notice the borders of pomegranates and grapes which surround them. They are equal to the best work in the ceiling. Only the Saviour and the Saints are abysmal failures. The reason is not far to seek. The artist is skilled in the representation of the stock, conventional themes. His copybooks and his head are full of birds and fruits and like sordid commonplaces of uninspired Roman art. He has skill, but neither imagination nor inspired ideals. Ask of him the familiar, and his art is skillful, automatic ; ask the new, above all, the higher, the spiritual, and he is helpless in the extreme. A sorry beginning, this, of Christian art, but not unlike the beginning which men were making of a Christian world.
But if the beginning was feeble, progress was rapid. Returning along the beautiful Via Nomentana, with its villas and its matchless views across the Campagna, let us pay a brief visit to Santa Pudenziana, famed to be the oldest church in Rome, a modification, indeed, of that “house of Pudens,” to which Paul refers in his epistle. Whether this identity be accepted or not, its antiquity is certain. And here, in this same fourth century, the half dome of the shallow apse was decorated with a mosaic (B 19) so new, so magnificent, that it is difficult to believe that scarce fifty years have passed since the helpless beginnings in Santa Costanza. All that was good in the earlier work, the birds, the fruits, the conventional patterns, have been abandoned. They are meaningless in the new art. On the other hand, the helpless figures and symbols of our timid Christian beginnings have been enormously expanded and enriched. In the center sits the Christ, a magnificent, kingly figure, splendid in vestments of crimson and gold. On either side sit the apostles, real men now, easy in posture and of marked individuality, men to whom the names that they have made famous might plausibly be attached. Their draperies are naturalistic, and remind us of the best Greek sculpture. Back of them is a curving arcade, a fine decorative feature, with bronze tiles edged with gold, reminiscent of the gilded bronze tiles that decorated the Pantheon and other Roman buildings in that day. Behind all rises the cross, rich with jewels in Byzantine manner, and on either side, the sacred cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, not symbols now, but real cities, with nearer and remoter buildings in unmistakable perspective. Above are bluish gray clouds and the signs of the four Evangelists in the heavens.
Two points need to be especially noted in this remarkable picture. First, it is a picture, not a flat decoration. Three centuries or more ago the mosaicist had begun the copying of pictures in mosaic. He had gradually abandoned the attempt, partly; no doubt, because he found it expensive and difficult, but partly, we may believe, because he felt that a picture, with its perspective and modeling, was inappropriate for a floor, and to some extent also for a wall, especially when the wall had dignity and significance. In three centuries of evolution, picture had slowly given way to flat decoration, either figures in outline and silhouette, or conventional borders, and patterns. Now, picture has come back. We again have perspective and carefully modeled faces, figures, draperies. – More than that, we have a very realistic picture, with emphasis laid upon individuality in the various persons, upon real cities, clouds, and thrones. The artist has either forgotten, or he has boldly rejected the results of three centuries of experience. Why this change?
It is the natural result of the adoption of the new religion. It is not that this religion is better or higher, though this was undoubtedly true. This alone would not make our mosaics pictorial and realistic again. It is simply that this religion is new, and its stories and personalities have, for a time, the interest of novelty. We can imagine the sudden fashionableness of these Bible stories, the headlong haste of the would-be-in-its to learn the names of the Christian worthies and the story of their lives. It is doubtful whether morals and spirituality at once received their due. It is sufficient for our purpose to note that a new theme acquired vogue, became, indeed, a fad for the brief period of transition. And the nature of this fad, having to do with persons and incidents, at once puts emphasis upon personality and natural environ-ment, and art is stimulated to unprecedented progress in this direction. No one has ever thought of ranking the Age of Constantine along with the Age of Pericles or the Age of Lorenzo, as a creative period in art. In general it was a period of extreme decadence. Yet it would be difficult to find an example in either of those famous ages in which progress was more conspicuous than in the interval between Santa Costanza and Santa Pudenziana. To those to whom realism and pictorial effect is the criterion of excellence, this mosaic not unfrequently appeals as the greatest that has come dawn to us.
But it is impossible to look upon it without certain misgivings. The gray clouds are not beautiful, and the perspective dulls our perception of the shape of the apse. Compare it in reproduction with the half dome of Santa Maria in Trastevere (B 35). How vague and hesitating is our perception of shape and roundness in the one case, and how definite in the other 1 The contrast in color is even more to its disadvantage. The artist seems to feel this. He knows that clouds and city backgrounds must be dull and neutral, but he regrets it, and strains a point to get in as much gold and bright color as possible. The tiles are gilded ; the women are clad in cloth of gold, the Christ in gold and crimson ; the cross glitters with gems. What a pity that nature is not brighter hued if she is to serve to make beautiful the temple of the Lord ! What artist devoted to nature and truth has not felt this ? Above all things, when your art offers you not only color, but the sheen and splendor of gold, and the diamond sparkle of glass in cleavage, how irresistible the temptation ! How irksome the thrall of sober-hued nature ! Our artist feels the temptation and the thrall.
Let us wander into the next century, only a few steps away, in the glorious church of Santa Maria Maggiore, by far the most beautiful church in Rome. We will not notice for the moment the splendid colonnades, nor the rich mosaic floor, the most beautiful in the world, nor yet the great mosaics in the tribune, to which we must later return. Our immediate interest is in the mosaic pictures beneath the clerestory windows. They are comparatively small and the artist has made the mistake of putting in too many figures and in too small a scale, which unduly disparages his work, but we will make allowance for this. The interesting thing is to note the change of style. The story-telling fad is still on, and our artist is unusually ambitious, but he has yielded to temptation. The dull toned backgrounds are gone, and flat backgrounds of gold take their place. The figures are modeled into the round, but beyond this, perspective is sacrificed. The inevitable compromise is being made.
It is not so very far to the Baptistery of St. John in the Lateran, the venerable edifice in which Constantine was baptized, where we again resume our study with a mosaic of the fifth century, the ceiling of the little Oratory of St. John. Whether it is later in the century than the pictures we were just studying, we cannot say. It certainly is farther removed from the pictorial realism of Santa Pudenziana. For here is no picture at all, only a beautiful gold covered surface slightly diversified by figures and designs. The dishes of fruit, flanked by parrots, doves, ducks and quails, remind us of the older Roman taste, and are undoubtedly lineal descendants of the earlier tradition, though here arranged in attractive symmetry. They are pleasingly meaningless. Only the lamb in the center with the halo round its head suggests that this Roman of the old school found in the verse “Be-hold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” a congenial point of contact with the new faith.
But this mosaic gives us something new, a thing not unknown in the imperial mosaics, but unnoticed as yet in our studies. The gold covered ceiling is divided, according to the sections of the vaulting, by rich borders in olive brown, figured and festooned with flowers.
The important thing is the place of these borders. First, they run around the sides, following the junction of the ceiling with the side walls. Then they run diagonally from corner to corner, following the line of junction of the vaults, where in Gothic architecture we should find ribs or groins giving place in the center to a small circle where we should expect to find the keystone or boss. All this is so simple and so appropriate that we do not at first think of it as important, but it will be easiest to recognize in this simple example a great principle which from this time forth is going to control the farther development of the mosaics. We may call this principle INTERPRETATION OF STRUCTURE. We shall find our most familiar illustration of this in the great Gothic churches of the North. The ribs or groins of the vaulting converge to points on the walls exactly over the pillars in the aisles. It would be easy to support the burden of this vaulted ceiling by round pillars and plain wall, and this at first they did. But they soon learned to use a clustered pier instead, each groin or rib of the ceiling being carried clear down to the floor as a separate shaft or rib, a number of these shafts being then grouped together to form a clustered pier. The advantage of this is not structural, for the round pillar would do just as well. It is purely interpretive. Each separate weight in the ceiling having its own supporting shaft, we have at once the feeling that the artist has thought about each and separately provided for its support. All good architecture is built with a regard for this need of interpretation, this necessity of satisfying the mind that all requirements of good structure have been properly met.
When the architect turned over the problem of decoration to the mosaicist, this same need was certain to be felt. In our little oratory the problem was of the simplest, and was solved in the simplest way, but in the nearby portico of San Venanzio, now a chapel of this same Baptistery, it is beginning to affect mosaic in quite a different way. The beautiful half dome here has no thought of picture. It is covered with splendid blue, which scintillates from the broken surfaces of the tesserae, while over this dark blue surface is spread a vine-like scroll in pale shaded green, edged with gold. In spite of great changes, it reminds us a little of the scroll-like grape-vine back in Santa Costanza. But there is this important difference, that here the scrolls are arranged in regular perpendicular lines, tapering from the base ‘of. the dome upward toward the center where they all meet. From this time on, all mosaic scrolls are arranged in this way.
The suggestion of supporting power in a scroll like this is feeble enough, but so far as it suggests direction at all, it is important that this direction should be in the line of the perpendicular, that line which must ever be fundamental in architecture. It is needless to add that perspective has been wholly dropped, and the artist has forgotten even the suggestion of picture. So much in the sixth century.
But the famous old Baptistery has yet another contribution to make to our subject, this time a mosaic of the seventh century in the adjacent oratory of San Venanzio, a contribution reinforced by the fine seventh century mosaic of Saint Agnes without the Walls (B 31). Both these mosaics are of the Byzantine style which the brief control of the Eastern Empire over distracted Italy now brought into fashion at Rome. Ravenna, the capital of the Greek Emperor’s legate, not unnaturally offers numerous examples, such as Justinian and his courtiers, and Theodora and her ladies, and above all, the splendid procession of maidens from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, all of them naturally of somewhat earlier date than the Roman examples. The transition seems abrupt as we go from our scroll covered blue to these gold backgrounds with their stiff, immovable figures. Degenerate pictures, we call them, the critics call them, almost without a dissenting voice. Yes, as pictures, they are certainly degenerate. But when we dismiss them with this easy conclusion are we not overlooking something? In fact, the eastern artists, their background of tradition being Greek art rather than Roman, their traditional subjects gods and men, rather than grapevines and ducks, did not so easily lapse into scrolls as their Roman contemporaries, but struggled still with saints and prophets. Yet as interest in personality and story waned, as color and gold banished perspective, and the importunities of nature were definitely silenced, the need of interpreting structure again made itself felt. The figures themselves must do duty now in giving direction to eye and thought.
Saint and prophet had entered the church of old, conscious only of their mission to men, human in act, in posture, in impulse, knowing no law but the law of life. Slowly they became conscious of the great lines and symmetries about them. The vast colonnades and the motionless pillars fill the church as with a solemn music which slowly enwraps the mind till individual utterance is hushed and alien impulse is wooed into willing conformity. Ease yields to dignity, and spontaneity is insensibly surrendered to symmetry and repose. Fluttering draperies learn to compose themselves in straight and unbroken lines, arms are folded or hang motionless, and solemn faces look out upon us with the calm that reminds us of the eternal things. Life has lost its usual prerogatives, nay, holds them in abeyance, and in willing sympathy, accepts instead the solemn majesty of the church. The individual withers and the church is more and more.
We may freely admit that the artist was not conscious of the great principle to which he was conforming. No doubt, too, lack of skill in pictorial presentation, had much to do with it. It is probable enough that he would have spoiled his mosaics if he had been able to do so. Yet if we had criticised his figures and exhorted him to greater lifelikeness, it is more than probable that he would have conceded the justice of the criticism, and yet would have added : “Somehow, I like them better this way.” In so doing he would but have voiced the mute appeal of his great building for decorations in harmony with its own nature, the underlying reason for all decorative conventions in art.
It is interesting to note the suggestiveness of these decorative figures in mosaics. The procession of maidens in Sant’ Apollinare is ranged above a colonnade whose stately intervals and symmetry it echoes and emphasizes. Especially significant is the half dome of Saint Agnes. Rich borders surround it above, below, within, without, thus recognizing its character. The space thus framed by these borders is then laid off in horizontal zones and covered with mosaic ground, pale green below, for turf, then a broad band of gold as background for the figures, then small bands of varying tints above, filling out the half dome. These horizontal bands once laid off, the figures are arranged perpendicular to the base, all radiating from the upper center of the dome. Straight scarfs and folds of drapery emphasize this straightness and radial direction. Draw a circle and imagine it as the representation of a solid object. It can only be a disk. Now draw foreshortened curves from top to bottom and others from side to side, and it will no longer suggest a disk but a sphere. Witness the usual map of the hemisphere. Our artists have adopted the familiar principle of parallels of latitude and meridian lines in the arrangement of back-ground and figures, and as a result, their half dome, instead of being obscured as by the picture of Santa Pudenziana, is positively emphasized. Compare the splendid half dome of Santa Maria in Trastevere, decorated on this principle.
We now have all the important factors in the great mosaics of the middle ages. The mosaicists had permanently abandoned picture, relying for their effect upon color splendor and upon decorative arrangement. Their decorations remind us little of life, but life is not the only thing in art. On the other hand, they are the most interpretive of all decorations.
The disasters which fell ever more heavily upon Italy brought art to lower and lower humiliation. Few things could be more helpless than the mosaics of San Marco in Rome, or Santa Prassede, both of the ninth century. After that, the mosaics cease altogether for a couple of centuries, only to revive, first in Sicily, under the revivifying influence of those wonderful Norman freebooters who in the eleventh century were writing their names across the bewildering palimpsest of Sicilian civilization, and finally in the twelfth century in Rome, where the art has left some splendid memorials of its glorious period. Such are San Clemente in whose lustrous scrolls we recognize our mosaic of six centuries before in the great Baptistery. Saint John in the Lateran has a half dome decorated on the same principle as Saint Agnes, though the radial figures and their perpendicular names are a little lost in the vast expanse. In the great half dome of Santa Maria Maggiore we have the richest borders and the most splendid details of rosette and scroll and peacock plumage ever conceived in art, but the artist has made the mistake of making his detailed work too fine, so that it is lost to the distant view, and still more serious, he has tried to combine scrolls and radial figures and center medallion in quite an impossible way. The medallion is cut out first, then the figures have next choice, and lastly, the accommodating vine is twined over the left-over space or scrap. No design is good which contains scrap, that is, space not beautiful or planned in itself, but merely left over from the cutting out of something else.
In Santa Maria in Trastevere the mediæval ideal seems fully attained. The borders, seen at close range do not compare with those in Santa Maria Maggiore, but they “carry” to the very end of the church. The great dome, splendid with its color, is dominated by colossal radial figures whose unapologized straightness is emphasized by every means in the artist’s power. The face wall on either side the tribune glows with gold, framed with rich borders and appropriate figure decoration. Underneath this half dome, like a splendid foundation, runs a band of purplish brown on which appear in linked regularity, like a bracelet on a woman’s arm, the thirteen sheep which represent Christ and the apostles. And below all this still, a broad band or ribbon of bordered mosaic picture, stretching around to the face walls on either side. The whole seen by mellow after-noon light makes the most splendid church wall ever gazed upon by man.
But we have dropped a word above which is disturbingly suggestive. We spoke of the broad lower band of mosaic picture. If we examine one of these sections, the Nativity, the word is seen to be no accident. Symmetries are disregarded, the angels even refusing to adjust their wings in the usual accommodating manner. And despite the gold back-ground there is again a vague hint of perspective unknown in the arch above. Other sections betray the same tendency toward depth, spontaneity, life, though their achievements in this direction are feeble enough. What is disturbing the perfect equilibrium of the mediæval ideal ?
Our riddle is solved when we learn that our twelfth century mosaic received this final addition in the thirteenth century. And then we recall that in this century were born Dante, first of the moderns, Niccolô Pisano and Cimabue, creators of modern sculpture and painting, not to mention Bacon and others who awoke with the dawn of modern thought. The Renaissance is here. Life is again the theme, and the art which is its interpreter chafes against the symmetries and the gold and jeweled splendors so foreign to its nature. Soon the demand will be for something more facile and more docile to the artist’s will. Cimabue, beginning as a mosaicist, ends as a painter. The doom of the great mosaics is sealed.