The Burne-Jones Mosaics
The Burne-Jones Mosaics
The mosaics in the apse and the choir are the glory of St. Paul’s and are of such recognized value artistically that the Church has been designated a National Monument by the Italian Government.
On the face of the first arch, in front of the apse, is a representation of the Annunciation based on an early legend. We see Mary in the desert outside the town walls, drawing water from a spring. As she turns homeward, the angel greets her. Burne-Jones has chosen to represent this as happening against the reddening evening sky, the time of the Angelus. In the lower left-hand corner, we see a pelican, in medieval times a symbol of Christ, for according to popular belief it customarily tore open its breast with its beak to feed its hungry young. Under this scene is written the greeting of Gabriel: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28) and Mary’s answer “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” (Luke 1:38)
On the second arch over the choir, Burne-Jones has represented the Tree of Forgiveness. Christ, hands outstretched powerfully, is suspended before the green-leafed Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On one side stands Adam and the other side Eve with her firstborn. The thistles from which spring the lily symbolize the hardness of man’s labor from which springs his divine possibilities, concretized in the story of the Annunciation. Under this scene is written in Latin: “In the world, ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The great mosaic of the rear wall of the apse represents Christ the Lord in glory. At the very top against the blue of the sky is glimpsed a glittering vision of angels. Below sits the majestic figure of Christ, enthroned upon the cherubim and seraphim. In Christ’s left hand he holds the orb of the earth and His right hand is upraised in Blessing. From His feet issue the streams of living water and a rainbow is “round about the Throne.” (Revelation 4). On either side of Christ are ranged the archangels, standing each before a gate of heaven. One gate, on Christ’s right, is empty – reminding us of the fall from heaven of Lucifer. Below this majestic scene is the sea of the firmament, through which runs the inscription in Hebrew: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) and in Greek: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” (John 1:1). Below this is to be found a row of graceful angels separating heaven from earth; and in the lowest register we find the Church Triumphant.
Against the background of the Heavenly City, we find five groups of persons representing the various classes or functions which have historically made up Christendom. On the extreme left are the ascetics, the prophetic element in the Church’s life; among these, only St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata is clearly recognizable. Next comes a group of matrons, representing the service of God in ordinary life. Among them can be seen Martha with her keys and Mary Magdalene with the box of ointment.
The major group in the center represents the great ecclesiastical figures of the Church’s past, five fathers of the Eastern Church and five of the Western, with St. Paul in the front dressed in a chasuble (in his day a man’s evening coat; worn today throughout the Catholic Church for the celebration of the Holy Communion.
To the right of this group we find the Virgin and Saints, among them the martyrs St. Catherine, St. Barbara, St. Cecilia, St. Dorothea and St. Agnes. Finally, on the right, come the Christian warriors representing the bulwark of peace and stable government. Here we find representations of the patron saints of many countries: St. George of England, St. James of Spain, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Andrew of Scotland and St. Denis of France.
This lower register is particularly interesting in that the artist, following the Renaissance tradition, used portraits of many of the people of his time for some of the figures represented. For example, St. Ambrose on the extreme right of the center group has the face of J. P. Morgan, who contributed somewhat to the building of the church. St. Augustine to the right of St. Paul is a profile of Archbishop Tait, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among the warriors we can distinguish General Grant (in 1873 President of the USA), General Garibaldi and, with a green tunic, Abraham Lincoln.
The Breck Mosaics
The Breck Mosaics
On the rear wall of the church is the lyric representation of the Nativity with the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Kings, by George Breck. Above this we find the two holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem on either side of the rose window and above, the sky with sun, moon and stars. At the top, again the words, this time in Latin: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Under the rose window we glimpse Adam awakening to life in the Garden of Eden.
On the front of the church facade, around the rose window, we find the four angelic creatures which symbolize the four Evangelists: the angel of St. Matthew, the lion of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke, and the eagle of St. John (based on the Ezekiel 1:4 and Revelation 4:6). Over the west entrance doors we see a mosaic representing St. Paul in his own hired dwelling in Rome, preaching the gospel to all, but constantly guarded by the soldier seen in the picture.
The Stained Glass Windows
The Stained Glass Windows
The windows in the nave, designed especially for the church by the English firm of Clayton and Bell, tell the story of St. Paul. Beginning with the window on Via Nazionale to the right of the west door (Saul at the feet of Gamaliel), his story is told in due order around the whole church, concluding with the window next to the side door, with Paul’s martyrdom at the Tre Fontane in Rome. In the baptistery one of the windows represents St. Paul’s baptism and that of the jailer at Philippi, the other depicts our Lord taking children in his arms and giving the commandment to His disciples to go and baptize all nations. The great rose window high up on the west wall represents Christ the King surrounded by eight Roman martyrs. The windows in the clerestory above the nave were once in the apse but were removed to their present position when the apse mosaics were put in place. The one farthest to the rear of the church represents the risen Christ and Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. In the next is depicted the Annunciation and the Nativity, while in the last we see Jesus taken by the Roman soldiers in Gethsemane, and Pilate presenting Jesus to the mob on Good Friday.
The Bronze Doors
The Bronze Doors
Sculptor Dimitri Hadzi (1921-2006) was born in New York, and was for a long time a member of St. Paul’s. He was commissioned by the Vestry to make the bronze doors on Via Nazionale (dedicated on 18 April 1977) as a tribute to the growing spirit of ecumenism and religious discussion that grew out of the Anglo-Catholic discussions of the 1960’s. The doors are thus symbolic of the modern dialogue begun in Rome between two great streams of Christianity.
In the tradition of Italy, where church doors have symbolized, taught and glorified the message of Christendom for fifteen centuries, the doors of St. Paul’s have a special concept to present. The brilliant art of Lorenzo Ghiberti, who brought the Bible vividly to life for Florentines of the early Renaissance, the rougher 12th century sculptor of San Zeno Major in Verona, or today’s Giacomo Manzù, whose great doors of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome are an enduring and tender biographic statement of Pope John Paul XXIII, are illustrative examples of the great Italian tradition. The works of the artists, and scores of others, relate as representational art – as portrayals of events and people in a cultural setting. The message of St. Paul’s Doors has sprung instead from the composite global record of a fragmented Church, now reaching for the ideal of Christian unity. The theme is thus an abstract of religious history and of prayerful hope for the People of God. It would present a major conceptual problem for any artist.
Intellectual concepts can be symbolized, but many accepted symbols expressing the Church’s past are prejudiced by the cultures in which they grew historically. In today’s world, what would best represent Christendom’s modern progression from disintegration to integration should itself be liberated from a haunting past. An abstract presentation was demanded, fresh and free, within a recognizable universal canon of sculptural art. The theme of the doors itself defined its mode of expression.
Judith Rice Millon
St. Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome: A Building History and Guide, 1870-2000
Available from the Parish Office
Robert Jenkins Nevin
St. Paul’s Within the Walls: An Account of the American Chapel at Rome, Italy, Together with the Sermons Preached in Connection with Its Consecration, Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1876 (vars. publishers, latest edition 2010)
- FMR (No. 24, June 1984): pp. 125-149 – Burne-Jones in mosaico
Richard Dorment, Maria Teresa Benedetti, John Ruskin, Henry James, Fernand Khnopff. Photos by Araldo de Luca.
Italian and English
- The Magazine Antiques (December 2007): pp.92-99 – The Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones mosaics in Saint Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome
- Bell’Italia (February 2014): pp. 94-102 – Tessere di Fede
Carlo Migliavacca. Photos by Araldo de Luca.