Apsis mosaic from Basilica San Clemente in Rome, “Triumph of the Cross,” 12th century
The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome awes visitors with a medieval mosaic that symbolizes the whole of salvation history as being centered on the life-giving image of the cross. It is a visual, symbolic journey that parallels the salvation history proclaimed in the Easter Vigil.
The mosaic situates us in the creation story from Genesis. The artwork is in a half-dome, symbolizing the sky, with the divine hand of the Creator reaching down through a burst of heavenly glory toward the bustling scene of plants, birds, insects, animals, and people living their day to day life below.
A closer look at the Divine Hand reveals that it brings not only life but glory, as it holds a crown of victory over the central symbol of the mosaic: the crucified Christ. The cross as the focal point of this abundant scene stirs the question deeply within us: How can it be that the God of life is nailed to this tree? How can it be that salvation history, in all of its pulsating and thriving for life, culminates on these dark and somber crossbeams?
Through the repetitive vegetal pattern of this mosaic, we might recognize an answer. The swirling vines are a symbol of the fabric of life—that which sustains the existence of all the creatures we detect throughout the scene. Although the swirls fill the mosaic, they emerge from one central place: the foot of the cross, from which the vine burgeons forth robustly. Below the vine is water bubbling out, echoing Psalm 104: “You send forth springs into the watercourses that wind among the mountains. Beside them the birds of heaven dwell; from among the branches they send forth their song.” We spot two deer lapping water from the springs, while birds and people come toward it from both sides, as if responding to the Lord’s call: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water.”
The cross gives life—this is the central mystery of Easter and the profound meaning we enter into as we keep vigil. Tonight, the hand of the Creator reaches out once again to invite us into the new creation that is born out of the Paschal Mystery and beckons us to follow Christ from death to Resurrection. The fullness of life, as this mosaic shows, is to be held by this mystery in the fabric of life that emerges in hope, joy, promise, and possibility from the very foot of the cross.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
In the Year in Our Church section of Finding God, Grade 6, young people learn about and reflect on the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the miracle of Easter. In this activity, ask young people to read silently Luke 24:44–53. When finished, catechists arrange the young people into three groups and assign each group one of the following events: Jesus teaching in Jerusalem; Jesus being taken into Heaven; the disciples in the Temple, praising God. After assigning events, encourage groups to discuss the scene thoroughly and imagine what it would be like to witness the event. Invite groups to reenact their assigned scene and invite volunteers to share their thoughts about the activity. Close the activity by saying: Being followers of Christ calls us to bear witness. Easter is that time when we renew our baptismal promises and rejoice in the gift of God’s love.