Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.

 

 

 

 

 

Profound personal engagement with place: Kurt Jackson, artist

Yesterday’s post about my trip with my wife to Penwith, in the far west of Cornwall, ended with a mention of an art gallery in St Just: the Jackson Foundation. Kurt Jackson is one of our favourite artists, and probably one of the finest living British painters of natural phenomena – from flora and fauna to land, sea and riverscapes.

Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall, looking west towards Land’s End

Looking at his currently exhibited work at St Just inspired us to deviate from our road home to take a look at a place that is one of his greatest inspirations and which features in much of his artwork, and in a video installation that can be seen in the gallery upstairs: Cape Cornwall. I included some pictures of it in yesterday’s post. Here’s another.

 

You might have seen some lovely reproductions of his work at Paddington Station in London some ten years ago, decorating the wooden boards screening building work that was going on there at the time.

The new Jackson gallery

The new gallery that will open shortly at the Jackson Foundation

In recent years his ‘projects’ have been inspired by a particular route – a river, a prehistoric track way, or a workplace and its inhabitants – quarry, mine, fishermen, farmers; a group of fauna or flora – crows, bees, a tree – or just his personal response to a particular place.

His paintings often include written notes on the sounds, wildlife and other sensual influences that pervade his warm, almost spiritual depictions of the scenes in which he immerses himself in order to capture their living essence and biodiversity – their past and present ‘clamour and silence’, as the catalogue describes his ‘This Place’ exhibition.

Born in Dorset in 1961, he graduated from Oxford in 1983 with a degree in zoology; his love for and deep empathy with living things animates all of his work. A year later he moved to Cornwall with his wife, and settled in St Just, on the marginal edge of mainland Britain, a ‘transitional space’, as he calls it, between the the wild and rugged moorland, granite outcrops and craggy cliffs of west Cornwall, and the Atlantic Ocean.

This is how his gallery website sums up his approach:

A dedication to and celebration of the environment is intrinsic to both his politics and his art and a holistic involvement with his subjects provides the springboard for his formal innovations. Jackson’s practice involves both plein air and studio work and embraces an extensive range of materials and techniques including mixed media, large canvases, print making and sculpture…

Three illustrated monographs on Jackson have been published by Lund Humphries depicting his career so far; A New Genre of Landscape Painting (2010), Sketchbooks (2012) and A Kurt Jackson Bestiary (2015). A Sansom & Company book based on his touring exhibition Place was published in 2014.

His passionate interest in psychogeography – the culture, lived history and precarious ecology of our world – is reflected in his numinous work, but also in his involvement with charities and campaigning organisations, from his role as artist in residence on a Greenpeace ship and at Cornwall’s Eden Project (and at Glastonbury Festival!), to acting as ambassador for Survival International. He has also worked closely with Friends of the Earth, WaterAid, Oxfam and Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

We managed to catch his latest exhibition – ‘Place’ – just before it closed – today. It arose from a collaboration with 32 writers from a varied range of backgrounds, and reveals the physical diversity of the British landscape, whilst providing an insight into the concept of ‘place’ – that ‘collective sense of identity, meaning, longing and nostalgia present within the British psyche’, as his website puts it.

Words are provided by writers Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey, as well as by scientists, poets, and others, each providing a personal transcript or evocation of a place they felt connected with. Jackson’s pictures are complemented by these portraits and images in words.

Inside the gallery at the Jackson Foundation

Inside the gallery at the Jackson Foundation

The Foundation will close for a couple of weeks now, reopening to house his next exhibition, from Sept. 14: ‘Obsession – Following the Surfer’. Here’s his website again:

Obsession sees Jackson follow his studio assistant on surfing trips around the Cornish coast.

He adds:

“Often it’s argued that the surfer’s path is a spiritual one – this connection between the individual and the wave, the ocean hosting its rider, but what is certain is that it opens the eyes of that person to the natural world, to an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful side of nature that needs respect and admiration and in the long run our protection and conservation.”

This body of work was produced in partnership with Cornwall-based eco-campaigners Surfers Against Sewage to highlight the charity’s work to protect the UK’s oceans, waves and beaches for everyone to enjoy safely and sustainably.

*****

For reasons of copyright I have been unable to reproduce any images of his artwork here, but the links I’ve included will take you to a number of websites where you can enjoy some beautiful representations. If you’ve never seen his work before, I’d urge you to take a look.

Even better, take a trip down to the land of Lyonesse and man engines, where DH and Frieda Lawrence strode the cliff paths, haunt of the ghosts of countless hard rock Cornish miners who lost their lives or limbs extracting the minerals that transformed this world of Celtic fantasy into an industrial, working, living landscape.

Choughs

Painting of Cornish (red-billed) and yellow-billed Alpine choughs, by J.F. Naumann (via Wikipedia)

PS to yesterday’s notes on Cornish choughs:

legend has it that King Arthur didn’t really die: he was transformed into a chough. For this reason it’s still considered unlucky to kill or harm one of these handsome corvids – one of which I was lucky enough to spot at Cape Cornwall yesterday.

Thanks to Fynn, at the Jackson Foundation, for the photos of the gallery interior.