This week we passed Lent’s midpoint, which always seems the most grueling part of the journey, the part where you’re most tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?” The excitement of starting something new has worn off, and the end still seems distant. It’s the part of Lent where hitting the snooze button one more time comes oh-so-easily.
And here the Church again gives us a little boost with Laetare Sunday and the simple joy that comes from listening to your parish priest insist that his vestment is not pink, not mauve, not pepto-bismal, but rose, darn it, it’s rose.
My own personal mid-Lent boost came this week from the remarkable apse mosaics in the week’s station churches. I’ve always found mosaics mesmerizing, the fragments that make up a greater whole, the way the light glistens off each piece. The mosaics in Rome’s station churches are particularly precious because they are so old. Santa Pudenziana’s dates from the 5th century, Ss. Cosma e Damiano’s from the 6th.
What is even more interesting about these masterpieces is that they represent a distinctly Roman mosaic style. We are all probably more familiar with Byzantine mosaics, which are highly stylized, static, and ethereal. This style became dominant due to Byzantine imperial power, and is what one finds in places like Ravenna and Sicily, places once conquered and ruled by the Byzantines.
The style that flourished all to briefly in the city of Rome, by contrast is more lifelike and dynamic. The image of Christ Pantocrator in Santa Pudenziana (above) was picked up in Byzantine iconography after the East’s bout of iconoclasm, though in the Roman image, the judge of all rules from the midst of the city. It was perhaps a missed opportunity that in the most recent liturgical reform not more was done to recover the specificity and the uniqueness of our Roman liturgical heritage; instead, the Roman Rite was treated more as the generic rite… but that’s a topic for another day.
Instead, enjoy Rome’s mosaics, in all their particularity. The urban Pantocrator of Santa Pudenziana, the rather rustic Jesus of San Marco’s (much later) mosaics, the martyrs approaching Christ on their knees in Ss. Nereo e Achilleo (another felicitous substitution in this year’s station liturgy), and, my favorite, Cosmas and Damian–Christ coming in an apocalyptic sky, the saintly physicians holding crowns of martyrdom and guided by Peter and Paul, Pope Felix holding the church he built–and note even his episcopal shoes, in contrast to the sandals of the apostles.