Apocalypse and churches of Rome. At the origins of the representation of a mysterious text

Since its appearance in Christian art, Apocalypse has always been a frequently represented iconographic theme. In the fourth century AD, in the city of Rome, motifs related to the apocalyptic narrative began to appear in various wall representations. Even today it is possible to admire parts of these representations or even actual cycles dedicated to the story of the apocalypse.


As you know, the Apocalypse written by St. John, is a text centred on the tale of the “last events”, or rather of the events regarding the final story of humanity, culminating with the Final Judgment. As can be imagined, with the development of Christianity and its emergence as a state religion, a need arose for a means which could be used on one side to demonstrate the importance of the Christian faith and the role of the Church, and on the other to communicate to the faithful the message of salvation in a visual form. This allowed for a better understanding and acceptance of the liturgy as the images caught the attention of the faithful who attended the liturgical celebration.

In the eternal city, if we visit early medieval and early Christian churches, it is not uncommon to come across symbolic motifs related to this sacred text like The Tree of Life, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Book of the Seven Seals or the Lamb with the Four Living. If you tour the city, do not forget to visit the beautiful mosaics of Santa Costanza’s apse or those of the ancient basilica of St. Peter. Consider the triumphal arch, which precedes the area of the apse in Santa Maria Maggiore, dating back to the the first half of the fifth century AD, or the Basilica of Santi Cosma and Damiano, from the sixth century, where we can even admire the representations of the Angels and the twenty-four Elders, or the Seven Candlesticks with the Book of the Seven Seals.

In these representations recur the symbolism of the number seven, the number of completeness, perfection, and the totality of creation. Symbology fans will be impressed by the multiple levels of interpretation and by all the symbols that enrich these sacred places.

Attention should be dedicated to these images to fully understand their value in the heart of the faithful in the Middle Ages. In the area of the apse, where the altar stands and where the liturgy finds its full expression, there were images celebrating the triumph of the church and the spiritual presence of Christ as a means of salvation. That is why these images are rich and majestic, with splendid colours and including gold and blue when it comes to mosaics.

Also, in the Basilica of Saint Praxedes we can admire The four living beings, identified with the four evangelists. As you know, the evangelists John, Matthew, Mark and Luke are associated each with a specific symbol, and carry in hand a book, in other words the Gospel. Luke is associated with the bull, John with the eagle, Matthew with a man, and Mark with the lion. In Venice, a city associated with Saint Marc, the lion is a symbolic animal, we often found in artistic and cultural testimonies.

If we consider the entire region of Lazio and if we are willing to take a trip out of town, a particularly important apocalyptic cycle from the artistic point of view is one found not too far from Rome, in Anagni. The frescoed cycle is medieval and goes back to the twelfth century. At Castel Sant’Elia, near Nepi, we find the church of St. Athanasius, also dating back to the twelfth century, with beautiful representations of the Last Judgment.

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