Saturday, April 25, 2020

April 25 - Saint Mark and the Traditio Legis Image




Traditio legis
Central Image From the  Upper Level of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Roman, c. 359
Vatican City, Museo Storico del Tesoro della Basilica di San Pietro

"Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:“Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."

 Mark 16:15-16 (Gospel for the Feast of Saint Mark, April 25)


The subject of the first verse of today’s reading, the instruction to the Apostles to go into the whole world, is the scene called the “traditio legis”. It is a scene well-known from early Christian times through the Middle Ages, but seems to have disappeared from the iconography of later times.  Scholarly opinion is very divided over exactly what the imagery means.  Is it, as I suggest, related to the commission to the Apostles?  Is it a reference to the worldly power of the Church, which was just beginning to grow?  Did it have an eschatological meaning, referring to the end of days?  Was it an assertion of the present day status of the Church on earth?  Was it an image of Paradise, demonstrating the current state of Christ and the Apostles?1  Or, as I am also inclined to think, a combination of all of these.  Sometimes, we try too hard to affix a specific meaning to an image, while the realm of images is much more flexible and multifaceted than that.

Traditio legis translates as “the giving of the law”. In the case of Christianity it refers to the instruction of Jesus to the Apostles, which is the subject of the quotation from the Gospel of Mark cited above. Currently, the most famous early Christian appearance of the traditio legis is on the central panel of the upper row of scenes from the life of Christ on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, now in the Vatican Museum.  The sarcophagus dates from the mid-fourth century (359), just a few decades from Constantine’s proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which made Christian practice legal. Prior to that time, Christian practice was illegal, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted. With Constantine’s edict, subsequent adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and his building of the great basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem, we begin to see Christian art emerge from the shadow of the catacombs.

Indeed, it is the children of Constantine that may have been the very earliest supporters of the image of the Traditio legis.   Junius Bassus was a close associate, serving in high office within Rome under Constantine I and his three sons, Constintine II, Constans and Constantius II, in whose reign he died.  Another early image is that from the mausoleum of Constantine's daughter, Constantia, decorated at about the same date as the Junius Bassus sarcophagus.  Also, the original mosaic decoration of the apsidal dome of Old Saint Peter's, begun under Constantine I and completed during the reign of Constantius II is presumed to have been a Traditio legis image. 2
Reconstruction of the first mosaic of the Apse of Old Saint Peter's by Tilmann Buddensieg (1959)
Roman, Mid-4th Century
Thus, it should not be a surprise to say that the initial images clearly derive from Imperial imagery. The specific image is that of the Emperor as lawgiver.

The first image available was the famous statue of the first Emperor, Augustus, known as the Augustus Prima Porta.  The statue was originally made of bronze, probably sometime around the year 0 in the Christian calendar.  It has vanished, but we know exactly what it looked like from the marble copy made for Augustus' wife, Livia, which stood in her villa.  It was discovered in 1863 during an excavation of the villa and is now in the Vatican Museums.

Augustus from Prima Porta
Roman, Early 1st Century AD (Probably14-29)
Vatican, Vatican Museums, New Wing of the Chiaramonti Museum
Augustus is shown in military dress, as the commander of troops.  However, he is barefoot and, instead of brandishing a sword, he is shown in the pose of an orator.  Therefore, he is being presented, not simply as a military man, but also as a persuader and lawgiver.

The second image was a more recent one.  This is the colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine made sometime between 312 and 320.  It originally stood in the Basilica built by his defeated rival, Maxentius.  Fragments of it still exist and are currently in the collection of the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  They are truly monumental, as this reconstruction suggests.

Computer reconstruction of colossal statue of Constantine
which stood in the Basilica of Maxentius
Roman, 4th century
Fragments in the Capitoline Museum, Rome
The statue was shown seated, with Constantine staring heavenward.  In his right hand he held some kind of staff.  In his left he held an orb, the symbol of earthly power. (And, incidentally, an indication that the true shape of the earth was known in antiquity.)  In its size and extreme frontality, it was an impressive, awe inspiring sight.

Upper Tier of Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Roman, 359
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, Museo Storico del Tesoro della Basilica di San Pietro
In the central panel of the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus Christ appears seated on a stool with lion feet, raised on a small platform, just as the Emperor would have sat on a raised throne stool. On either side are Apostles, who receive a scroll of the law, just as members of the Emperor’s court would have appeared on a non-Christian imperial Roman monument. At Christ’s feet appears a Roman sky god (indicated by his billowing sail/dome, a representation of the sky). This little detail shows that bits of Roman iconography remained even after the adoption of Christianity. Christ appears as a young, beardless man, as was common during the early Christian period. The more mature, bearded Christ that is familiar to us developed much later.

Quite a number of representations of the traditio legis were made during the fourth and fifth centuries. While researching this article I was actually surprised by how many there are. 

Not surprisingly these images derive from the two discussed above.

Standing (Augustus as persuader and lawgiver)

Traditio Legis Mosaic
From the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza,(Daughter of Constantine I)
Roman, c. 350
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza
Fragment of a Marble Tomb Relief with Christ Giving the Law
Roman, Late 300s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Front of a Sarcophagus Peter Preaching, Peter Led to Martyrdom, the Traditio Legis, Christ Before Pilate, Pilate Washing
Roman, c. 380-400
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
Central Portion of the Front of a Sarcophagus with the Traditio legis
Roman,  4th Century
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Museo Pio Cristiano
Nea Herakleia Reliquary
Greco-Roman, Late 4th-Early 5th Century
Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture

Sarcophagus Frontal with the Traditio Legis
Roman, c. 390-400
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Sarchopagus Frontal with the Traditio Legis
Originally from Church of San Giovanni Battista,
Late Roman, Early 5th Century
 Ravenna, Museo Nazionale

Traditio Legis Mosaic
From the Baptistery Dome
Roman, c. 362-409
Naples, Church of San Giovanni in Fonte, Baptistery

Apse Mosaic with Traditio Legis
Late Antique (Roman), c. 526-530
Rome, Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Apse wall painting with Traditio legis
Italian, Early 12th Century
Tivoli, Church of San Silvestro
Traditio Legis Apse Fresco
Italian, c. 1120-1130
Castel Sant'Elia, Basilica
Pietro Cavallini, Christ Between the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter with Saints George and Sebastian
Italian, c. 1300
Rome, Basilica of San Giorgio in Valabro
This image is obviously the end of the road for the Traditio Legis.  While it retains some of the forms of the Traditio Legis, such as the pose of Christ and the gesture of Saint Peter, the inclusion of other saints signals that something else is going on here.

Seated (Constantine as powerful lawgiver)

Front of a Child's Sarcophagus with (left to right) the Beheading of St. Paul, the Entry into Jerusalem. the Tradtio Legis, Daniel with the Lions and the Prophet Habbakkuk and the Raising of  Lazaris
Roman, c.  330-360
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano


Traditio Legis Mosaic
Roman, Late 4th Century
Milan, Church of  San Lorenzo, Chapel of San Aquilino


Portion of the Front of a Sarcophgus with the Traditio legis
Roman, c. 370
Vatican City, Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro

Fragment of an Architrave with the Traditio Legis
Roman, End of 4th C
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano


Sarcophagus with the Traditio Legis
Byzantine, 5th-8th Century
Ravenna, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe

However, following the barbarian take over of the Western Roman Empire the use of the Traditio legis image largely tapers off.

Intermediate Images in the Early Middle Ages


There are a series of intermediate images that record the transformation of the Traditio legis into something else.   They begin to appear in the domain of the Carolingian Empire and later in the German Ottonian Empire and associate the gestures of the Traditio legis with a slightly different symbolic meaning.  


Apse Fresco with Traditio Legis
Carolingian, c. 850-900
Müstair (Swizerland)
Traditio Legis Plaque from a Book Cover
German (Ottonian), c. 950
Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin
MS theol. lat.

Plaque with Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter and the Law to Saint Paul
German, c. 1150-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

In all but two of the earlier images of the Traditio legis Christ hands a scroll to Saint Peter who is easily recognizable in the person of the older, white bearded man, while Paul, traditionally a younger, bald and bearded man, looks on.  In these later, Germanic images the scroll is being handed to Paul, while Peter is receiving a pair of keys.  This has been assumed by some scholars to indicate a form of support for the political aspirations of the early medieval Papacy.  However, it is strange that it comes from the territories of the only other claimant to supreme political power in Western Europe, the Germanic Carolingian or Ottonian Emperors. 3


Transformation in the Later Middle Ages and Beyond

The image of the Traditio legis was permanently affected by the end of the Roman Empire in the West.  Apart from the cited examples in Ottonian art, it morphed into something different, sometimes called the Traditio clavium or the Giving of the Keys to Peter.  This is a narrative subject reflecting the Biblical passage of Matthew 16:13-20 in which Peter correctly answers Jesus' question "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" and is rewarded with a new name (Rock) and confirmed as the foundation stone of the Church on earth and the possessor of the keys to heaven. 
Meister_des_Perikopenbuches, Giving of the Keys
 From the Book of Pericopes of  Emperor Henry II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 142v

Giving of the Keys
English, c. 1170-1180
Paris, Musée du Louvre

It also persists, transformed into the familiar image of the Last Judgment (or Apocalypse) seen through the centuries, from the facades of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals to the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and adopted by Raphael for the beautiful Disputà (Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament, of 1509) in the Vatican.

Apocalypse Tympanum from the south portal at Moissac
French, 1130-1140
Moissac, Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre
Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Central Image
Italian, c. 1537-1541
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Sistine Chapel

Raphael, Disputa
From the Stanza della Segnatura
Italian, 1509
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Apostolic Palace
In these images, Christ sits enthroned or stands, surrounded by the court of heaven as He delivers judgment.

© M. Duffy, 2008, totally revised 2020

1 Several theories regarding the meaning of the Traditio legis have been proposed in recent years, including the one which I present.  For an overview see: Armin F. Bergmeier, "The Traditio Legis in Late Antiquity and Its Afterlives in the Middle Ages," Gesta, Volume 56, no. 1 (Spring 2017), p. 33.

See Richard Krautheimer.  "A Note on the Inscription in the the Apse of Old Saint Peter's", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Volume 41, Studies on Art and Archeology in Honor of Ernst Kitzinger on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, 1987, pp. 317-320.
Also:  Ivan Foletti and Irene Quadri, "L'immagine e la sua memoria L'abside di Sant'Ambrogio a Milano e quella di San Pietro aRoma nel Medioevo", Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte,  Vol.76. Bd. H. 4, 2013, pp. 475-492.
Finally, another interesting study of the decoration of early apses, though not directly related to this discussion, can be found in:  J.-M. Spieser, The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches", Gesta, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1998, pp. 63-73.   

3  For discussions of this idea see: Bergmeier above as well as:Peter Franke, "Traditio legis und Petrusprimat:  Eine Entgegnung auf Franz Nikolasch", Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 26, No. 4, December, 1972, pp. 263-271.

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.