The triumphal arch in the Santa Maria Maggiore in relation to the Diaconia Christi
Triumphal arch in relation to the Diaconia Christi
One of the most important monuments in Rome is the triumphal arch in the Santa Maria Maggiore. “A triumphal arch in a church” you might think! Yes indeed. One can find triumphal arches in Rome not only in the streets but also in churches. When Christians were finally allowed to proudly build their first churches, they built a gigantic arch right there where the apsis starts above the altar. These arches were the Christian answer to the monuments that honored admirals, generals and emperors for their cruel deeds. One of the oldest arches can be seen in the Forum Romanum. This arch was built for Titus, who as a general, conquered Jerusalem in the year 70. Two years later he returned to Rome, bringing with him 12000 prisoners; inhabitants of Jerusalem that survived his siege. They received a tour of honor on the Via Sacra, the holy road, stretching through the Forum to the Capitol. The exhausted prisoners were ridicule by the Roman public: they had to make an offer to Jupiter Stator, the god of peace. And they had to leave their money, goods and treasures of the temple of Jerusalem in the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace. Titus then received his arch of triumph. On this arch is depicted how the Jewish people were humiliated. We see a seven armed chandelier, the temple plates and the holy trumpets being brought into Rome.
The triumphal arches in churches weren’t there to honor the emperors and to glorify the rogueries of the Roman Empire. On these arches we see depicted who, for the Christians, was the real Light of the world, the real Monarch of peace. Here the kingdom of God is glorified, all depicted in beautiful mosaic.
Unknown artists, ordinary believers, show us their faith and show their hope. We know the theological discussions of the well known theologians and historians out of the first centuries. But by means of art the anonymous believers share their conviction with us. By just having a good look our minds start to wonder and emotions flow. That is the way I want you to look at the triumphal arch in the Santa Maria Maggiore. The basilica is the oldest of the four in Rome. It is built around the year 435, just after the council of Efese. The triumphal arch is just as old and so we see one of the oldest mosaics as well. At the council there was a heavy discussion whether Jesus was God and thus whether God really became man. These hard to follow discussions are still going on between theologians and between believers. In the mosaic arch we see that this question was actual to ordinary people. God shares in the suffering of the people. Their suffering is His suffering. In all the years of persecution this was a handhold to go on living; the source of their hope and this mindset in which humanity was the most important value of life.
When the church became free in 313 and even became the state religion later, this belief was no longer needed. Well known theologians started to doubt: How can it be possible that god became man? In that case Mary would have been the mother of god? Can a god have a mother? And so the key question on the council became: “is Mary the mother of God or not?” When the bishops finally declared that the belief in God becoming man is essential for Christianity, a splendid church was built to celebrate this dogma. Of course this church was dedicated to Mary. In the church a painting was hung, supposedly painted by Luke. Mother Mary with the child on her arm. On the painting is written: “Mother of God”. Also pieces of a crib were put down in the church: under the altar pieces of wood of the crib were kept in a silver shrine. Also straw was put down. But above the altar a great triumphal arch was erected on which the Christmas tale stood central. It is the first time in history that the Christmas story is presented in such an extensive manner.
Let us have look at the mosaic. It reads like in a comic book. Top left we see the angel who gave Mary the message that she would become a mother. Mary sits on a throne. This is special as only monarchs are allowed to sit on a throne. She is clothed as an empress in purple wool; the color worn only by kings! Purple is the color of the temple as well. While Mary looks majestic, she doesn’t have an aureole. The angels depicted behind her though, do have such an aureole! Now one must know that until the year 450 after Christ the aureole was not a sign of holy splendor but is the sign of divine and royal power. Angels are allowed to wear an aureole because they represent the King of heaven and earth. Gabriel even wears a golden aureole! The clothes of the angels also show that they are high placed servants in the court of heaven. They seem to wear the garments of senators and other dignitaries of the Roman empire: a tunic with two ‘clavi’ (vertical bands of honor) and a shoulder cloth on the left side. In these clothes we recognize the dalmatic and the slanting stole of the deacons in the Roman Catholic church.*
Above Mary flies a pigeon: the Holy Ghost. And Joseph points out to the child, saying it is not his; it comes from heaven. According to some the two little buildings refer to the virginity of Mary: the closed and the open womb. Others think they refer to the temple with curtains closed and the same curtains opened after the birth of Christ.
What might we considers while seeing this scene? Here we see how the first faithful people read the Christmas tale. Luke writes:”In those days a message was received about a decision of Emperor August that a census of population was to be held in the total empire.” In the days that a man wants to know how much power he has and how much money that will generate…a man that declared himself God, Light of the world, Monarch of peace… then that is enough for the heavenly court…on that moment God declares himself man, a man that will show who the real Lord of heaven and earth is and the real Monarch of peace and the real bringer of Light in this world. When an ‘angelos’ visits Mary’s house with such an ‘ev-angelion’. Joseph and Mary know, together with all those people that love God so much, that a new time is emerging. A period in which everything will change. Mary is going to sing it in her own Magnificat: “He sees the little girl, which I am…and may I become bigger. He takes away the thrones of rulers and uplifts the inconsiderable people. He overloads the hungry with gifts and sends away the rich empty handed….And over the crib the heavenly court will exclaim the ev-angelion: “Honor to God in the highest, peace for the people on earth, for all people that he truly loves.”(Luke2. 1-14)
After the message to Mary, as written down by Luke, the artist of the mosaic further seem to follow the gospel of Matthew. We will not encounter sheep and shepherds. The two times six sheep as depicted next to the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, at the bottom of the arch, do not belong to the Christmas tale. Also we don’t see the crib or a stable. They are all elements added in a later period of time. You might also notice that the sequence of the scenes doesn’t seem logical to us. To follow the story we have look from one side to the other. It means we do not know what is depicted in the scenes on top and on the other side of the arch. The one on the top right shows an angel appearing in the dreams of Joseph. The child has been born already and is sitting on his mothers arm. All kind of people surround her. Behind Joseph we see another open house with two doves in front. We don’t know what this means; we can only assume that Joseph, Mary and Jesus are warned for what King Herod is planning to do. The angel urges them to flee to Egypt. (Matthew2, 13) Or does it mean that the angel tells Joseph that the child Mary is holding is sent by God. And he must not leave them unprotected. (Matthew 1, 2)
If we follow the Christmas tale, we should be looking to the third scene on the top right hand side. Here we see the three wise men visiting king Herod. They ask him the way to the new born king. We see them standing somewhat shy. They don’t wear beards. On their heads we recognize the Frygian bonnets, typical eastern style. Also they wear trousers. Bonnet and trousers were typical attire for people from far and strange lands. We also see scribes with an open bible role, pointing to Bethlehem. Most interesting is the depiction of Herod. He is a monarch, thus sits on a throne. But look at his head: he has an aureole! We noticed already with the angels in the top that an aureole is not a sign of holy splendor. It is a sign that the person sitting here pretends to have a royal and divine power. Like the angels, as ambassadors of the God of Israel, wore an aureole, Herod can wear one as vassal of the Roman emperor. In case we might forget who this so called god is, his name is mentioned above his head.
Finally the magicians arrive to Christ. We see the scene on the left side of the arch, right under the message of the angel. We don’t see a child in a crib, we see Jesus on a throne, just like Herod. Behind him stand his servants, the angels of the heavenly court, or ‘angeloi’. The bright star that showed the way to the wise men, radiates above His throne. And of course He wears an aureole. He wears the clothes of a minister, a diaconos. On other mosaics we will also see Him depicted in this attire. For example in the Santa Maria Antiqua on the Forum. There Jesus hangs on the cross in these clothes. And in Ravenna we see Him in the
same clothes at the miracle of the strange multiplication of the loaves. It seemed a common way to depict Him in this way. The
white of this garment is often replaced by purple. In this way it shows clearly that Christ is king and God as well. And a servant of mankind. This serving of mankind as a king is called ‘Diaconia Christi’. Jesus sees it as an order from His Father in heaven. (John 6, 38)
We know how the story continues. The wise men take another route home and Joseph and Mary flee with their child to Egypt. On the arch we the legend of what might have happened to them in Egypt. The governor of the town of Sotine recognizes God in Jesus. He gives Him a royal reception. Christ, clothed again as minister, is surrounded by his court, the ‘angeloi’. Joseph and Mary stand behind Him.
And then follows the terrible end. On the left, where the wise men worship Jesus, we see Herod again, on his throne and with aureole. The mothers carry the children on their arms. And Herod did have them killed. But let us have a close look. You see the first child that thrones royally on the arm that carries Him? We recognize the child that just above receives the three wise men. He wears the clothes of a minister and has an aureole. The first child being killed is Jesus himself. See how inviting he stretches his arms…”come”.
Now we can just contemplate, let our thoughts and hearts go. “Everything you did against the least of Mine, you did to Me!”, He would say just before He died (Matthew25, 31). Christ wants to be a king like a real servant for mankind. In Him it is shown who is the real God in this world. He is a God who identifies himself with the children of mankind. Children He created himself, one after the other, as His own child. Everyone of them miraculously modeled in the womb of the mother. Given pain to a child is hurting Him. “In the eyes of the other, the eternal looks us into the eyes”, the Jewish philosopher Levinas says . Eyes that are afraid, eyes that hope, eyes that are hurting, they ask us to react, to console, to love en be righteous. In with these eyes of the other the Highest looks with us to what we are doing; what our answer is. Later- in the middle ages- many legends and many pieces of art, will return to this theme. Just think about the legends of Saint Martin, Saint Elisabeth of Thüringen and of Christopher. Or have another look at the ‘Seven works of mercy’ made by the Master of Alkmaar.
On this arch we see two kingdom. One of the emperor who thinks he is god. However a god that killed the children in his empire in order to keep and enlarge his power. And we see the kingdom of the God of Israel. A kingdom in which our little victim of Bethlehem is allowed to rule. He radiates on his throne and receives the wise men of the world. With the child of Bethlehem all victims of megalomania and greed are in the centre to Gods Empire. That they may rule!
During centuries, until this very day, that is the choice Christians stand for. There are still too many crooks that hit out while being a king, president or general. Every day we see the dead in the ruins of cities and villages. And we see loads of refugees. God dies together with them. Their cross will be His cross. Christ dies thousands of deaths every day!
In the beginning of Jesus’ mission into the desert, the devil wants to charm him into becoming a worldly ruler with power and money. Jesus laughs in his face and sends him away. And it was written that then there were angels that came to serve him. Literally in Greek: “Angeloi came to deacon for Him.” (Marc 1, 13) As a Lord and King, Jesus receives his own court. In heaven it consists of angels, here on earth the apostles will be his ‘diaconia’ and will have to continue his work as a king serving a suffering mankind. Apostles, the church with all her officials and believers(we)will have to witness of a God who loves the least of mankind. Who kicks the conceited out of their throne and sends away the rich empty handed in order to give the hungry a lot to live on for. (Luke 46)The preachers and managers if this ‘diaconia’ may be the deacons.
*This needs an explanation.
It shows right away what diaconate meant in the first centuries. From that meaning we can also recognize the position of the deacon in the church of old. An angel, or an ‘angelos’, not only was an official in the heavenly court, but also an important function in the court of a Roman emperor. They were servants, heralds and ambassadors, called ‘nuntius’ in Latin. One of the important tasks was to go into the world and bring the ‘happy message’ when an emperor had died and a new one was installed. That a new era had started with no doubt better chances of prosperity and peace. Such a ‘happy message’ was called an ‘ev-angelion’. Angelos or nuntius, or ‘servant’ can also be translated as ‘minister’ as well. Or in Greek: ‘diakonos’. So a deacon is a minister of the ecclesiastical authority. In concrete: the servant of the bishop. His task being an ambassador. Preacher of the message that with the birth of Christ a new era has begun: the kingdom of God. That is his ‘ev-angelion’. A gospel not only preached with words in liturgy, but shows in concrete action as well. When at the end of holy mass the deacon sends away the people, he doesn’t send them home (as translated in a wrong way many times) but sends them into the world to let the crippled walk, to let the blind see and to let the deaf hear. Under management of the deacon, the first Christians very actively started building ‘food banks’ in the markets of towns. These food markets still exist; they are called ‘diaconias’. Deacons are so ambassadors in Management!
The first set-up of diaconal action is to witness that the world has to change, that God wants it different. This world should go back to the time of its creation, the world God had in mind; His world! So diaconal work is not trying to make the world yourself or to repair paradise your own way. It is to witness of it. Act in word and deed that God will see to this. It is haughty to think we can do these things by ourselves. If that were our intention, we would soon see that it is hopeless and stop. But there were things look hopeless, we have to continue with witnessing that God exists and that the cross wasn’t the end . The Dutch catholic father that cycled around in the terrorized and bombarded town of Homs, Syria, in order to bring the message of courage to the inhabitants, knew his mission was hopeless. That he would be killed. But his testimony of hope and faith is alive and is for many still a signal of a changing world. That God exists and is the Lord of heaven and earth.
See the studies of, amongst others, prof. dr. B.J. Koet, prof. dr. W. Ditewig, dr. J.N. Collins. Also see Rob Mascini ‘helden, heiligen en pioniers, diaconie in de kerken’, Adveniat, Baarn,2013.
Rob Mascini, December 2015