Mosaic Precedent


 

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Apse Mosaic depicting the Transfiguration - Shadyside Presbyterian Church

We know little about the artistic conception of Shadyside’s stunning mosaic of the Transfigured Christ.  Rudolf Scheffler, a native German artist, designed the mosaic located in the church’s apse.  The apse was an addition to the chancel that was created from the space formerly occupied by the organ and offices.  This graceful termination was suggested by John Weber, Secretary of the University of Pittsburgh, who was engaged to consult on the 1938 sanctuary remodeling.  Mr. Weber had done a study of European architecture in connection with the contemporaneous construction of Heinz Memorial Chapel.

 

Detail of Shadyside Mosaic

There has been some analysis of symbolism in the mosaic, although nothing has been discovered of Scheffler’s intent.  There is, however, ample and ancient precedent for subject, medium and location of this work of art.  Two sixth century Transfiguration mosaics still exist, apparently completed within decades of one another.

 

Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy

Photo Credit:  Sacred Destinations Some Rights Reserved

The earlier, at Sant'Apollinare in Classe the harbor town of Ravenna, Italy, is in the basilica consecrated in 549 A.D.  Here, the upper portion of the mosaic portrays the Transfiguration, while the lower portion honors Saint Apollinaris (ordained as bishop by Saint Peter, according to tradition).  The head of Christ is located at the juncture of a Latin Cross.  Moses and Elijah are portrayed and identified, while the Disciples (Peter, James and John) are represented by sheep.  Stars and clouds fill the apse, which is echoed by Scheffler’s scheme at Shadyside, as is the ample use of gold tiles.  The cross is studded with jewels as is the surrounding circle.  These typically recall the royalty of Christ.  Similar jewels are found at Shadyside, in the nimbus surrounding the head of Jesus.  The Italian mosaic symbolically includes many more details of the Transfiguration story than Scheffler’s design.  

Detail of Heads, St. Apollinaris (Ravenna) & Christ (Pittsburgh)

Credit for photo on left:  Sacred Destinations Some Rights Reserved

Close examination of the details above shows Scheffler using techniques similar to the Byzantine mosaicist in depicting highlights and shadow.  Both appear to have eyes of exaggerated size.  Both figures are outlined in a line of black tiles.  Both appear to be more than two-dimensional, yet somewhat flatter than a realistic portrayal.  It is interesting to note that mosaics from eras both earlier and later than the sixth century example exhibit a more three-dimensional appearance.  They also have such features as cast shadows, not seen in the Ravenna or Pittsburgh mosaics.  Scheffler seems to have carefully evoked the style of the early Byzantine era.

Church of the Virgin Monastery of St Catherine at Mt. Sinai

Photo Credit:  Katapi Bible Resource Pages

Completed about 565 A.D., the Church of the Virgin at the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Egypt at Mt.Sinai, has a mosaic depicting the same five persons.  Here, the complete figure of Christ is shown and the disciples take human form.   Again, gold is a predominant color in the composition.  Christ is surrounded by a blue mandorla and is depicted with a nimbus, both symbols of holiness.  The Transfiguration was the subject of an earlier (no longer extant) mosaic in Constantinople.  An apse mosaic dating from 527 A.D. at Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome is similar but depicts Christ's Second Coming.

 

Monastery at Dafni, Greece

Photo Credit:  Christian Frescoes and Icons Studio

The subject and medium continued to be joined in Christian art.  An eleventh century example exists in a monastery at Dafni, Greece.  Similarities with the Ravenna mosaic are apparent.  Here Moses, Elijah and the disciples each are shown with a nimbus (without the tri-radiant feature that indicates Christ's divinity). 

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

Photo Credit:  St. Peter's Basilica.org

In 1767, a mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration was completed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.  Compared to its precedents, Shadyside’s mosaic is somewhat chaste, if such a description can be applied to a work so elegant.  However, the Byzantine roots of the Romanesque and its revival are well commemorated in this beloved feature of the church’s worship space.

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