Symbols of Power and Transition

by Ian Weller
Ldm Rome Sketchbook, Fall 2014

From the study of one of the greatest empires of the classical world it is evident the level of extraordinary power they attributed to structures and symbols. A stone temple was not just a place for sacrifices, it was the god’s home on earth. Symbols carved into rock weren’t just placed for decoration and adornment, they had their own spiritual purposes. As the empire advanced similar beliefs were applied to Catholic church structures, and the altars within them, when Rome became Christianized.

the arch of Janus

reconstruction of full figure ancient statue of Janus
the arch of Titus
The Roman god Janus is a two faced deity capable of looking into the past and the future. He is also the god of transitions and portals and therefore takes a particular interest in gates, doors, doorways, passages and endings. A great many ancient structures that are still standing today in Rome once had roles on a much more spiritual level, and even powers of their own. Triumphal arches can be spotted dotting the whole landscape of Rome, the Arch of Titus, for example, is the oldest of these magnificent structures and the one that provided the model for the arches following it, like those of Constantine and Septimus Severus. These arches were built to serve two purposes, the first being a way to commemorate the victories of a particular war or battle. The second of these functions was solely spiritual, the Romans believed that soldiers returning home from battle had to pass through this arch, or portal, and they would make the transition to becoming a normal citizen.

A similar belief of transitions made its way into the practices of the Catholic Church. A Catholic Church itself is a symbol of power in its own right. Once a humble and quaint structure, as the power of Catholic Rome grew, so did its churches. Simple churches such as that of San Pietro in Tuscania gave way to more complex and imposing structures with much detail and beauty such as Orvieto Cathedral. Objects within these structures also changed greatly. The Baldachin, or more accurately, Ciborium, advanced from a luxury cloth from Baghdad ('Baldach' in medieval Italian), to imposing architectural beauties to protect holy relics and altars, its own symbol of power. The layout of the church became in its own way a transition. One would enter through the large church doors in the front and proceed down a large nave facing the altar. The side-aisles were for newly transitioning (from paganism) Christians waiting to be baptized, who would then proceed to the altar under the baldachin.

church of San Pietro, Tuscania
more from Ian's sketchbook
Piazza del Campidoglio
the Arch of Constantine
doorway of Palazzo Zuccari
San Paolo fuori le Mura
Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura