De Felici Culpae Asperges Me, Domine, cum Acqua Viventia
On the apse of S. Giovanni in Laterano
Though the basilica form existed in pre-Christian times, Constantine converted the Roman design into a place intended for Christian worship, meant to convey the truths of the faith; indeed, a simple mosaic in St. John Lateran uses a few images to speak volumes to us about the mystery of the Incarnation, of baptism and salvation history.
St. John Lateran was built with a transept added on to the standard Roman basilica to form a cross. At the far end of the nave (the middle aisle of the basilica), Constantine added a semi-circular element called an apse. In late Roman housing architecture, the apse functioned as a sort of throne room – or at least a special area for the chair of the master of the house. The combined effect of these elements was such that, upon entering the church, one would recognize being in a cross-shaped building, entering into a place of unity with Christ on the cross. The physical entrance into the physical church would remind one of entering the Church at one’s baptism. The place where the transept crossed the nave would be the place where the attention of the church was directed: towards the altar. Behind this, the apse marked the kathedra [chair] of the master, the clear authority. As religious art developed over the Early Christian and Medieval period, the apse became the site of the art intended mainly to make a theological point.
The mosaic in the apse of St. John Lateran, a copy of the 13th century original, depicts Christ the Savior of the world in the firmament of heaven, surrounded by nine angels. Below him, a dove – the Holy Spirit – pours forth water over the image of a jeweled cross with the figures of Adam and Eve at the center of it. From the cross, streams of heavenly water flow forth to refresh the earth; flocks of lambs and deer come to drink from it.
The water which flows over the central cross comes from an image of the Holy Spirit. In the mosaic, this is the tie between Christ in the firmament of heaven and the physical world, because it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary conceived (Lk 1:35). Further, the Holy Spirit’s tie with baptismal waters comes in part from John’s gospel (Jn 1:32-34), and is prefigured in the Old Testament with the crossing of the Red sea, from which the Israelites are purged of Egyptian slavery and can begin a new life (Ex. 14:10-15:21), and in the flood which destroyed the sinful Ninehvites while the ark (an image of the Church) rescued Noah and his family (Gen 9:1-17). There are a multiplicity of New Testament references to the Living Water (i.e., Jn 7:37-39), and in the very beginning of the account of creation, it is the Spirit of God that “hovered over the waters” (Gen 1:2).
The depiction of the water is inspired by Rev 22:1 – “Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” It is this water that “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5) – as shown by the abundance of living things the earth brings forth by its watering. Two deer drink from the water, representing the deer in psalm 42: “as the deer long for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). A “dry, weary land without water” (Ps 63:2) is the soul without God.
But one might be surprised to notice that, below Christ, the central figures of the mosaic are the diminutive figures of Adam and Eve in the middle of the jeweled cross. However, their placement is neither symbolically nor theologically surprising in terms of salvation history.
God, the creator ex nihilo, created man as the most important and privileged of creatures, because he breathed into him His own life, giving him His own Image and Likeness, and invited them into the Sabbath (see Genesis 2). Indeed, man is the only creation with whom God himself converses.
But because man’s will is free, the first man chose transgression and “[came] inevitably under the law of death… the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, the lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good” (Athanasius, De Incarnatione §4). By tending towards non-existence, evil was beginning to remove God’s image, “man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing,” Athanasius says (§5). But God had given them a very direct commandment: if they eat of the fruit of the tree, they will die. How could God, the Father of Truth, go back on his word? Yet how could sin triumph over his Image?
But it is this fault which the Easter Exsultet calls a felix culpa, the “happy fault which gains for us so great a Redeemer.” An anonymous homily from the 2nd century narrates the harrowing of Hell with Christ speaking to Adam: “I now command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”
In the mosaic, it is upon our first parents that the water of baptism pours first, the water of redemption in which we die with Christ and rise to new life with him; with the cross they, as we, are bound as one, and cannot be separated from it. “We were indeed buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in the newness of life… our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Rom 6:4, 6).
But the cross is no longer an instrument of death – for death has no more victory, and the grave has no more sting – but it is the glorious instrument of the salvation of man, a sign of victory and utter triumph. Thus, the mosaic portrays a beautiful jeweled cross, a cross of heavenly riches.
Because Christ is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:7-18), he leads his flock beside still waters (Ps 23:2), and so we, Christ’s flock, drink abundantly from the waters of life from which we will never thirst again, of his grace, of the waters of baptism.
Thus, the image of saving and life-giving waters culminates in our baptism. This water and the image of our first parents – the central theme of the apse of St. John Lateran – expresses the triumph of the cross, made necessary by the felix culpa, in Christ’s resurrection. It is his resurrection that we share in when we are baptized, dying to ourselves and rising to new life with Christ.