Italy 2004 (1 of 3): Mosaic of the Standing Virgin Hodegetria

In 2004, I visited Venice, Pistoia and the island of Torcello in Northeastern Italy. I recently revisited my notebook from this trip and I was reminded of three artworks I encountered that continue to influence my own work. This post is the first of three posts that each discusses one of the three artworks.

Mosaic of the Standing Virgin Hodegetria, Torcello

The 11th and 12th Century mosaics in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello are the oldest remaining mosaics in the area around Venice.

Mosaics of Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Mosaics of Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Italy

Standing in the cathedral’s apse, I stared up for some time at the massive domed mosaic of the Standing Virgin Hodegestria and the register of saints in attendance below her. I realized that the Byzantine mosaics need to be experienced in person, and ideally with flickering candlelight, to truly comprehend the transformative space of these images.

The gold dome catches and reflects shimmering light in various ways across the expanse of the arcing surface, making it difficult for the eye to register a consistent depth or a solid continuous background. The surface dematerializes. The figure of the Virgin projects up into this ambiguous space, her feet solidly planted on a rectangular patch of earth, her upper body and the child Jesus in her arms suspended in an unearthly space.

My interpretation of this experience was that the mosaic creates an intermediate space that was neither entirely terra firma nor the divine realm, but a point at which these two interface, with the Virgin and child Jesus functioning as the conduit between the divine and the profane.

This 11th Century mosaic employs sophisticated visual phenomenon to create a visual metaphor for the metaphysical philosophies of the early Christian church. The physical properties of the mosaic and the supporting architecture of the Cathedral quite effectively alter one’s sense of experienced reality in front and around one’s self.

To connect the visual phenomenon at work in the mosaic of the apse of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta to our contemporary world, one needs only look to dome projections that are often used for entertainment and education, or to the work of artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell, whose work explores the phenomenological qualities of light and the impact these qualities have on our concept of reality.

Raethro Pink (Corner Projection) by James Turrell, 1968

Raethro Pink (Corner Projection) by James Turrell, 1968

In these contemporary examples, as with the 11th Century mosaic, the act of manipulating reflected and emitted light can trigger and subvert deeply embedded assumptions about the physical world that our perceptual systems have relied on quite successfully for millions of years to make instantaneous survival decisions.

Such manipulation can result in cognitive dissonance, possibly even a sudden existential crisis, the kind of experience that leaves one momentarily receptive to a transcendent belief system or simply to appreciating the fallibility of our senses.

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