During the Roman Republic to Empire eras, leaders, who were usually also generals, built Triumphal Arches all over the city to commemorate their victories. When they returned to Rome from a campaign, their procession would follow a route which passed through all of these, including whichever triumphal arches honored them. This signified not only their victory, but that their status position followed the tradition of success of prior leaders. Probably the most recognized triumphal arch is the Arch of Constantine, which stands just north of Coliseum before entering the Roman Forum. Of course, I need not remind you that Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity and began the transformation of an outlaw religion to the catholic religion of the Roman Empire.
Given, as I asserted previously, that part of the Roman tradition and the catholic church’s tradition was to build upon history, you will not be surprised to learn that the Triumphal Arch became incorporated into the basilica design. These arches stand between the nave, where the congregation sits, and the transept. Just beyond this transition is the altar, where the priest performs the Mass and Eucharist. Also, at the beginning of the church service, when the priest leads the processional around the church, on their final march up the central aisle, they pass under the triumphal arch on their way to the altar. Symbolism of Jesus’ victory over sin and death are commemorated by the processional passing through this triumphal arch… of course, we in the congregation are left behind the arch in the nave… go figure. Or, as my Protestant upbringing would assert, “Amazing Grace which saved a wretch like me”.
In Santa Prassede, the first arch, which is white is a support for the ceiling. The golden, mosaic arch is the Triumphal Arch. The next arch is the beginning of the apse. Between these two arches is the altar and transept (which are difficult to discern in these photo from the back of the nave).
In San Giovannie in Laterano, the triumphal arch is quiet high and fills more of an architectural position, compared the flare of the baldachin.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling of San Croce in Gerusalemme incorporated the idea of the arch through the end of the barrel vault without actually forming a separate arch. The prior churches both has the flat, coffered ceilings of the older style basilica structure. The barrel vault ceiling allowed for a higher ceiling and more sense of space above. Also, from the nave, between the shape of the arch, and the frescoes of the apse (which we looked at more closely when discussing the apse) the image of Jesus in heaven becomes an eye. Here’s looking at you.
Santa Marie en Trastevere is a much older church, with an excellent example of the mosaic adorned triumphal arch. I also wanted to use this photo to point out another feature of the nave that I did not address. Notice along the upper walls of the nave, between the capitols of the columns and the window, there is a series of undecorated squares. These are actually wooden grates. This church hosts a convent of cloistered nuns. As they may not have contact directly with the congregation, they attend services behind these grates.
A final triumphal arch to view is in San Lorenzo Fuori en Mura. If some of the later arches become somewhat absorbed into the barrel vaults and lost among all the other decorations, this church, with dimly lit marble columns and walls, brings one’s attention to the purpose of triumph. This is where the mosaic is the main decoration of the church. The nave contains few other distractions. And, look at the open beam truss system in the church. Ancient Rome is everywhere here.