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Don’t Look Now, But There’s an Ancient Roman Depiction of a Dolphin Under Your Bed
The ancient Romans conquered the entire Mediterranean. They gave the world legendary badasses, both real and fictional, such as Julius Caesar, Spartacus, and Decimus Meridius Maximus (yes, that’s the correct order). And they were terrified of dolphins.
You can tell a lot about cultural fears from iconography, and to the Romans, dolphins didn’t look like this (an image telling its own creepy tale about the American obsession with cuteness, but that’s a story for a different time):
Instead, they looked like this:
Thank you, mosaic artist, for making sure the teeth were picked out in black tiles. Your effort is noted and appreciated (not really). Also noted: the demonic yellow eyes and crab-pincer tails, and their size relative to Eros (often depicted riding a dolphin). These are what nightmares are made of.
I first became aware of the creepiness of ancient dolphins when I was in Rome a few years ago. Since then, this question has bothered me: how did the Roman perception of dolphins come to diverge so sharply from our own Flipper-and-Sea World version?
I’m not going to answer that question here. Instead, I’m going to show you some pictures of dolphins and share Benjamin Franklin’s insane theory for why paintings of them are so inaccurate and terrifying. In the end, you will be a little confused but probably not any wiser. I have warned you.
The ancient Greeks loved dolphins. They called them philomousoi, music lovers, because they thought that dolphins danced when they heard music. The poet Bacchylides tells a story about Theseus jumping into the ocean as part of a demigod pissing contest with Minos, only to reappear riding a dolphin. Taras, the mythological founder of the Greek city Tarentum on the south coast of Italy, rode there on a dolphin the city adopted the image of a man riding a dolphin on their coinage. The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus recounts the story of how Dionysus was taken captive by a ship of pirates and turned them all into dolphins, and Herodotus tells a similar story about how the poet Arion was captured by pirates, jumped overboard, and was rescued by a dolphin and carried to shore.
Remember that story, because it’s going to come back to haunt us later.
Unlike the Roman depictions of dolphins, most ancient Greek pictures of dolphins a) aren’t horrifying and b) appear to have been painted by people with at least a slight awareness of what a dolphin actually looked like. Greek dolphins run the gamut from childishly drawn to friendly-looking to moderately dissatisfied, but they never look like they want to eat your soul.
Here’s a fresco from Knossos that, in spite of being more than 3,500 years old, might be able to pass as a page of Lisa Frank stickers:
This dolphin, from about the same period on Santorini, also does not thirst for my blood (although it does look stealthy):
Classical Greek dolphins, while hardly anatomically accurate, probably won’t frighten you and are actually kind of cute:
Sometimes they generously carry fully-armed hoplites (with self-referential shields?) on their backs:
This is probably my favorite Greek dolphin:
Is he thrilled to be the steed of a naked satyr carrying a giant amphora? No. But he looks more or less resigned to his lot in life. He seems to be thinking, “I guess I’m a stool now. Oh well. At least I have eyelids.”
So far, so good. But just wait until we cross the Ionian sea.
Literary evidence from ancient Rome paints a similar picture of dolphins to the one we find in Greece. Pliny the Elder believed that dolphins loved music, and he tells several stories of close bonds of friendship between dolphins and humans. (He also says that they have spines on their backs and mouths in the middle of their stomachs, so he may not be a credible source.) His nephew, Pliny the Younger, in a move familiar to everyone who has ever tried to sound clever at a party, tells the exact same story about a dolphin that formed a close attachment with a boy in North Africa while pretending it was his story to begin with.
Mosaic evidence suggests that the Plinii may have been outliers in their warmth toward cetaceans. I’ll let you decide whether these mosaic dolphins carrying Cupid seem to be thinking “Let’s be best friends!” or “Once I get you far enough out to sea that nobody can hear you scream, you’re going to be my dinner”:
The next one is definitely the best, and not only because of Cupid’s bizarrely svelte waist. It’s so obvious that whoever reconstructed the lost parts of the mosaic was really trying to make the dolphin seem nice:
Cute! But I think we can all agree that the museum went with a conservative estimate of how many dolphin teeth would have been visible, considering this statue, also of Cupid riding a dolphin, from the very same time period:
In conclusion, ancient Roman dolphins resemble nothing so much as Flotsam and Jetsam from The Little Mermaid, if they were actually scary eels and not incompetent henchmen.
Later painters in western Europe — who I guess had never actually seen a dolphin with their own eyes? — more or less took the Roman depictions of dolphins as their models. Later European dolphins are even toothier and hairier (literally, not figuratively) than their predecessors.
Albrecht Dürer, an absolutely brilliant artist who specialized in woodcut prints, apparently thought that dolphins had tusks and whiskers. His Arion, naked but for his full-sized concert harp, looks like he’d prefer to take his chances with the pirates.
Here’s “The Triumph of Galatea” by Raphael, also from c. 1514, with a close-up on its dolphins:
The seventeenth century wasn’t much better for dolphin pictures. For the record, I’m not in favor of the adorable little bow-carrying cherubs we use to represent Cupid/Eros. In the ancient world, a bow was a serious weapon. If we want to translate that image, we should depict Cupid as a toddler holding a handgun (something that happens in the U.S. with a frequency more terrifying even than the dolphin images in this article). Regardless, it’s impossible to take this Cupid with his dinky little bow seriously, considering that he’s riding on what appears to be a feral hog with scales and fins.
But European dolphin painting reaches the height of absurdity with François Boucher, who definitely thought that dolphins looked like a cross between a Chinese dragon and a Saint Bernard:
The dolphins in his Birth of Venus look even less like creatures you’d want anywhere near your naked mermaid body.
I’ll leave you with one last dolphin, this one by Gustave Moreau, a painter in the nineteenth century. If you don’t see it, look closely at the murderous-looking wave Arion is riding:
Don’t those angry dolphin eyes look exactly like those in the Roman mosaic I began with? Let’s not even ask how Arion is keeping his balance, since he appears to be dolphin-surfing. Maybe he tied himself to the murder dolphin using his voluminous red robe. All the better to hide the bloodstains later.
By this point, you’re probably wondering two things: how did European art get sent down this path of inaccurate and scary dolphins, and why do I care so much? I’m going to flat-out ignore that second question, because I found an interesting answer to the first from none other than Benjamin Franklin. Apparently all we had to do to find some sense about dolphins was cross the Atlantic.
In a diary he wrote during a sea voyage in 1726, 20-year-old Franklin shares some thoughts about dolphins:
This morning the wind changed a little fair. We caught a couple of dolphins, and fried them for dinner. They eat indifferent well.
I’m using that expression every time I eat something mediocre from now on.
These fish make a glorious appearance in the water their bodies are of a bright green, mixed with a silver colour, and their tails of a shining golden yellow but all this vanishes presently after they are taken out of their element, and they change all over to a light gray. I observed that cutting off pieces of a just-caught, living dolphin for baits, those pieces did not lose their lustre and fine colours when the dolphin died, but retained them perfectly.
WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, CREEP? Oh, right, “science.” Go back to electrocuting yourself with a kite and a key and leave the dolphins alone.
Every one takes notice of that vulgar error of the painters, who always represent this fish monstrously crooked and deformed, when it is, in reality, as beautiful and well-shaped a fish as any that swims. I cannot think what could be the original of this chimera of theirs, (since there is not a creature in nature that in the least resembles their dolphin) unless it proceeded at first from a false imitation of a fish in the posture of leaping, which they have since improved into a crooked monster, with a head and eyes like a bull, a hog’s snout, and a tail like a blown tulip.
I prefer my “Chinese dragon crossed with a Saint Bernard” description, but that’s actually pretty accurate.
But the sailors give me another reason though a whimsical one, viz. that as this most beautiful fish is only to be caught at sea, and that very far to the Southward, they say the painters wilfully deform it in their representations, lest pregnant women should long for what it is impossible to procure for them.
I don’t like to play the “I’ve been pregnant and so I know what I’m talking about” card, but I’ve been pregnant and I know with 100% certainty that pregnancy cravings, while occasionally unpredictable, have absolutely nothing to do with the cuteness of the food craved. Not once in my pregnancy did I think “You know, that puppy is adorable, I guess I should EAT IT.” Then again, I’m the person who researched and wrote this article, so I’m not exactly normal.
While writing this piece and talking to everyone I came across about scary ancient dolphins, several people pointed out that there’s good reason to depict them as frightening: dolphins are not always cute and are often kind of terrifying. This Slate article points out that dolphins like to headbutt their own children for fun, gang-rape female dolphins, and can go for a week without sleeping. The article ends on this very valid point: “After all, you never hear about the people the dolphins push out to sea.”
But none of that explains why the Romans and later Europeans liked to give them hog snouts and tulip tails (fine, Benjamin Franklin, your powers of description win). I like to think that someone in the early history of Rome suffered a Jaws-style dolphin attack and the horror became etched into their cultural consciousness, but that’s just a guess. I don’t really know how they became such terrifying monsters.
Cheryl Strayed once wrote that “the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again.” That’s a little ambitious for an article that’s little more than a string of increasingly horrifying pictures, but you’ll probably never look at Lisa Frank’s happy technicolor dolphins the same way again.
Donna Zuckerberg is editor-in-chief of Eidolon and a perfectly normal human with no strange obsessions whatsoever. Her first book, Classics Beyond the Manosphere, is under contract with Harvard University Press. Read more of her work here.
Romans and the Middle Ages
Como history would be incomplete without mentioning the importance of Roman influence on the region.
In 196 BCE, consul Marco Claudio Marcello conquered the areas occupied by the Gauls and Como became part of the Roman Empire.
Later, in 59 BCE, Julius Caesar had the swamp near the southern tip of the lake drained, leading to the founding of Novum Comum.
The village experienced a period of splendor, becoming an important center for trade. Wealthy aristocrats and other notable figures settled in Como to enjoy its mild temperatures and experience both its natural and man-made beauty.Roman baths in Como Porta Torre The tower of Castello Baradello
The Kingdom of the Lombards played an enormous role in Como’s history.
Between 568 and 569 BCE, this Germanic-speaking people gave birth to an independent kingdom that soon extended their control over much of the Italian peninsula.
The kingdom was separated into different duchies, which enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in relation to the central authority that was settled in Pavia.
Over time, the Lombards adopted Roman titles, as well as many Roman traditions.
In 1127, after a ten year war against Milan which caused the complete destruction of the city, Como lost its dominance, only to retrieve it again thanks to Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor.
Barbarossa rebuilt and enlarged the defensive walls which protected the city and also restored the Castel Baradello, a military fortification located on top of a hill.
Later on, the imposing towers of Porta Torre, San Vitale, and Porta Nuova were built to defend the main entrance of the city.
Fishbourne Roman Palace, plus 5 more Roman mosaics you can explore in Britain
The mosaics at Fishbourne Palace are rightly famous, but there are other places in Britain where you can see fine Romano-British floors. BBC History Revealed presents a quick guide to the mosaics at Fishbourne Roman Palace, while Miles Russell picks five of the best villas where you can see Roman treasures for yourself…
This competition is now closed
Published: December 10, 2020 at 10:01 am
Just west of Chichester on the West Sussex coast, Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest residential building from Roman times to be found in Britain. It was stumbled upon by accident in 1960 when the excavation equipment of a Portsmouth Water Company workman, digging a trench in a local field, hit some rubble. But this was not any old rubble the rocks ultimately turned out to be part of the boundary wall of a huge Roman structure.
The site from Roman Britain drew archaeologists from across the world to assist with the dig for the next decade. But as impressive as the scale of the palace was, the real revelation was the brilliance and proliferation of the site’s mosaics. Two hundred separate examples were unearthed, many of which had been perfectly preserved for nearly two millennia.
The mosaics adorning the palace floors were originally black and white, not dissimilar to those found at Pompeii. As the decades passed and tastes changed, coloured patterns were added, as well as more elaborate pictures, the most most famous being a striking depiction of Cupid riding on a dolphin. These were the work of master craftsmen brought in from Rome, charged with both creating them and training locals in their art.
By the late 1960s, a museum was built over the palace’s north wing, allowing the public to study the numerous mosaics in situ but at close quarters. The palace garden has also been recreated and planted with plants authentic to the Roman period. More than half a century on, it remains a very popular tourist destination. But where else can you see fascinating examples of Roman mosaics?
Brading, Isle of Wight
Overlooking Sandown Bay on the Isle of Wight, Brading Roman Villa was excavated in the early 1880s and is now protected by a fine cover building with museum and café. The snake-haired Medusa features heavily in the beautiful mid-fourth century mosaics here, as do more unusual images such as the famous ‘cockerel-headed man’. The meaning of this unique figure is unknown, but it could be a misunderstood representation of a gladiator.
Bignor Villa, West Sussex
Nestling at the foot of the South Downs, Bignor Roman Villa is one of the finest examples of a well-to-do villa in Britain. The sequence of house development – from third century cottage to three-winged villa – is marked out on the ground, while the best fourth century mosaics, depicting Venus, Medusa, cupid Roman gladiators and Ganymede being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle, are covered by a series of atmospheric flint-walled thatched cottages, first erected to protect the villa in the early 1800s.
Chedworth Villa, Gloucestershire
Set at the head of a picturesque valley in the Cotswolds, Chedworth Roman Villa is a beautiful example of a later Roman rural estate. Brand-new cover buildings let visitors get close to the fourth century ‘four seasons’ mosaic of the dining room and the bath house, one of the best preserved of any in Britain, with the changing room, warm room, hot room and cold room with plunge bath, all visible. On-going excavations are revealing more areas of mosaic floor.
Lullingstone Villa, Kent
The importance of Lullingstone Roman Villa, constructed in the Darent Valley in Kent, lies not just with its fine mid fourth century mosaic, showing Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of a bull, but the religious symbolism on the walls, late fourth century paintings showing a variety of Christian motifs. A new cover building features excellent displays and an interpretative light show.
Hull and East Riding Museum
A lively series of fourth century floors, all recovered from villas in the area, can be viewed in the Hull and East Riding Museum, including the so-called ‘Tyche Mosaic’ from Brantingham, and an exuberant chariot-racing mosaic from Rudston. Also from Rudston is the Venus mosaic, depicting a gloriously wild Venus as well as a series of shaggy hunters and bizarrely-shaped animals.
Find out how to visit Hull and East Riding Museum
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. He is author of Bloodline: the Celtic Kings of Roman Britain (Amberley, 2010)
Jewish and Early Christian Art
This lecture is organized around three themes: art as an expression of religious identity, art as an expression of social standing, and the difference between style and subject matter.
Another important point to clarify is the name of this section—students often think that “Jewish” and “Early Christian” apply to style, when it really applies to the subject matter. There is no difference in the way that Christian or Jewish or pagan pictures are painted. It is important to emphasize throughout the lecture that in terms of style, Jewish, Christian, pagan—even Zoroastrian art—is simply late Roman or late antique.
Depending on the background of your students, you may find that many of them lack basic knowledge or have misconceptions of both Judaism and Christianity. If you are not sure if the students are familiar with the basic concepts, you may start the lecture by asking simple questions and providing basic background information.
The Roman Empire was extraordinarily diverse with respect to social, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. During the second and third centuries, many Romans started to reject polytheism in favor of monotheistic religions and cults. Ask your students if they know what monotheism and polytheism mean. Emphasize that Judaism and Christianity are both monotheist, meaning a belief in one creator of the universe who hears prayers and rules. Jews believe that God made covenant with them and that they are the chosen people awaiting the coming of the Messiah (anointed one). Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. You may add that, together with Islam, all three are “religions of the book,” which means that all of them have written records of God’s words in form of the Torah, Bible, and Quran. Mention that the Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and is the same as the first five books of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible.
Many students will think that the first Christian artworks appeared in the time of Christ, however, Christianity grew slowly after his death from a small base in Palestine. Only after periods of toleration and persecution did it finally become legalized in the Roman Empire through Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which assured freedom of worship and restored confiscated church property. Because of Christianity’s illegal status, most Christians likely worshiped in private, and so no distinguishable Christian buildings survive from the pre-313 CE period, and no artworks survive prior to the third century.
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, c. 359. 4’ × 8’, Grottoes of Saint Peter, Vatican City, marble.
I would recommend starting with a Yale exhibition catalog by Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven Fort Worth: Yale University Press In Association with the Kimbell Art Museum, 2007). It contains wonderful illustrations of many objects as well as five approachable, short essays on the most important topics.
Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (New York: Norton & Company, 1989) is one of the best sources to consider the social, political, and economic transformations during the period.
A good source for the early Christian architecture, although, by now a little outdated in terms of archeological findings, is Richard Krautheimer’s Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). For Jewish architecture, I recommend Steven Fine’s Sacred Realm: the Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World, (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 1996).
For more specific topics, I suggest reading an article on the Dura Europos synagogue by Karen Stern, “Mapping Devotion in Roman Dura Europos: A Reconsideration of the Synagogue Ceiling,” American Journal of Archaeology 114:3 (July 2010), 473–504, and/or an article on style in late antiquity by Jas Elsner, “Archaeologies and Agendas: Reflections on Late Ancient Jewish Art and Early Christian Art,” The Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 114–28.
Start the lecture with the earliest Christian art, followed by funerary art (catacombs and sarcophagi), and finish with Christian and Jewish architecture and wall paintings. I would advise against discussing Jewish and Christian art separately, since chronologically they develop at the same time during the late antique/late Roman culture. This way, you can highlight the use of the common stylistic tropes and emphasize the differences in subject matter.
Images: This set is probably more than you may be able to cover in a single lecture. If you can devote two lectures to this period that would be great. If not, I encourage you to limit your class to the images and themes that will best complement your other lectures.
- Fish and anchor epitaph, the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome, third century, late antique art
- Catacombs of St. Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, fourth century, late antique art
- Good Shepherd, ceiling painting from Catacomb of St. Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, fourth century, late antique art
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, c. 359, marble, Grottoes of St. Peter, Vatican City, late antique art
- Sarcophagus of Constantia, c. 350, Vatican Museums, Rome, late antique art
- Baptistery, Dura Europos, Syria, before 256 CE, late antique art
- Synagogue, Dura Europos, Syria, before 256 CE, late antique art
- Church of Santa Sabina, Rome, 422–32 CE, late antique art
- Synagogue, Beth Alpha, Galilee, Israel, sixth century CE, late antique art
Fish and anchor epitaph, the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome. No certifiably “Christian” art works are datable prior to the third century. Some of the symbols and simple images found could have been Christian, but no evidence exists to confirm these assumptions. The earliest confirmed Christian artworks date to the third century and consist of simple symbols, such as a fish or an anchor. Most would traditionally associate Christianity with the symbol of the cross, but this image was very rare, and the first artwork with a cross does not appear until 420 CE—much later than the other symbols. Why? Death on the cross was given only to the worst and most wretched perpetrators. If a Christian wanted to encourage another to convert, he or she had to emphasize the glory and power of God and this “scandal of the cross” would not encourage conversion. It was more important to emphasize God’s miracles and power to protect His people. The anchor and the fish are such symbols.
An anchor symbolizes a safe arrival to one’s destination (an important message when travel and work on the sea was widespread but also very dangerous). Metaphorically, it symbolized the safe arrival to heaven after one’s death. Fish in Ancient Greek means IXTUC (Ichtus), which is an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. In this way the fish symbolizes Jesus, and, by drawing this symbol, one could identify oneself as His devotee. Moreover, fish are also associated with the biblical story of the proliferation of bread and fish (“Feeding of 5000” known from all four canonical Gospels: Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:31–44, Luke 9:10–17 and John 6:5–15). This shows that the Bible becomes the primary source of pictorial decoration for the early Christians. During the pre-313 CE period, when Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire, these symbols were safe marks that allowed Christians to recognize each other and avoid persecution. Pagans would not be familiar with the metaphorical meaning of these symbols as they were based on the Bible which they did not read.
Catacomb of St. Peter and Marcellinus, Rome. The richest source of early Christian art are the catacombs in Rome. The catacombs are an intricate network of galleries and burial chambers cut out from tufa (soft volcanic rock in the area of Rome and Tuscany) beneath the city level. Jews, Christians, and pagans al buried the bodies of their dead in these corridors and chambers. Even though they were used to bury illegally practicing Christians, these catacombs survived and were not banned or destroyed, since Romans viewed the tombs as sacred. In addition, the cemeteries were legally registered and protected by Roman law even during the periods of severe persecution. Everyone was buried together, without regard for one’s denomination.
Later, in the late third and fourth centuries, Christian and Jewish tombs became separate. There were two basic options of burial in the catacombs, depending on the amount of money one was willing to spend. The cheapest option was a burial in niches called loculi. Loculi were just simple openings in walls of long excavated corridors, enclosed by slabs or tiles, and sometimes plastered over. They varied in size from one to four or more bodies. The more expensive option was a cubiculum (entirely separate room in the galleries) that could be bought out to house one’s entire family. Cubicula could be covered with wall paintings according to the will of the owner.
The Good Shepherd ceiling decoration from the catacomb of St. Peter and Marcellinus, is such an example. In this painting, note the framing device of circles, lunettes, and lines, into which are inscribed small figures and narrative scenes. This type of structuring of the pictorial field is a type of decoration commonly found in contemporary private homes, for example in Pompeii and Ostia. Moreover, the way that the figures are painted, frontal, with only simple highlights in the draperies and emphasis on gestures, is typical for late Roman art–again, no distinctive Christian style exists at this point (but the subject matter is Christian).
The overall message of the images is optimistic and focused on salvation. An image of the Good Shepherd is in the central circle, which was one of the most popular subjects of early Christian art. The image of a shepherd in itself, however, is not particularly Christian. In fact, it has a long Graeco-Roman heritage: bucolic scenes of shepherds tending their sheep were a popular wall decoration in Roman houses and subjects for archaic Greek sculptures. Yet, for Christians, the image of the shepherd had a metaphorical meaning. In other words, the image in itself is not a Christian invention but was reinterpreted in biblical terms. In Psalm 22, God is described as a shepherd and in the New Testament, Christ calls himself a shepherd as well. The image serves as a reference to a textual source (the Bible) and a metaphor for the meaning that lies beyond what is simply shown in the pictorial plane.
The lunettes on the sides of the Good Shepherd show the key episodes from the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale in a clockwise direction. Jonah was thrown from the ship (on the left), swallowed by a whale and sitting in his belly (largely missing now), emerging from the whale on the third day (right), safe on the ground resting under a gourd, and contemplating salvation (bottom). This was a popular theme taken by Christians from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is appropriate for this funerary context since Jonah, metaphorically dead in the whale’s belly, is resurrected by the Grace of God to live, inspiring Christians to await a similar optimistic end to their lives. Moreover, Jonah is also seen here as prefiguration, reflecting the death and resurrection of Christ.
Comparisons between the Old Testament and New Testament are a very common way of reading scriptures. Early theologians would look for the events from the Old Testament that “prefigured” the coming of Christ or characters that were a “type” of Christ. In this catacomb painting, we can see that typology (searching for types of Christ) was not exclusive to textual interpretation, but also occurred in art. Such typological viewing is a uniquely Christian way of interpreting images, a comparative method not found in pagan or Jewish art. In this way, early Christian art is Roman in style but Christian in subject matter.
The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus represents another type of funerary art from the early Christian period. A sarcophagus is a large stone or marble “coffin” used to house the body of the deceased. In contrast to common belief, Christians were not the instigators of preserving the body. Already in times of Emperors Hadrian and Trajan (early second century AD), Romans rejected cremation in favor of inhumation. The wealthiest of Christians, largely patricians but also wealthy freedmen, imitated their pagan counterparts in ordering sarcophagi, which were much more expensive than a loculus or even cubiculum in the catacombs. Sarcophagi could be placed either in the fancy arched niches (arcosolia) in the cubicula of the catacombs or in specially built mausolea (above-ground funerary structures meant specifically to house the bodies of the deceased).
This particular sarcophagus belonged to Junius Bassus, a patrician and prefect of the city of Rome, son of a consul, who was baptized as a Christian only on his deathbed. At this point, Christianity is legalized but is still largely the religion of those with lower social standing.* The great majority of the Roman senate and the most powerful families of Rome are still pagan. Bassus was probably one of the first patricians to convert, but openly expressing his beliefs would have probably hindered his career (and family relations—his father was a consul and a well-known donor of pagan art). This is probably why Bassus chose to be baptized only on his deathbed at which point he could also blatantly display his Christian beliefs in his sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus is decorated with a selection of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, set in individual niches in two tiers. From top left to bottom right the scenes are: Sacrifice of Isaac, Arrest of Peter, Christ Enthroned between Peter and Paul, and a double scene of the Trial of Jesus before Pilate, (washing his hands in the last niche), followed by Job and the Dunghill, Adam and Eve, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the Arrest of Paul. The viewer is meant to contemplate the mix of stories from both Old and New Testament and search for typological connections between them. For example, Adam, in the Adam and Eve niche, caused the fall of humanity. In contrast, Christ (in the Trial of Jesus) can be seen as the new Adam—one who sacrifices himself in order to redeem humanity.
Significantly, some of the poses we encounter in the sarcophagus’s scenes are derived from Roman visual symbols. For example, Christ Enthroned (in the top center) is modeled on the Roman adlocutio (Roman emperor addressing the people—see the comparison with the scene on the Arch of Constantine), while Christ’s Entry to Jerusalem is inspired by the imperial theme of adventus (Roman emperor’s formal arrival to the city and his welcome see the panel with Marcus Aurelius for comparison). The use of the aristocratic or imperial Roman visual vocabulary is appropriate here for two reasons. First of all, Bassus, who had close ties to senate, emphasizes this connection and therefore his social standing. Second, this is already a post-313 CE artwork, when the emperors ruling in Constantinople are Christian (to the regret of conservative pagan aristocracy in Rome). Therefore, it is appropriate to model Christ on the Roman emperor since now the Emperor is Christian. Such comparison would be hugely offensive in the pre-313 years, when Christianity was illegal or actively combated. This is why, in the catacombs and other pre-313 CE artworks Christ is shown as a poor shepherd at the periphery of the empire–just like many of his adherents at that time.
Note on style: the figures are sculpted in a typically late antique style: more simplified, blocky, but still very much modeled on the nudes of antiquity. For example you can compare Adam and Eve with the reliefs from column of Trajan or the Hadrianic roundels from the Arch of Constantine.
Sarcophagus of Constantina represents yet another type of early Christian funerary art, one fit for the imperial family. This sarcophagus was placed in the center of a large round mausoleum built for Constantina, daughter of Emperor Constantine and a devout Christian. The sarcophagus is massive in size: 128 cm high, 233 cm long, and 157 wide, carved entirely out of porphyry (exceptionally hard and difficult stone to work, mined only in Mt. Sinai in Egypt). Since the time of Augustus, the use of porphyry and the color purple was reserved by law only for the imperial family. By choosing the purple stone Constantina’s sarcophagus is very much tied to the Roman imperial tradition.
What about the subject matter? The sarcophagus, in fact, shows no conspicuous Christian message and is decorated with scenes of winged putti harvesting grapes to make wines, framed by acanthus scrolls. This type of imagery was a common decorative trope already in Pompeian houses and could easily be interpreted within the Greco-Roman tradition as Bacchus and the harvest. Christians, however, could associate both the purple color and grape-harvesting with the wine of the Eucharist, as well as Christ himself (who called himself a true vine in John 15:1). Similarly the peacocks could be seen as symbols of eternal life in paradise or sheep as members of the Christian flock, again based on biblical references.
Such Christian interpretation, however, would require knowledge of the scripture and therefore would not be available to an average pagan viewer. In fact, if we did not know who the patron was, her religious identity would be questionable. But, this ambiguity significantly indicates that Constantina’s royal identity took precedence, at least in the public realm, over her Christian identity. Positioning herself in the Roman imperial lineage, she made more conservative choices than Junius Bassus. Again, the Roman aristocracy was only slowly converting in the mid-fourth century—most were still pagan and Constantine’s conversion would already be a big shock.
Only one “church,” a meeting place for Christians celebrating the Eucharist, survives from the period before Christianity’s legalization (pre-313 CE). The building was discovered in a Roman military and trading town called Dura Europos (modern day Syria), situated on the peripheries of the empire and on the borderline with Sasanian Persia. In 256 CE, the town was attacked by Persians, captured and soon abandoned. In preparation of the attack, inhabitants hastily filled the defense-walls with gravel and sand. This action preserved the majority of wall paintings and décor of the various buildings until the town’s rediscovery in 1920s and 1930s. The excavators who conducted the study were amazed to find such a vibrant and varied array of religious paintings in Jewish, Christian, and pagan temples.
One of such exceptional findings was a regular Roman style house along the defense wall. Due to its interior décor, it has been identified as one of the earliest discovered churches to date. The building was small and looked pretty much like a typical house since Christianity was illegal at the time. If Dura had survived after 313 this meager building would have been replaced with a much more impressive structure. The best-preserved part of the complex is the baptistery room (a place with a font used for baptism). The paintings covering its walls are rather crude compared to the ones in the neighboring pagan temple and a synagogue. This suggests that Dura’s Christian community was probably poorer and, therefore, unable to afford more skilled artisans. Yet, in terms of style, the murals take on the typical late Roman/late antique aesthetic with an emphasis on gesture, frontality, outlined silhouettes, and bold simple colors.
The wall paintings on the sides focus on the life of Christ and his miraculous events (Christ and Peter walking on water, Christ healing paralytic, Maries visiting tomb of Christ), all of which send a positive message for converts. Note, however, that all viewers had to be familiar with the Scriptures in order to interpret the scenes. The most interesting, but worst preserved painting appears in the arch above the baptismal font. It shows an image of the good shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders surrounded by his flock—which reinforces the borrowed symbolism discussed earlier.
Below the Good Shepherd, one can barely notice a tree flanked by two silhouetted figures that represent Adam and Eve. Paired with the good shepherd, it is the earliest instance of typology used in visual art. This is especially significant since this is a poor community far from large cities—showing the breadth of this imagery across long distances.
Even more surprising, however, was the discovery of a synagogue in the same town. Synagogue (from Greek meaning to gather together) was a place of assembly for Jews and not a house of God (the House of God was the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem). The Dura Synagogue was situated nearby along the same defense wall as the Christian building, but was much more elaborate and grand, indicating that the Jewish community was larger and wealthier than the Christian one (also Judaism was legal, so they could afford more prominence).
Shocking the archaeologists who excavated the synagogue, its main room used for housing of the Torah (first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was entirely covered with images. Until then, scholars thought that Jewish culture was aniconic (does not accept images in agreement with one of Mosaic Commandments). Here, however, very skillfully executed frescoes were arranged on the walls in three bands of fifty-eight individual scenes. They portray a variety of themes such as narratives of Jewish heroes (Crossing of the Red Sea, Drowning of the Pharaoh) and scenes of liturgical significance (Menorah in the Temple of Solomon, Temple of Aaron). All images are based on the Hebrew Bible and drawn from books of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Esther, and Ezekiel. The Dura images are the earliest discovered Jewish paintings to date.
Moses at the Well Giving Water to 12 Tribes of Israel is an example of a narrative scene that is meant to show God’s protection of the chosen people. Similar to the images in the baptistery the message is positive and encourages devotion. The paintings of single figures with upraised arms represent each tribe are also late Roman/late antique in terms of style: the figures are frontal, hieratic in scale, and rather flat. Devoid of action, the viewer focuses on the message, which they can identify with ease. Importantly, the creator uses both Jewish and Roman pictorial traditions. For example, a Corinthian portico frames a menorah and Moses is shown as a combination of an Old Testament patriarch (bearded, traditionally associated with Jewish men) and a Roman patrician (only Roman aristocracy could wear a toga). This indicates that the Duran Jewish community was well acquainted with the Roman cultural traditions and saw them as fitting to represent both the menorah and Moses.
In addition, this period was a time of serious religious competition. In this small peripheral town, there are more than ten religious communities to choose from! It was important to proclaim the community’s identity, its history, and the power of the deity in order to keep members from leaving and potentially attract new ones. These beautiful images with their positive messages were part of this effort. More specifically, the Christian images come from the Old Testament, linking the relatively new religion to the more established religion of Judaism. The synagogue is decorated profusely with figural imagery in order to express the Jewish identity and keep the community’s members from converting to other religions.
After Christianity’s legalization, the fourth and fifth centuries were the formative period of church architecture. This early experimentation resulted in adoption of the basilica plan, a design derived from secular Roman examples that has still influences Christian architecture until this day. The Church of Santa Sabina is the quintessential example of the mature basilica type. Standard basilica design includes three clearly basic units: a nave, two aisles, and an apse that were useful for Christian purposes. The nave and aisles could be easily extended longitudinally as well as laterally to accommodate the growing community. The focal placement of the apse (originally a place for the statue of the Roman emperor) helped to direct attention to the most important part of the church, where the Eucharist was performed. In addition, the basilica type was devoid of references to pagan cults since it was a secular building. This made it particularly fitting for the adoption by Christianity.
Unlike Roman or Greek temples, Christian churches were plain on the outside (typically a brick exterior) and represented a spiritual heavily space on the inside, covered with colorful marble, sparkling mosaics of precious stones, glass, and gold. The Christian church uses columns to support its interior, and are typically made from spolia (reused materials) sourced from abandoned pagan temples. In these churches, Christians introduced brick arches instead of horizontal architraves (solid piers of square form). Although the use of arches can be seen in Diocletian’s palace in Split, Christian architecture popularized the practice and turned it into a fundamental characteristic of ecclesiastical constructions. In sum, while the design of Santa Sabina was inspired by Roman architecture, the early Christians did not merely copy it, but consciously adapted and altered it according to their needs.
Like Christians, Jews also built places of worship based on the model of Roman basilica. Beth Alpha Synagogue is a typical Jewish temple from the region of greater Syro-Palestine. Using the basilica plan, this synagogue had a central nave with an apse to display the Torah, aisles on both sides, and a line of columns. The orientation of the building mattered as the apse with the Torah shrine had to be directed towards Jerusalem (Christian churches’ apse were directed to the East). Unfortunately, Beth Alpha synagogue, like the majority of Jewish and Christian houses of worship, suffered during the centuries of Islamic rule in the region. As of now, only the outline of the walls and the floor were preserved, covered by sand.
The mosaic floor, however, is one of the most outstanding examples of late antique Jewish art. Most of its design is geometric, but three main panels in the nave are filled with figures, symbols, and narrative scenes. The floor is divided into three registers. The topmost, and closest to the Torah shrine, is the metaphysical realm that depicts symbols appropriate to be in the vicinity of the Torah shrine. It shows a Torah shrine and a variety of ritual objects such as a lulav (a palm frond) and a shofar (a ram’s horn) protected by growling lions. The celestial realm in the middle of the floor depicts the Graeco-Roman deity Helios (sun-god) surrounded by a palette of zodiac signs that imply perpetual continuity and the cyclical changing of the seasons (whose personifications are depicted in the four corners). The presence of late Roman deities and a zodiac indicate that this community was comfortable with Roman culture. In fact, the names of the two artists (Marianos and Hanina) and date are inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek, indicating that some of the members of the synagogue could not read Aramaic, which was the main language of the local Jewish population. The community of Beth Alpha seems to exemplify the more “relaxed” Judaism, which allowed Graeco-Roman motifs and figurative imagery over purely geometric motifs. Another synagogue discovered nearby belonged probably to what we may call “conservative” or “orthodox” community, since its mosaic floor is covered exclusively with geometric designs.
The third register depicts a terrestrial realm showing the Biblical story of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac. This example further shows that Jews, Christians, and pagans shared the late antique style that emphasized ease of image-comprehension. The animals are shown in profile, humans are frontal, exaggerated gestures are the focus of the action, and figures are flat (outlined silhouettes filled with single color).
Is the placement of the Torah on the floor sacrilegious? The Torah allowed images as long as they were not worshipped. Through the placement on the floor, this Jewish community demonstrated that they were not worshipping the image itself (idolatry). In this aspect, the Jews differed from Christians, who actually banned representations of crosses on the floors so that they were not treaded upon. In sum, Beth Alpha synagogue shows imagery and architecture strongly rooted in both Hellenic and Christian symbolism—indicating cultural sophistication and assimilation of the Syro-Palestinian Jews in late antiquity.
*I encourage you to use the term “social standing” and not “class” in the second theme. This is important, since Marx used this term to describe the structure of the twentieth-century society while the late antique society was structured in a different way. For example, being a Roman slave does not translate easily into a working class individual (the spectrum of slave’s well-being varied tremendously: in addition to the common view of impoverished, abused individual, which was certainly true for many, some slaves were even wealthier than their masters, many were quite independent), also patricians are not equivalent to the upper class.
Bible Scenes Uncovered in Ruins of Ancient Synagogue
On a hill above the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, archaeologists have discovered one amazing fifth-century floor mosaic after another.
Archaeologists excavating a Roman-era synagogue at the site of Huqoq, Israel, have uncovered two new panels of a mosaic floor with instantly identifiable subjects—Noah's ark, and the parting of the Red Sea during the Israelite exodus from Egypt.
"You can see the pharaoh's soldiers with their chariots and horses drowning, and even being eaten by large fish," says excavation director Jodi Magness, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Such images are extremely rare in this period. "I know of only two other scenes of the parting of the Red Sea in ancient synagogues," Magness explains. "One is in the wall paintings at Dura Europos [in Syria], which is a complete scene but different from ours—no fish devouring the Egyptian soldiers. The other is at Wadi Hamam [in Israel], but that's very fragmentary and poorly preserved."
The ark scenes are equally uncommon. Again, Magness knows of just two: one at the site of Jerash (known as Gerasa in antiquity) in Jordan, and the other at the site of Misis (the ancient Mopsuestia) in Turkey.
Magness, a professor of archaeology and a National Geographic Explorer, has been uncovering extraordinary mosaics at Huqoq since 2012. She now returns every June and excavates through the entire month with a team of student volunteers and specialists in fields such as art history, soil analysis, and mosaic conservation.
Until this season, the team had been working in the synagogue's eastern aisle, where they have uncovered a series of unusual scenes in rectangular panels: an inscription in Hebrew surrounded by classically inspired theater masks, cupids, and dancers Samson and the foxes, from Judges 15:4 in the Bible Samson with the gate of Gaza on his shoulders, from Judges 16:3 and an unprecedented three-tiered mosaic that includes the first non-Biblical scene ever found in an ancient synagogue—a meeting between two important male figures, one of whom is accompanied by armored soldiers and elephants outfitted for battle.
There was no guarantee that the mosaics would continue into the nave, the large central area of the synagogue. But as digging began there, everyone hoped that's what they'd find beneath the stones and dirt that had accumulated through the centuries.
One morning an excited murmur rumbled from the part of the nave where assistant director Shua Kisilevitz, from the Israel Antiquities Authority, was supervising the removal of rubble.
Then a shout erupted. "Get Jodi!" And a college cheer—"Shua! Shua! Shua!"—chanted by a circle of students, arms locked together, all jumping with the joy of discovery. They had hit a patch of mosaic.
The first figures that came to light—a bear's hind leg with three long claws, and a leopard chasing a gazelle—formed part of a rectangular border. As the dig worked eastward, a decorative ribbon known as a guilloche appeared. And then a couple of long-eared donkeys, two more bears with claws, two more leopards with spots, and pairs of lions, ostriches, humpbacked camels, little gray elephants, sheep, goats, slithering snakes—symbols of the whole menagerie, two of every living thing, that marched into Noah's ark before the great flood in the book of Genesis, chapters 6 to 9.
"This panel is exactly as it should be," says Magness. "It's facing north, so people could see it as they entered from the south"—the side where the main door of a synagogue was normally located here in the region of Lower Galilee.
Turning south toward the door, the team began to uncover the iconic scene from Exodus 14:26—several sinuous fish, a horse floating upside down, and soldiers bearing shields and spears who were swept off their feet as the waters of the Red Sea crashed in on them.
This year's digging is finished now. The site has been backfilled with tons of earth, mosaics have been removed for conservation, trowels and pickaxes and shade tents have been packed away, and the students and staff have moved on. But next May the countdown will begin again, as it did this year in eager social media posts—"Only a month until we're back at Huqoq!"
Roman Mosaics 7 - 11 years Worksheets (14 to download)
I specialise in making copies of ancient Roman mosaic floors and here you can find lessons to help children understand how to make them and how they fit into art, craft, design, geometry and maths.
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14 Sheets to download and copy as needed.
These worksheets are from 14 years of teaching children and adults about Roman mosaics. They are designed to enable children to have fun and get a more indepth understanding of this ancient craft.
The 3 download PDF’s contain
- History and methods sheet
- How to draw out a Solomon’s knot motif freehand, drawing a pattern out without compasses etc.
- 1 colouring in sheet with 6 patterns on plus 1 completed for reference.
- ‘The Rules’ this explains something the children can look for in all mosaics, plus teachers sheet.
- Four sheets with parts of a border pattern on which when coloured in can be placed together to form a complete design (teachers sheet included).
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I specialise in making copies of ancient Roman mosaic floors and here you can find lessons to help children understand how to make them and how they fit into art, craft, design, geometry and maths.
The Most Famous Mosaic Artists
Artists have been making mosaics for centuries, but, unfortunately for us, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists in any field begin to be recognized for their work. During this same period, mosaics fell out of fashion and didn’t see a revival until the 19th century. This means most of the most famous mosaic artists are from modern times.
Modern Time Famous Mosaics and Mosaic Artists
The famous mosaics that you must see and research their story are Byzantine mosaics and those you see in churches that were created by the church’s favorite artists they will leave you in awe!
Nowadays, Sonia King, Maurice Bennett, Antoni Gaudi and more rule the world of mosaics. Find out more!
Born in 1953, Sonia King is an active mosaic artist, creating work for art galleries as well as for homes and other buildings. She has exhibited her work around the world, and her mosaic “Depthfinder” will remain in the permanent collection in Museo d’Arte della Città di Ravenna in Italy. She is the first American to receive this honor. Her work is made from a variety of materials, including stone, tile, gemstones, and minerals.
For a more unusual choice of material, you have Maurice Bennett. The New Zealander was famous for using toast to create his artwork — he would burn the bread in different places to create the pixel he wanted. To preserve the toast, Bennett soaked each piece in polyurethane. This way, he was able to display mosaics spanning as large as 7.2 meters by 4.8 meters.
Bennett’s mosaics tend to feature portraits of famous people, including Barack Obama. He also made a mosaic recreation of the Mona Lisa. In addition to being stunning, the art is highly unique — so much so, in fact, that it was featured on Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Active during the Art Noveau movement, Antoni Gaudí used a striking combination of modernism and mixed media in his mosaics. His style is highly unique and distinct, featuring themes that matter most to him: nature, religion, and architecture. His method was to create his work in three-dimensional models, adding details as he went, rather than planning his art beforehand.
The Catalan architect and artist has had a number of his pieces named as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The most well-known of these is his Parque Güell. It features gardens and architecture with murals and other mosaics throughout.
UK artist Peter Mason creates pop art mosaics with a twist — they are made entirely from postage stamps. The result is pixelated, subdued images. His influences of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are obvious, especially in his portrait work. However, Mason also makes mosaics of geometrical shapes and landscapes. Each of his pieces uses up to 20,000 postage stamps and can take eight weeks to finish.
Isaiah Zagar brings mosaics to the streets, building murals around his hometown of Philadelphia. Most of his more than 200 mosaics are on or around South Street, some of which are three dimensional. He uses a variety of materials, including city trash like bottles, bike wheels, and found objects.
For seven months of the year, Zagar holds a workshop every last weekend of the month where participants can join him in creating a new mural. All of the mosaics have a personal meaning to Zagar, which is clear from the quotes, poetry, and names of inspirational artists that he incorporates into his art.
Emma Biggs creates beautiful contemporary mosaics for public places as well as homes and commercial settings. Many of her pieces are made from ceramics, not least because of her interest in the history of the ceramic industry and its social significance. The London-based artist has also authored several books on mosaics.
Not all mosaicists start out by producing their own artwork. Albanian artist Saimir Strati is a prime example of this — he began restoring mosaics in archeological zones like Byllis, Amantia, and Apollonia.
His experience in restoration led Strati down the path to create his own massive mosaics, although he chooses to do so with unusual materials like nails, toothpicks, corks, and coffee beans. His world record attempts to create the largest mosaics from these materials have all been live performances. For his work, he received the Honor of the Nation from the president of Albania in 2009.
Jim Bachor applies his knowledge of ancient mosaic techniques to contemporary pieces. Starting in 2013, he began to use his professional training in setting marble and glass in mortar to fill highway potholes with mosaics. He creates images like foods, flowers, and vermin. You can see his work across the U.S. in cities including Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia as well as in Jyväskylä, Finland.
Elaine M. Goodwin has played an important role in mosaics in the UK. In 1999, she became president of the newly founded British Association for Modern Mosaics (BAMM), formed with the intent to promote the mosaic art form. In addition, she joined other artists to create Tessellated Expression for the 21st Century (more commonly known as TE-21), a group of mosaicists who exhibit their work together internationally.
Goodwin’s style is abstract and she often uses materials that reflect light, like gold, smalti, and marble. This gives her mosaics another dimension and makes her work instantly recognizable to those who know her.
Eclectic Swedish mosaic artist, Emma Karp Lundström creates mosaics entirely of apples. In each mosaic, she uses 12 to 13 different varieties of apples for a range of shapes and colors. She assembles between 30,000 and 75,000 apples (depending on the mural) to create a billboard-size piece of art in Kivik Harbor every year. This commemorates the opening of the apple market in the fall. Each time, the apples create a new image.
Muralist and mosaic artist Laurel True is the founder of Mosaic Art, one of the first formal institutes dedicated to mosaics in the U.S. She makes her art from ceramic, glass, and mirror but also incorporates salvaged building materials. Over her 25 years specializing in mosaics, she has worked on more than 100 projects, many of which are available to view in public spaces across the world. You can find her art across Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
True often collaborates with others to create art. Frequently, she involves local communities to create street art that will reflect the culture, history, and social issues of the area. In addition, she holds intensive courses for mosaic enthusiasts, where she shares her skills and passion.
There is one exception to the rule that famous mosaic artists tend to be from the modern era: Pietro Cavallini. Born in 1250, probably in Rome, Italy, Cavallini was active during the Middle Ages. Although few details about his personal life are known, many of his paintings and mosaics are well preserved.
All of Cavallini’s works use religious themes. One of the most impressive is Scenes from the Life of Mary, a mosaic in six scenes at the apse of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The mosaic is valued for its realism and perspective. Also attributed to Cavallini is the apse mosaic in San Crisogono church, again in Trastevere.
One of the best ways to appreciate mosaics is to explore the works of famous artists whose work you feel a connection with. This is a great way to find inspiration for your own art and to put you on the right track to developing your personal style.
THE MOSAIC APSE OF SANT’APOLLINARE IN CLASSE, RAVENNA:
A Miracle of Design
There is some iconography that can only be described as miraculous. Such is the sixth century apse mosaic at the basilica of Saint Apollinare in Classe, five miles from Ravenna, Italy. Such works seem to flash forth, and are never – perhaps can never be – repeated. They delight the beholder immediately but at the same time possess layer upon layer of meaning, which reveal themselves only to the patient. In this article I would like to discuss some of these layers.
Imagine a verdant garden. It embraces you. Its emerald green does not just reflect light it emanates light. To this paradise add animals, trees, birds, and a saint. This haloed saint stands in the midst of the garden, with his hands raised in prayer.
Above him is a great golden cross set within in an orb of star speckled blue. At its heart is a medallion bearing an image of Christ. This orb, encircled with a jewel-studded crown, hovers within a sky of gold and sunrise coloured clouds. Two saints are set in this golden sea, pointing to Christ. A divine hand reaches down from the summit of the semi-dome. All this fecundity is finally embraced and contained by a broad arch of foliage that supports a host of birds, singing no doubt.
And there are still more laid out on the triumphal arch and in the curved apsidal wall below. But we shall come to these later.
What does all this imagery mean? It is in fact a depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, as described in the Gospel accounts of Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and, most notably, Luke 9:28-36. But the wonderful thing is that this mosaic depicts not just the event, but also the meaning of the event – its many meanings. The mosaic is a profound theological discourse.
But this visual discourse is not merely to be observed. It is enacted in the Holy Liturgy that is performed within its embrace, for the mosaic is after all in an apse and therefore surrounds the sanctuary and Holy Table.
It is here, during the Holy Liturgy, that the Holy Spirit descends and makes the bread the Body of Christ, and the wine His Blood. Before this apse the faithful participate in the divine feast and are themselves transfigured into the body of Christ. As we shall see, the mosaic unveils for us the cosmic significance of the Liturgy for which it is a setting.
In this article I want to explore some of the themes expressed by this splendid mosaic. Some of these themes were without doubt intended by the designer of the mosaic. Others may or may not have been: we will never know for certain because the designer did not write his or her explanation. But, as we shall see, these themes are nevertheless theologically implicit in the mosaic’s explicit linking of the Transfiguration with the Holy Liturgy and the Lord’s Second Coming.
The Transfiguration event
How do we know that this mosaic depicts the Transfiguration? The main clue is the two figures set in the sky. They are labelled Moses and Elijah (“MOYSES” and “HbELYAS” to be precise), and it is they who appeared with Christ during the Transfiguration.
Also, on either side of the great jewelled cross are three sheep. They represent Peter, James and John whom Christ took onto mount Tabor to witness His transformation. The brightly coloured clouds suggest “the bright cloud” that overshadowed them. The hand above would therefore indicate the voice of the Father, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased listen to Him” (Matthew 17:5).
So much for the mosaic’s similarities with the Gospel accounts. But what of its many differences? Why, we might ask, is Christ depicted so small, and in the midst of a great cross instead of in His shining garments? Why the stars, and why are the clouds coloured? And instead of the mountain of Tabor we have a garden. And Bishop Apollinare was not present in the Transfiguration, so why does he figure so large in the depiction?
These and other anomalies immediately invite us on a journey to try and discover their meaning. My first encounter with this mosaic I can best liken to smelling a host of fragrances that drift over the wall of a concealed garden. These delighted my senses, but at the same time inflamed my curiosity to find their source and enter this garden.
Past, present and future
The secret to this mosaic lies in the fact that it depicts not merely the past, but also the present and the future. It is set in divine time, in kairos, where past, present and future exist together in Christ. More specifically, the apse depicts not just the historical event of Christ’s Transfiguration, but also the present Eucharist and the Kingdom which is to come. It is as much an icon of the Parousia and the Liturgy as it is of the Transfiguration. It is at once historical, liturgical and eschatological (a fancy word which means the theology of the end times).
Because this image is so multivalenced, I think the simplest approach is to work verse by verse through Luke’s description of the Transfiguration and see how the mosaic interprets his words.
The Cross: Christ’s Second Coming in glory
Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.
One key to the deeper meaning of our mosaic is given in fact some days before the event of the Transfiguration itself. Luke tells us that eight days before His Transfiguration (Matthew and Mark say six), Christ spoke to His disciples of His Second Coming, saying that He would come in His glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
In the Gospel of Matthew Christ tells us that at His coming again “there will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven” (Matthew 24:30). This sign of the Son of Man has been understood by the Church Fathers to be the cross.
So the cross in our mosaic is the sign of the Son of Man that will appear in the heavens in the last days, a sign of His Second Coming. Both the mosaic and the synoptic Gospel accounts affirm that the Transfiguration was in fact a foretaste given to the three apostles – and to us – of His coming again in glory to establish His Kingdom without end.
The eighth day
Luke’s mention of eight days is a further affirmation of this interpretation. God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. Christ died on the sixth day, “rested” in the tomb on the seventh, and rose on the eighth day. The eighth day resurrection therefore takes human nature beyond the endless trapped cycle of the seven day week. In so doing, Christ raised up the created and fallen human life that He had assumed (the six days of creation), so that it could participate in divine and eternal life (the eighth day). Eight is thus a symbol of the created world assumed into the divine life, in a union without confusion. In Christ, the Father has raised us up and made us sit with Him in heavenly places.
Another clue to this link between the Lord’s Transfiguration and His Second Coming is His other statement, eight days before the Transfiguration: ‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’ The most immediate meaning of these words is understood by most commentators to refer to Christ’s coming Transfiguration. The “some who stand here” are Peter, James and John. But at the same time this sentence it refers also to His Second Coming. The Gospel of Matthew makes very clear the connection between the Taboric experience and the Second Coming when he writes: “ Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). The phrase “Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” the phrase often used to describe Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the age.
In Christian art stars usually symbolize angels. So the many golden stars in the orb that surrounds our cross represent the host of angels who will accompany Christ at His Second Coming.
There are in fact ninety-nine stars in our mosaic. Is this precise number significant? Christ’s parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) speaks of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine of his flock to find the one lost sheep. Collectively we are that lost sheep, and the good angels are the ninety-nine not lost. So these stars are effectively the cloud of heavenly hosts who will accompany Christ at His Parousia.
The number ninety-nine appears again in the Bible and offers a second, complementary layer of meaning. In Genesis 17:1 we read that this was Abraham’s age when God appeared to him and gave His covenant to make him the father of many nations. God promised: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).
The number eight arises again in this context, linking the Abrahamic covenant with the Transfiguration and Resurrection: God commands the Israelites to circumcise all their males eight days after their birth. As with the eighth day Resurrection, the child’s eighth day circumcision is the first day of his everlasting membership of God’s community.
So our mosaic suggests a link between this promise to Abraham and the kingdom to come, in which the faithful from many nations are gathered into the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, to live in an everlasting covenant with Christ.
That this is a valid interpretation of the ninety-nine stars is affirmed by the inclusion of Abraham in a mosaic panel on the south wall of the apse (see figure 18). It depicts the priest King Melchezidek standing behind an altar with bread and wine, with Abel offering a lamb on his right, and Abraham offering Isaac on his left.
This theme of priestly offering is further developed by our mosaic, but we shall discuss this a bit later.
The garden and the mountain
They “went up onto a mountain to pray.” Mountains are where people meet God. We think of Mount Sinai in particular, where Moses met the Lord. But our mosaic gives no indication of such a mountain. In fact it replaces the mountain with a garden, a paradise.
Our mosaic seems to be saying that the Transfiguration transports us humans back to paradise, our original home where we were intended to meet and commune with God. It is a place of intimacy, a place to dwell and enjoy.People visit mountaintops, but they do not stay there. A mountaintop is a place of ecstasy, from which we eventually have to descend. After he had communed with God and received the tablets of the law on Sinai, Moses had to leave the summit and descend back down to the encamped Israelites. Likewise, Christ returned to the world with His three disciples after His Transfiguration. Mountains are not a place of instasy, a place to remain. But gardens can be.
In this context it is worthwhile tracing the development of the word paradise, since its many associations accrued over time are present in our mosaic. The word began as an old Iranian word, paridayda, and signified a walled enclosure. By the 6 th century BC the Assyrian’s adopted it as pardesu, domain. For the Persians it came to refer to their expansive walled gardens. For the Greeks it became paradeisos, a “park for animals”. In Aramaic it explicitly refers to a royal park.
Finally, paradise came to be equated with Eden through the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew term gan גן or garden (Genesis 2:8 and Ezekiel 28:13) with the Greek word paradeisos. So the garden of Eden becomes paradise. There, according to the Genesis account, God placed us humans and give us the task to cultivate it. There He walks and talks with us.
So we are now in a place to gather together all these connotations of the term paradise and relate them to our mosaic. A paradise is a secure enclosure, with the suggestion therefore of permanence it is a domain, a kingdom it is a large garden or park it includes animals it is a royal park, where the king and queen enjoy the company of their family and friends and it is a place where God has placed us and given us a task. It is where we are in intimate communion with God.
Our mosaic reflects all these associations. In turn:
- Enclosure. The mosaic possesses various concentric bands of enclosure. Firstly, the apsidal dome mosaic is bounded by a broad decorative band.
Secondly, the curvature of the apse itself is a form of enclosure. Thirdly, on the verticals of the triumphal arch either side of the apse are depicted Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
- The Edenic task.The creation account in Genesis (2:15) tells us that “The LordGod took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”. We had work to do in paradise. St Irenaeus reminds us that though Adam and Eve were sinless before the fall they were not yet perfect. They had a God-given task, and this task once fulfilled would lead to their perfection, which was union with God, transfiguration.
We were made in the image of God, but had the task to grow in His likeness through love for and obedience to Him. Irenaeus reminds us that “Man is created in the image of God [i.e. the Father], and the image of God is the Son, in whose image man was created. For this reason the Son also appeared in the fullness of time to show how the copy resembles Him.”
The Transfiguration of Christ
As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
We do not see in this mosaic the transfigured Christ, at least, not His full figure clothed in brilliant white as is usually the case in depictions of the Transfiguration. We have instead the cross, with Christ’s face set in a small medallion at its crossing, and the large figure of Saint Apollinare.
We have already discussed how the cross represents Christ’s Second Coming, of which His transfiguration is a foretaste. But we can delve deeper still into our mosaic’s other layers of meaning.
Our mosaic concentrates not so much on the event as on its outcome, its purpose. The ultimate purpose of Christ’s incarnation was our own deification, our union with Him. As St Athanasius, wrote, “God became man, that we might become gods”(On the Incarnation, 54:3). And St Iranaeus, “Because of his boundless love, Jesus became what we are that he might make us to be what he is” (Against Heresies, V).
So what our mosaic concentrates on is not so much Christ’s transfiguration but ours. St Apollinare himself is clothed in a brilliant white dalmatic under his chasuble. But what stands out most to the viewer is the whiteness of the sheep against the green – and to a lesser extent also Moses and Elijah, whose white is not quite so contrasting against the golden background. It is as though Christ were stepping back a little in order to bring our transfigured state to the fore. This is the same principle He applies when He tells the disciples that He must depart this world so that He can send them the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit dwelling within them and transfiguring them He will be closer than if He were present only in the flesh as a human individual.
It was not in fact not surprising that Christ shone with light, for He is the glory of the Father, light from light, true God from true God. The unusual thing was rather that for most of the time He hid His glory. He did not want to overwhelm us. Why then did He allow His light to shine in this particular instance, on Mount Tabor? One reason is suggested by an Orthodox liturgical text: He wanted not only to display His divinity, but also to show us what it is to be fully human:
’I am he who is’, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples and in His own person He showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the Image.
(The Feast of the Transfiguration, Great Vespers, Aposticha)
Some of the Church Fathers say that Adam and Eve were in fact clothed with light before the fall, and only became naked when they turned from God’s way. Christ’s transfiguration therefore indicates a return to this “natural supernatural” state of the human person.
Moses and Elijah
Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.
Moses and Elijah are depicted plainly either side of the cross. They are the only human figures in our mosaic that are clothed entirely in white. Luke tells us that they were speaking about Christ’s departure about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. This is usually taken to refer primarily to His crucifixion, but I would suggest that at the same time it can refer to His Ascension, His departure from earth into heaven.
As we have discussed, our mosaic concentrates on the purpose of events in Christ’s life, and not just the events themselves. Thus the cross in our mosaic is golden and jewelled, to show that it is not only the instrument of the crucifixion but also the sign of conquest and transformation, the means by which Christ tramples down death by death.
But I would suggest that our cross also suggests the Ascension, or rather the words of the angels accompanying the Ascension:
“‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11).
In other words, His second coming will be like His Ascension, with a cloud of witnesses (the stars), accompanied by the sign of the Son of Man (the cross).
The Alpha and Omega
Either side of the cross’s arms are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the alphabet. (figure 6) These two simple letters capitulate the whole theme of the apse mosaic. The mosaic aims to encompass not just the beginning but also the end, the fulfilment of God’s work of salvation in Christ. Hence we find below the cross also the Latin words, Salus Mundi, “the salvation of the world”. And above the cross is the Greek word for fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ, the famous acrostic formed by the initials of five Greek words meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour.”
Jerusalem and Bethlehem
This theme of beginning and end is further alluded to by the depiction (executed in the 7 th century) of Jerusalem and Bethlehem atop the triumphal arch. Six sheep come out of each gate towards Christ who is depicted in the centre. Bethlehem, His birthplace, represents the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, and Jerusalem the fulfilment of it. Some also interpret these two holy places as representing respectively the Jews and the Gentiles, who come together in the Church.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.
(Luke 9: 32-34)
In our mosaic we find coloured clouds both in the apse and also on the uppermost register (executed in the 9 th century) atop the triumphal arch. Such sunrise type clouds are common in apsidal mosaics in Rome. They are generally taken to indicate Christ’s Second Coming, for He will come like the sun rising.
The hand of blessing
A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen listen to him.’ When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
God the Father ought not be depicted, for He was not incarnate. But here His voice is suggested by the presence of a hand reaching down from the golden heavens (see figure 5). This makes the apse trinitarian, if one takes the gold background and the white to suggest the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Saint Apollinare, priest of all creation
How are we to understand the large figure of Saint Apollinare (identified by the inscription “SANCTVS APOLENARIS”)? We could say that he is there simply because he was the first bishop of Ravenna. But everything about this apse suggests a schema extremely well thought out and multivalenced. The way that the holy bishop and martyr is set within the scene suggests that he has a broader significance.
Bishop Apollinare is celebrating the liturgy. The twelve lambs beside him represent all the faithful, and the garden around him is a microcosm of the whole creation that he and all the faithful offer in the Eucharist, and upon which the Holy Spirit descends and transforms.
But I would suggest that Saint Apollinare, as well as being an individual person, a bishop and a saint, also represents the whole Church in her Eucharistic fullness, giving thanks for and offering all creation. His hands are raised in the orans gesture. This is a sign of intercession and, most critically, the gesture used by the presiding bishop or priest at the epiclesis when, on behalf of all the faithful, he asks the Holy Spirit to “come down upon us and these gifts here spread forth”.
The Church is a priestly being, whose calling is to give thanks for all creation and to offer it to the Creator. The Creator in His turn transfigures and offers this world back to us. The Scriptures after all end in the city of God coming down out of heaven to earth, radiant in its fullness, for “the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23).
The mosaic gives us adumbrations of this cosmic transfiguration. Being a human person capable of a relationship with the living God, Saint Apollinare has a full halo of gold. But the rest of the cosmos is nevertheless also capable of participating in God’s glory, each thing according to its capacity. So in our mosaic trees, rocks and sheep are surrounded an aura of either yellow or rich green tesserae.
We recall that not only did Christ’s person shine with light on Tabor, but also His inanimate garments. Through incorporation in the Body of Christ and through our Eucharistic life, all matter can be transfigured. Through us the cosmos can become garment and adornment for the Body of Christ.
I have the privilege of possessing a few of the original sixth century tesserae from this mosaic, given me by one of the restorers who worked on it in the 1970’s. I am a mosaicist myself, and have noticed that these smalti glass tesserae, especially the green ones, are somewhat more translucent than modern smalti. This in part explains the special luminosity of our mosaic. Sunlight enters each piece and re-emerges as emerald tinted. Light thereby literally comes from within the grass itself, and not merely reflected off its surface. We are witnessing the material word shining with light, like Christ’s garment on Mount Tabor.
The fellowship of the saints
Below Saint Apollinare, set between the windows, are mosaics of four previous bishops of Ravenna: Ecclesius (ECLESIVS), who was bishop of Ravenna from 522 to 532 and founder of San Vitale Severus (SCS SEVERVS), a revered bishop of Ravenna in the 340’s Ursus (SCS VRSVS), bishop ca. 405-431 and builder of Ravenna’s cathedral and baptistery and Ursicinus (VRSISINVS), bishop 533 -536, and commissioner of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.
These bishops, together with Saint Apollinare (the first bishop of Ravenna), serve to locate within the apostolic succession each priest who celebrates in the basilica. By association they also set everyone who worships in the basilica within the fellowship of all believers, past, present and future. The union that this mosaic affirms is not just between God and man and matter, but also between the all faithful throughout time.
On bees, work, kings and gardens
Quite remarkably, close inspection of the little golden designs on Saint Apollinare’s chasuble reveals that they are in fact bees (see figure 13). In Christian symbolism bees represent the immortality of the soul and the resurrection (for a hive seems to come back from the dead after three months of winter hibernation).
But bees also represent communal transformative labour, since the work of the hive changes nectar into honey. This is graphically affirmed by two passages in the ancient hymn Exsultet, sung in the Western Church by a deacon in front of the Paschal candle. This hymn was composed perhaps as early as the fifth century, and certainly no later than the seventh, so it may well have been known by the person who designed the mosaic and therefore supports this interpretation of the bees on Apollinare’s chasuble. The passage reads:
O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
So this hymn traces the stages from God-given nectar, to the work bees transforming nectar into honey and wax, followed by man’s work to change the wax into candle. All is culminated in the material wax becoming immaterial fire in praise of God. The process is completed in transfiguration, a living light that knows no diminution in its sharing.
As kings as well as priests, we are called not just to give thanks for all creation, but also to work within it to transform it like bees. Or to use another analogy, as spiritual gardeners we are to cultivate the wild and wonderful world into a garden.
The Lord’s command to Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) needs to be understood in just this transformative sense. Our God-given power within the world is, I think, best understood in an artistic sense rather than exploitative. The artist’s power over his or her medium is that of craft and wisdom (Minerva the Roman god of wisdom was pertinently also the good of crafts). The wise artist or craftsperson uses their power over the medium with love and discernment, to raise the raw material into something even more beautiful. Their authority therefore exists not to subjugate and oppress their medium, but to raise it up and make it even more articulate.
It is clear from the branch collars we see in the larger trees on the mosaic that they have been pruned. We are clearly looking not at a wild forest but a garden, one cared for by men and women. Our bishop Apollinare is a spiritual gardener as well as a priest. So the garden around Apollinare is the outcome of love and craft, and of God and man working together in synergy.
Sometimes in the Gospels people blurt out things that appear to be mistakes but end up being prophetical. Such is the case when Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Christ is the second Adam, becoming and fulfilling all that the first Adam (that is, us) failed to be and do. In this case, He has become the Gardener in Eden. As an aside, it is interesting to contrast this scene with that in Genesis. In Genesis Adam and Eve try to hide from God in Eden. Here in John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene is trying to find God.
This garden has a pleasing blend of orderliness and variation. The highest trees are arranged in a row along the top, at a similar distance from each other but not precisely so, and each is a little different from the others. The shrubs, rocks and flowering plants are likewise arranged, with a perfect imperfection.
This reminds me of something that Saint Paissius of the Holy Mountain once said to me. When modern man makes streetlights for the night he places the lampposts regularly and makes each lamp identical in brightness and colour. This mechanical repetition is tiring to our eyes, he said. But when God made the starry lights for the night He varied their size, spacing and colour, and this soothes the soul. Here in our mosaic we see a garden made according to this same divine pattern of a perfect imperfection, and not a sterile symmetry.
In God’s plan this royal and crafting role is inextricably tied to our priestly role, since in the Eucharist we offer not wheat and grapes, but bread and wine, which are the fruit of human labour. To this theme we shall now turn.
Abel, Melchizedek and Abraham
On the south wall of the apse is a depiction of the priest king Melchizedek.
He stands behind an altar with two loaves and a chalice. Abel the shepherd stands to his right offering a lamb, and Abraham to his left offering his son Isaac. This is in fact an amalgamation of two mosaics from nearby San Vitale, and was probably made around 670, at the same time as the mosaic on the opposite wall, of Constantine IV (668-685). It is however not impossible that it is a remake of an earlier work made at the same time as the conch mosaic, in the sixth century.
This is an appropriate scene, both because of the Holy Liturgy that is celebrated in front of it and because of our mosaic’s priestly and regal theme.
Like the conch mosaic that takes liberties with historical reality in order to reveal the deeper meaning of the event, this mosaic panel also has some interesting additions. Over the tunic of skin given his parents as a result of their fall, Abel wears a priestly chasuble. This emphasizes the priestly significance of his offering.
Melchizedek’s garment is identical to those worn by high priests Aaron in the third century fresco at Dura-Europos, and Caiaphas in the sixth century mosaic in nearby Sant’Apollinare Nuovo
He also wears also a simple crown to denote his regal status as king of Salem. Abraham is also priestly, ready even to offer his own son on the altar. But he also dressed like a Roman senator, his toga bearing the senatorial a shoulder to hem stripe. This suggests, as with Melchezidek, a union of priestly and royal ministries.
The “Privilegia” mosaic
On the north wall of the apse, opposite the Melchezidek work, is a depiction of the Eastern Roman emperor Constantine IV (668-685) granting certain privileges – probably tax concessions – to Ravenna’s archbishops.
Ours is a seventh century work, but of poor quality, probably due to the multiple restorations it has suffered over the centuries.
Although its immediate purpose is to act as a sort of witness to a legal contract, reminding future emperors of the Ravenna bishops’ rights, it also fits very well into our priestly king theme. On the left side are the secular authorities: the emperor and his brothers Heraclius and Tiberius, with a fourth figure holding a ciborium. On the right is Archbishop Reparatus (671-677), receiving from the Emperor the scroll with its promise of privileges. He is accompanied by another bishop (perhaps his predecessor Maurus (642-671), plus a priest in a yellow chasuble and two deacons. Whereas in Melchezidek the roles of priest and king are combined in one person, here the principle is expressed by the, hopefully, harmonious relationship between two parties, the state and the Church.
This Privilegia mosaic encapsulates the Orthodox ideal of symphony between Church and state. They are independent, each with boundaries according to their God-given responsibilities, but each also assisting the other to fulfil God’s purpose. This ideal avoids both caeseropapism and papal-caesorism. The Church can prophetically oppose a secular power that acts contrary to God’s commandments, but it can also accept material assistance from it if this genuinely aids the Church’s spiritual work and benefits people’s lives.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the ciborium held by the emperor’s attendant. The altar table, symbolically speaking, is the exclusive prerogative of the Church, but the ciborium protects this altar, and this protection the state can offer through its laws and privileges.
The date palms
For the sake of completeness we can mention the date palms that stand either side of the apse. Palms traditionally represent paradise and a fruit bearing life. In Roman times they also represented victory. Their presence confirms the reading of the apse as a paradise, regained by Christ through the victorious cross. One sees such palms in many other Italian mosaics, such as at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6 th c.), the ceiling mosaic of Arian Baptistery also in Ravenna (5 th c.), at Santa Prassede in Rome (9 th c.), and in the apse mosaic of Santa Cecilia also in Rome (9 th c.).
The upper tier: Christ and the four living creatures.
Scholars date the uppermost tier of the triumphal arch to the ninth century. . In the centre is Christ in a medallion. Each side are the four winged creatures, each holding a Gospel. They symbolize the four evangelists: the eagle is John the man Matthew, the lion Mark, and the ox Luke.
This tier capitulates all that happens below. The evangelists summarize the whole work of Christ about which they wrote, from His birth through to His Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The purpose of His incarnation was to gather all creation into Himself, and in particular to unite our human nature with His own divine nature. For, as St Paul so poetically writes, the Father “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
I think there are few examples of liturgical art that embody such a wide spectrum of Christ’s work as this mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in Classe. It is a precursor to the rich vision that St Maximus the Confessor was to write about a century later, where the human person becomes in Christ both microcosm and mediator, to use Lars Thunberg’s phrase. But the one passage that perhaps best describes this remarkable mosaic is from the Bible:
For [the Father] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.
 Saint Irenaeus, quoted in Man and the Incarnation: A Study in “The Biblical Theology of Irenaeus” by Gustaf Wingren. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004, page 19.
 English translation from the Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation.
Fishbourne Roman Palace houses the largest collection of in-situ mosaic floors in Britain. Many of these were laid at the time of the construction of the Palace, around AD75-80, which makes them some of the oldest mosaics in the country.
The original Palace had approximately one hundred rooms most of which had mosaic floors. Of these, just over a quarter survive to some degree, ranging from small, isolated patches to almost complete floors.
Mosaic survival has been far better in the remains of the north wing of the Palace. Here over twenty mosaics and fragments of mosaics can be seen, inside the modern, cover building. In addition, substantial fragments of five mosaics were discovered in the west wing of the palace during the 1960s excavations, but as there was no plan to erect a cover building to protect them, they were re-buried for their own protection. Three further fragments were discovered in the southern half of the west wing during excavations in 1987-88. As they were beyond the boundary of the Roman Palace site and potentially at risk, they were lifted, conserved and put on display in the north wing cover building.
The earliest mosaics at Fishbourne tend to be black geometric patterns on a white background, something that was popular in Italy at the time. The designs may have arrived in pattern books and were adapted to suit local requirements. The mosaicists probably also came from Italy, as there would have been no one in Britain with the necessary expertise. The materials, however, were local. The white tesserae, or stone cubes, are of lower chalk and the dark grey of limestone.
The designs vary in complexity, from a simple black and white chequer enclosed by black border lines, to the extremely complicated design on the mosaic in room N12. This, superficially, appears to be a perspective design but closer inspection reveals disruptive elements which add to its appeal.
One of the most unusual mosaics is the Fortress mosaic, which was discovered beneath the Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic in 1980, when the latter was lifted for conservation. This has a central panel divided up into sixteen squares each containing a geometric design. The remains of nine different patterns survive. Around the central panel is a remarkable border representing a fortified town wall, with three courses of masonry, ‘T’ shaped castellations, square corner-towers and gateways, double to the north and single to the east and west. Such borders are not common and where they do occur they frequently surround a labyrinth and sometimes a Minotaur, a reference to the Theseus myth. This is the only example known where such a border surrounds geometric panels.
A few of the geometric mosaics contain small elements of colour, such as red and grey in the Fortress mosaic and red in the mosaic fragments beneath the later hypocaust.
However one first century floor is totally polychrome, quite remarkable for such an early date. Although the central circular panel no longer survives, part of a surrounding band does. This contains alternating rosettes and leaves in red, yellow and white, outlined in black. Beyond this is another band bearing a multicoloured twisted guilloche, or ropework, design. In the corners of the floor are wine-vases flanked by either vine tendrils, dolphins or fish.
In the early second century one of the existing geometric mosaics was directly overlain by a new polychrome, featuring the head of Medusa in a braided guilloche border. Beyond that are pairs of octagons containing knots, flowers and leaves, flanked by square panels of black and white chequer. All this is enclosed in a variety of borders and the whole mosaic panel is set in a surrounding of coarse red tesserae. Although this is a lively and colourful design, basic errors in planning and laying are evident and the tesserae used are not as regular as those used on the earlier floors. The implication is that the mosaic represents the attempt of local craftsmen who had not yet gained competence.
Competence was not lacking in the team who laid the ‘Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic’ in c.AD160. At the centre, cupid sits astride a dolphin with a trident in his hand. They are surrounded by a border of braided guilloche flanked by semi-circles containing sea horses and sea panthers, wine vases and scallop shells. This square panel is enclosed by a series of borders the outer of which is made up of spiral vine tendrils springing from the handles of wine vases. A small black bird sitting on one of these tendrils is probably the trademark of the mosaicist. The whole of this panel is surrounded by a black and white chequer design, interrupter to the south by a ‘doormat of more complex design. The dating of the floor’s construction was based on both the design and also the date of the squares of red, samian pottery that had been used as tesserae.
Another second century mosaic comprises two large scallop shells in red, black, orange and white, flanking a rectangular panel containing fish or dolphins and lozenges. Unfortunately it has been partially destroyed by a later tree pit.
In the early third century, a furnace room in the north wing was re-floored with a small panel of mosaic. This comprises a Solomon’s knot enclosed by a circular band of twisted guilloche surrounded by dolphins and wine vases and flanked at both ends by panels of lozenges.
Fishbourne Roman Palace displays a remarkable sequence of mosaics that cannot be seen elsewhere in the country.