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: Three Late Antique Mosaics


Sheila McNally



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The three mosaics1 recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts indicate the vitality of classical motifs during the transition to medieval art. Their date, their origins, and their specific function place these mosaics at a crucial point in this change. Their date lies between the end of Ancient and the full development of Byzantine art. Their origin is in Northern Syria, an area which was artistically both conservative and creative, and which stood at a crossroads of cultures. They decorated Christian churches with a pre-Christian art, in which are clear indications of a new aesthetic, and possible suggestions of a new meaning. Since the mosaics are forceful pieces in fine condition, their character repays close investigation. Romans learned from the Greeks to set small tesserae of stone or glass into plaster, creating pictures or patterns on floors, or, less frequently, on walls and ceilings. The art spread swiftly wherever Roman power spread. In some regions it died out around the fourth century, but in the southern and eastern regions it only survived but gained importance. Artists acquired new subjects, new aesthetic preoccupations, and a closer integration into the architectural effect of the Christian buildings they were now decorating. At the same time in secular buildings, and to some extent in religious ones, older ways continued. These mosaics come out of that continuance. They represent, not the most innovative strain of the time, but the strong undercurrent which carried some classical themes into later art. They were found in two churches near Antioch, a city in the northern part of the Roman province of Syria which is now Turkish. Several inscriptions have been recorded from these churches, three of which provide general indications of the dates of work:2
1) “In the year 727 (415 A.D.) this very holy church was adorned with mosaics and this was done during the episcopacy of the Most Reverend Archbishop Alexandrus, when John was ‘Periodent,’ when Antioch was Priest, when Stephen was Deacon, when Thalasius was Supervisor (Econome of the convent) of Kyrillos.”2) “Under Epiphanius, our Bishop, every pious and very beloved by God, when Antiochus was ‘Periodent,’ and when Abrahamius was the Priest, Paul, son of Theodore, built this very holy church, the tenth (day) of the month of Apellaios, during the second fast (‘indication’) in the year 775 (463 A.D.).”3) “In the time of our very pious Apolinarios, priest and periodont, this church received its mosaic in the year 709 (397 A.D.), the month of Diasias, on the twelfth day.”
Apparently the first and third inscriptions refer to one church, built in the fourth century and decorated at the end of that century and again at the beginning of the next. The second refers to another church built just after the middle of the fifth century. No closer information about the original position of the mosaics, their relationship to each other and to the structures, is available.Northern Syria flourished in this period, and Antioch became, after Constantinople and Rome, probably the greatest city of the Empire. Syria's oil and wheat, its position on the caravan routes linking the Euphrates, the Nile, the Mediterranean, and Anatolia had made it prosperous since Hellenistic times. Only in the late sixth and seventh centuries did the coming of the Parthians and the Moslems, the disruption of trade and, perhaps most disastrous of all, an abrupt deforestation,3 turn the north into the barren area it is today.Antioch itself was a Hellenistic foundation. It had a reputation for luxury, in part born by the wealth of mosaic pavements discovered there by the Princeton expedition of the thirties. In the fourth and fifth centuries its prominence grew partly because of its military position as residence of the “Count of the East” and of the commander-in-chief.Antioch was also a vital intellectual center during this time, possessing a deeply rooted classical culture and witnessing the growth of a strong Christian community seeking to come to terms with that culture.4 Peter and Paul had visited Antioch: there the first church of the Gentiles was founded, and there the term “Christian” first came to be applied to the new sect. (Acts 11:26).The mixture of Classical and Christian, old and new, which forms the background for these mosaics can be illustrated in the lives of the three most remarkable men of the area: Libanius, John Chrysostom, and Simon Stylites. Libanius (d. 393) was the last great pagan teacher in the Empire, a conscious and loving proponent of the Greek heritage. The Christian John Chrysostom (d. 407) may have been his pupil,5 and certainly shared some of his love for pagan culture, trying hard to reconcile Greek paideia (education) with Christian morality. Finally, quite a different current in Syrian Christianity is represented by Simon Stylites (d. 459) who stood for more than twenty years on top of a column. This ascetic monastic movement flourished mainly among people from the countryside who knew no Greek6 and can have felt little attachment to classical culture.This contrast between the more fully Hellenistic town and the simpler countryside also characterized church building of the time.7 A highly individual church architecture flourished in Syria. Outside of Antioch and a few other centers, these buildings were simple in plan and monumental in effect. The builders preferred heavy masonry and flat roof to Byzantine brick, concrete and vaulting. They relied on architectonic rather than pictorial effects, limiting decoration to carved moldings, and limiting mosaics for the most part to the floors, rather than lifting them onto the walls.8 Stark, strong buildings such as the church Qualat Siman,9 dedicated to Simon at the end of the century, or Kharab Shems,10 give an idea of the kind of structures in which these mosaics once lay.The range of mosaics represents the basic types of Roman mosaic decor. One is figural, one is floral, one is geometric. The figural is part of a narrative scene; the floral is a border; the geometric is part of an over-all pattern.The geometric mosaic is a circle cut from a larger whole. As in all three mosaics, the tesserae are unevenly cut, but most are about a centimeter “square,” while some are smaller. They are white, pink, yellow, soft grey, deep grey, and red.The pattern is based on interesting arcs forming a cross shape. From a central square of deep grey tesserae around a white one, four arms extend. Each arm curves slowly out to points above and below, then equally slowly narrows. These arms are pink or yellow, outlined in red and dark grey. The points of the neighboring arms are connected by “squares” (with slightly concave sides) filled with zig-zag and cross patterns. Twelve white wedges, each with a central dot, fill the interstices between the squares and arms. Along the outer edge of the piece run four arcs of the same color as the arms of the “cross.”The Christian cross did appear in mosaic pavements of the time, for instance the fifth century example of Shavey Zion,11 and it may be that some symbolic overtone attaches to the motif here. Both the circular “medallion” and the dominance of the cross form are fortuitous, resulting from excerpting a part of the whole. Christian crosses of the period often have equilateral, expanding arms, but these do not narrow again. Here the curve is reversed to attain decorative repetition. The arms do not terminate before the arcs on the mosaic's edge; they intersect. In the original pavement, the central squares much have reappeared at these intersection points, and the whole pattern was repeated.The basic schema resembles that of the lozenge cross with interspersed squares.12 A somewhat similar cross form occurs inscribed in a square in the second century Insula delle Muse at Ostia.13 These comparisons serve mainly to underline the individuality of the Minneapolis example. Gradual, dominating cures ease the expansion and the contraction, flow from part to part, while the other examples sharply delimit components. The broad, gentle coloration reinforces this smoothness. Flickering squares can be found in many Antioch pavements,14 often as dynamic accents, or contributions to a totally vibrating surface. Here, however, the colors are muted, their outlines flexed, and they are fully subordinate to the flat arcs.All-over geometric patterns are probably the most common treatment of mosaic floors throughout the Roman Empire. This is an uncommon example. Some juxtapose one or two simple forms, while other bewilder the eye with interlockings of complex elements. The basically simple pattern of this mosaic takes on elegance through its proportions and colors. The original pavement must have appeared expansive and serene.The second mosaic, on the other hand, creates a different impression of density in form and color. The oblong piece is well preserved, although ragged at the edges. Colors are dark and closely allied; black, browns, and reds, and warm off-whites.Muted combinations of reds and browns form two acanthus rinceaux against a black ground. They consist of two or three fronds, with alternating inward and outward curving leaves. Tendrils with fruits or flowers (simple circles) rest along the outside of the fronds. One fruit, a pomegranate, is grafted onto the acanthus. It curves into the center of a scroll, toward one of the two simply outlined birds. These are flat, simply shaped forms in paler shades of the overall brown tones.This piece probably formed part of the border of a larger composition. White tesserae form a double line at the left end, and lines at the upper right. The former may conclude a white edge, while the latter may begin the inner field. The positions of the birds may provide a further indication that this is a border piece. They are set a right angles to each other, relating to continuations of the pattern in two different directions.Of the two basic types of scroll, acanthus and vine, the vine, with its clearer and more flexible form, its overtones of symbolism obvious to believers in either Dionysus or Christ, tended to be more popular. The acanthus requires some degree of classical spirit of interest in solid form and organic life. This interest survived into Byzantine art, producing such fine and varied scrolls as those in San Vitale in Ravenna, in The Great Palace and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, or in the Dome of the Rock.15The artist has little in common with the men who made any of those. Much less ambitious, perhaps we have to say much more provincial, he succeeds nonetheless in conveying solidity and life. He is peculiar, first, in his total disregard for the basic shape of the single acanthus frond, and then in the simplicity with which he combines fronds.Degrees of stylization vary, but seldom is the crispness of the original plant so totally lost as in this example. The forms are heavy, blunt, broadly colored. They are simply juxtaposed; there is no attempt to make either an organism or a construction out of the fronds. Unlike most rinceau compositions, this does not appear to repeat. Each of the two preserved pieces is different, and if the pattern is indeed about to continue to the upper left, the continuation must have been different again. The artist is clearly concerned with creating a solid circulation frame rather than an internal construction.These qualities, while they are unusual in rinceau decoration, do not prevent the artist from achieving a valid reinterpretation of the form. The spreading, curling leaves, the random quality of the movement in the whole composition, do convincingly suggest organic life. Similarly, although the birds are flat, they possess vitality, particularly in the arching of their necks.The “peopled” scroll may be an invention of Greek metal workers of the fourth century. It quickly assumed great popularity, particularly in mosaics and architectural decoration.16 Combinations of forms which can not be found together in nature often indicate interest in symbolism. Here the unlikelihood of a pomegranate sprouting from the acanthus prompts a search for some further meaning in which the water birds might share.The pomegranates included in the decorations of the third century baptismal font at Dura Europus17 and the cross mosaic at Shavey Zion18 must be symbolic. Other examples, such as the rinceau ornament from Beisan el-Hamman19 where other fruits also abound, seem ambiguous. Combinations of fruits and flowers which do not belong together occur first at Pergamon and then recur steadily in Roman art. Perhaps the stylistic simplification of the motifs in late pieces, the sense that the artists no longer delight in fruit and flower forms for their own sakes, focuses attention on possible symbolism.The best evidence for symbolism would be a convincing connection between the pomegranate and the water bird. Goodenough20 feels that the water bird, like the many other birds, may have developed from an erotic symbol into a symbol of communion. The combination of bird and fruit found here might then have appeared to the Syrian Christian as “a valid alternative for the dove with grapes”21 as a Eucharistic symbol. Unfortunately, evidence for this use of the water bird seems weak, so the problem must remain undecided.It arises again in connection with the third mosaic. This mosaic is also well preserved except for ragged edges. A few tesserae have disappeared in a regular pattern which suggests that they might have been of one kind, possibly glass. The remaining tesserae are white and many shades of brown, red, and grey.This piece shows an elephant fighting with a tiger. Other details indicate that it was once part of a larger scene. At the left are three “florets”—flowers stylized into a heart-like shape.22 Such florets were used at least once in Antioch as fill between animals.23 At the upper right two small curves suggest the start of another figural composition disappearing out of the picture. Rows of darker tesserae at the bottom indicate a border.This organization eliminates depth. The two animals do not relate in space, and the other details are scattered loosely over the surface. This carpet-like design is an important stylistic characteristic of Late Antique art in Syria. Morey believed that its popularity in Antioch mosaics showed that it represented a reawakening of oriental influences there,24 while Lavin argues that it reached Antioch from the west, where it developed out of popular art traditions of North Africa.25These two animals are rendered as surface patterns. Some confusion may exist in the perspective. For instance, the convincing three-quarter view of the elephant's hindquarters joins a side-view of the remainder, and the tusks appear from different angles. However, other distortions are intentional. The artist sets tesserae in lines which have no necessary relationship to anatomical detailing, and even destroy it by running smoothly over an expected change of plane. These linear stylizations, particularly the writhing lines above the shoulder and the circling of the eye, give force to the rather ungainly creature. Comparison with the elephant battling a lion from the Great Palace in Constantinople26 shows that the Syrian work not only flattens but generalizes. The body of the animal might represent almost any quadruped, in fact the hump in back seems to be borrowed from a zebu. Only the head and the feet give any indication of anatomical observation. The Byzantine elephant can move, which the Syrian one cannot. On the other hand, comparison with the stuffed toy from the Martyrion of Seleucia27 reveals the vigor, more expressionistic than descriptive, of the Minneapolis beast.28The artisan used similar schematizations in the tiger to make him look quite different. His is an elongated, slender form, stressed by the outline of dark tesserae obliterating planes from the belly to the hind toe. Legs curling in all directions and the head turned 180 degrees make an unstable shape. Variety of color, including warmer tones, enlivens but hardly strengthens it.Love of line for its own sake comes out in the whole piece, but perhaps most clearly in the play of trunk and tail, each elongated into sweeping curlicues which echo one another. Still another element in the general composition which creates surface pattern, although less significantly, is the tendency to lay background tesserae in scales so that they show up as positive patterns. This way was done to a far greater degree in other mosaics, however.29The artist enjoys both the abstraction of line, and the characterization of different animals. His composition, as a whole, also seem to indicate his concern for the actual event. At first, certainly, the animals seem simply juxtaposed, as if the artist had no narrative concern at all. Both animals are the same size, as if each was conceived by itself. Only the trunk connects them. This interaction, however, is probably accurate: the heavy slow elephant somersaulting the tiger with a flip of his trunk. The artist may have seen such a fight, and been interested in the tactics. The two other elephant fighting groups, the Vatican Sarcophagus and the Great Palace Mosaic,30 show the antagonists more visually interwoven, but woven into compositions used indiscriminately for many beast-pairs.If the artist is then concerned with both decoration and narration, the problem remains, is he interested in symbolism? The theme is an unusual one. Animal combats were an important Near Eastern theme which entered early into Greek and then into Roman art, but these are combats of certain types appearing in certain places. Animals in violent action are not common in mosaics until the third and fourth centuries after Christ, during which time they steadily gain popularity.31 The change may result in part from North African interest in scenes from real life.32 It is certainly also affected by circus spectacles.33 Artists depict animals of exotic types and delight in bloody details. In this late period hunting scenes become popular in Antioch, too, and are, in fact, the only narratives to survive into a period of personifications and abstractions.34Despite all the interest in animals, however, there is relatively little animal combat. Over and over again pavements depict either separate, peaceful animals of many varieties, as in the Martyrion of Seleucia and the English mosaics cited above,35 or violent hunts. In the former case cosmic significance is often assumed partly because many of these revolve around a central deity or personification. Sometimes this cosmic symbolism takes on a specifically Christian character.36 Hunts too sometimes revolve around a central figure, such as the Worcester and Megalopsychia hunts. In the Megalopsychia scene, as in some other hunts, an animal combat—lion and stag—is included.Without knowing more about the context of the Minneapolis combat, it is impossible to guess whether it is simply an exciting spectacle drawn from the hippodrome, representing the more relaxed attitude to church decoration of the fifth century, or whether it had some religious meaning.In this brief preliminary publication, problems have been set forth, not solved. All three mosaics present themes with a long background of Greco-Roman art. The themes appear in other Late Antique decoration, notably the floors from Antioch and from the Great Palace in Constantinople. In some contexts, these themes, or elements from them, may symbolize religious or other ideas, but in the Minneapolis examples their decorative and representational interest seems to dominate.The art of the Great palace floors is classicizing, characterized by descriptive naturalism and delicate technique. Work at Antioch often tends more toward decoration and abstraction. These three more closely resemble the Antioch style, although they have a character of their own which makes it impossible to date them narrowly by insertion into an Antioch sequence. There is considerable difference between them, but they all exhibit flat forms, stress movement of line on surface, and broad use of a limited color range.An unsophisticated vitality expresses itself as serene lyricism in the pastel cross, as an almost blunt vigor in the scroll and animal panels. In the countryside of northern Syria a fervent asceticism and a severe architecture flourished. There is nothing austere about these mosaics, but there is a direct simplicity which characterized provincial art at its best. They brought warmth and movement into the churches.Sheila McNally is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota. She is also serving as director of excavation at the Diocletian Palace in Spilt, Yugoslavia.Endnotes
  1. A Stylized Cross: 69.78. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Klejman. Multicolored mosaic, 34” (diameter).
    Birds Surrounded by Foliage and Pomegranates: 69.49.1. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Multi-colored mosaic, 32 7/8” x 60 5/8”.
    An Elephant Attacking a Feline: 69.49.2. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Multi-colored mosaic, 41 1/4” x 81 1/2”.
  2. Information supplied by dealer. Only the translations are given; their texts have been copied precisely, with the single change of equivalent dates in parentheses.
  3. Suggested by H. C. Butler, Architecture and Other Arts, Publications of an American Archaeological Expedition to Syria in 1899-1900 (New York, 1903) Part II p. 7.
  4. Cf. G. Downey. A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton, 1961) and A. M. J. Festugière, Antioche Paienne et Chrétienne (Paris, 1959).
  5. Festugière, op. cit., pp. 409-410.
  6. Ibid., p. 292.
  7. R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (Baltimore, 1965) pp. 106 ff.
  8. H. C. Butler, op. cit., pp. 21, 183, and passim.
  9. R. Krautheimer, op. cit., fig. 43 and 44, pl. 39A-43.
  10. Ibid., pl. 38B.
  11. i>Israel, Ancient Mosaics (Paris, 1960), p. IV.
  12. E.g., H. Stern, “Ateliers rhodaniens de mosaistes à l'epoque romaine,” in Colloque international sur La Mosaique Gréco-romaine (Paris, 1963) fig. 15. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Princeton, 1946), vol. II, p. CIVd.
  13. G. Becatti, Mosaici e Pavimenti Mormorei, Scavi di Ostia IV, Plate Volume, p. XXIII.
  14. E. g. Levi, op. cit., Pl. LXVIIIb, LXIXa, LXXIII, CXIIIa, etc.
  15. There is a large literature on acanthus scroll ornament. See particularly M. van Berchem in K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture (Oxford, 1932), Vol. I, pp. 173 ff. and Levi, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 494 ff.
  16. J. M. C. Toynbee and J. B. Ward Perkins, “Peopled Scrolls: A Hellenistic Motif in Imperial Art,” Papers of the British School at Rome, 18 (1950), 1 ff.
  17. E. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period (Toronto, 1964), Vol. 11, pl. 65.
  18. See note 11.
  19. M. Avi Yonah, “Mosaic Pavement at El Hamman, Beisan,” Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine, 5 (1936), pp. 11-30.
  20. E. Goodenough, op. cit., Vol. VIII, pp. 46 ff., 51 ff.
  21. Ibid., p. 50.
  22. Levi, op. cit., fig. 167, L and M.
  23. Ibid., II, pl. LXXXVa.
  24. C. R. Morey, Mosaics of Antioch (New York, 1938), pp. 41, 47.
  25. I. Lavin, “The Hunting Mosaics of Antioch and their Sources.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), p. 183 and passim.
  26. G. Brett, “The Mosaic of the Great Palace in Constantinople,” Journal of the Warbug and Courtauld Institute, 5 (1942), Pl. 15.
  27. Levi, op. cit., Vol. II, pl. LXXXVIIIa.
  28. Levi, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 362 discusses some other comparable elephants, and there are others such as those on two British fourth century mosaics illustrated by D. J. Smith, “Three Fourth Century Schools of Mosaic in Roman Britain,” Colloque sur la Mosaique Gallo-Romaine, (Paris, 1963), pp. 95 ff., figs. 2 and 12. Unfortunately both are known only from drawings, and serve only to indicate the wide-spread popularity of the beast.
  29. D. Talbot Rice, The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors II (Edinburgh, 1958), p. 149.
  30. G. Brett, op. cit., pl. 15.
  31. M. E. Blake, “Mosaics of the Late Empire in Rome and Vicinity,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 17-18 (1940), pp. 115 ff.
  32. Morey, op. cit. p. 41 thinks the Antioch love of animals is a Near Eastern revival, and Lavin once more disagrees (op. cit.).
  33. Blake, op. cit., p. 116.
  34. Lavin, op. cit., p. 189.
  35. See note 28.
  36. E. Kitzinger, “Studies in Late Antique and Early Christian Byzantine Floor Mosaics I,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 6 (1951), pp. 83-122.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Mosiac, representing A Stylized Cross. Syria (near Antioch), 5th-6th centuries A.D. Multi-colored mosaic, 34” (diameter). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Klejman, 69.78.
  2. Schematic Reconstruction of Floor Pattern.
  3. Mosaic, representing Birds Surrounded by Foliage and Pomegranates. Syria (near Antioch), 5th-6th centuries A.D. Multi-colored mosaic, 32 7/8” x 60 5/8”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 69.49.1.
  4. Mosaic, representing an Elephant Attacking a Feline. Syria (near Antioch), 5th-6th centuries A.D. Multi-colored mosaic, 41 1/4” x 81 1/2”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 69.49.2.
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Source: Sheila McNally, "Three Late Antique Mosaics," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 58 (1969): 5-15.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009