Article by Sarah E. Bond
Earlier this week, we looked at architecture from the Middle Ages. Today, we're going even further back—into antiquity. We've asked our friend Sarah Bond, assistant professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, to look at the buildings used in murals and explain what they reveal about the architecture, and society, at the time. Sarah specializes in ancient Roman and early medieval history and uses art, archaeological remains, and ancient texts to reconstruct the past. She is currently finishing a book on ancient and early medieval tradesmen.
Mosaics were a common art form in antiquity often placed on the floor of baths, markets, guild meeting houses, domestic spaces, and shops. Additionally, they commonly adorned sacred spaces such as temples, synagogues, and churches. Minute tesserae of glass, terra cotta, and stone were arranged with painstaking detail into intricate geometric patterns, mythological scenes, and—in some cases—architecture!
Much like today’s urban murals, ancient mosaics communicate the desire of individuals to depict the world around them visually. Verity was not always the central purpose of these mosaics, and thus seemingly crude depictions should not be immediately interpreted as “primitive.” Mosaics also reflect the rich, embedded architectural landscape that existed in the classical Mediterranean, and its role in shaping the thoughts, ideals, and memories of ancient peoples.
Much like today’s urban murals, ancient mosaics communicate the desire of individuals to depict the world around them visually. Os Gemeos’ mural in NYC's Bowery. Photo via Hey I Like your Afro
And just like today, monuments provided a kind of spatial foothold that helped the people of classical antiquity to define the world around them. The permanence of the mosaic medium has allowed the modern world a tantalizing glimpse at the urban topography of a largely vanished world; however the line between ideal and reality can often be a difficult to discern.
Mosaics were a medium that went far beyond aesthetic value, and today aid archaeologists, historians, and classicists in reconstructing the buildings of the past. Here are five examples of mosaics that use architecture to provide a window into the past.
The remaining fragments of the Madaba Map.
The Madaba Map
A 2,000-square-foot mosaic, the Madaba Map was likely created in the sixth century, probably during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. It was placed in the floor of St. George, a Byzantine basilica east of the Jordan, and gives an overhead view of many major Near Eastern cities as if one were standing in the West, looking East.
Close-up of the depiction of Jerusalem on the Madaba Map.
One such snapshot of a city is that of Jerusalem. The map indicates the profuse number of basilicas and monasteries in and around Jerusalem, and is significant as one of the earliest surviving depictions of the city. The mosaic confirms a number of known monuments within the city of Jerusalem, though the map does not provide correct proportions. Moreover, the map allows us to see bygone buildings, specifically the “New Church of the Mother of God” or Nea Church built by Justinian—a church mentioned in ancient texts, but later torn down.
It was not until the 1970s that actual archaeological remains of the Nea Church came to light, but the Madaba map provides a pivotal contemporaneous depiction of the structure in the eastern quadrant of the city, on the main road called the cardo, that ran from the Damascus Gate. At over 300 feet in length, the basilica was enormous, with a large apse at the end of the nave, and then smallers apses on the aisles.
The Pharos Lighthouse
One of the original wonders of the ancient world was the 350-plus-foot-high lighthouse at Alexandria, which stood on the island of Pharos in the city’s harbor. Finished under Ptolemy II (285-247 BCE) by the architect Sostratus of Cnidus, the structure was such a marvel of engineering that it became well known throughout the Mediterranean. It was still standing by the 12th century CE, but by the fifteenth century, it had fallen into such disrepair that a fortress was built on the island where it stood.
Though the structure is now gone, a sixth century floor mosaic from a church in the ancient city of Olbia (also called Theodorias) in modern Libya depicts the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria. The mosaic has the lighthouse labeled in Greek, and although it doesn’t exactly depict the lighthouse as described by ancient sources it illustrates the continued prestige of the monument. The lighthouse is part of a collection of mosaics in the church, telling the story of the city’s refounding under Justinian. The lighthouse is thus appropriated as a broader symbol of salvation within the context of the entrance of church, where it was placed.
The Claudian Lighthouse
In 42 CE, the Roman emperor Claudius began to build a new, more accommodating port for the city of Rome just north of the coastal city of Ostia. Claudius then erected a lighthouse based on the model of Pharos in Alexandria. It was a conspicuous symbol of the city, as a number of black and white mosaics that commemorate this famous lighthouse indicate. A particularly fascinating one lies in the Baths of the Lighthouse. It is probably from the middle of the third century, and reiterates the economic and social lifeblood of Ostia: the sea. Although the island where it once stood has now been located, the lighthouse itself did not survive. Luckily, mosaics help to preserve the majesty and the civic pride in the lighthouse at Ostia.
The Nile Mosaic
Originally in the apse of a grotto in the ancient city of Praeneste, now the modern Italian city of Palestrina. The mosaic likely dates to around 100 BCE (a point of debate) and is an expansive panorama of the Nile from its beginnings in modern Ethiopia to the Delta. A typical Egyptian temple is depicted along with a Greek styled one, as well as obelisks, peasant huts, and a pergola. A traditional Hellenistic “picture mosaic,” the aquatic imagery worked well with its watery surroundings and further indicates the Roman fascination with Egypt.
Mosaics of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Although we have until now focused on actual cities or structures, we will end on a blend of real and imagined. In the city of Rome, sitting imposingly upon the Esquiline hill, is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Built under Pope Sixtus III (432-440), the mosaics are the oldest surviving mosaic program in a Christian church. At the time they were built, they played a larger role within the political program of Pope Sixtus, who wished to reassert that Rome was the base for the Church’s power.
To do this, he announced it visually. At the bases of the “triumphal arch” of the Basilica are the bejeweled cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This is likely a visualization of a passage from the book of Revelation (21:18-21). There is emphasis on the theme of the Apocalypse within the arch. Moreover, it was the role of the successors of the first bishop of Rome, Peter—i.e., what we call today the pope—to lead the people towards this heavenly Jerusalem, which was supposed to be a square citadel with crenellated towers and walls. As early Christians began to visualize what heaven would look like one day, the earthly Jerusalem became the model.