A Mosaic

A Mosaic

I have been asked several times about the mosaic that currently features as my lead image, at the top of my homepage, which can also be seen in full and in two details at the bottom of this post. It is to be found at Heraclea Lyncestis (modern Bitola, N. Macedonia), decorating the floor of a what was once a large episcopal basilica. It is the most beautiful of a series of mosaics of the later fifth to middle sixth centuries that adorns the church complex. The great church overlooked a modest theatre, abandoned by the fifth century, illustrative of changed times and priorities. The mosaic in question is to be seen in outer narthex of the church. It depicts creation, the ocean full of fish and octopus surrounding the earth and its bounty through four seasons, spring and summer, winter and autumn. Each season is represented by a tree, full of life, leaves, fruit and birds, and surrounded by living creatures, notably a goat, a bull and a lion confronted, and a red dog tied to a tree. These are zodiacal references, the dog being Canis Major, whose dog star shone brightest in late summer and early autumn. The final scene, which depicts autumn, also shows death, with a hart lying on its back, its entrails ripped out by a panther. That this is an ephemeral death is suggested by the fruit in the tree: pomegranates, a symbol of resurrection. The mosaic’s central motif, a cantharus urn sprouting a vine and grapes, is approached by deer and peacocks, thirsting for the water of life, illustrating Psalm 41 (42): ‘As the hart longs for the water fountains, so longs my soul for you, O God’. The hart, the adult male deer, was considered a symbol of the Christian soul, and the peacock a symbol of the soul’s immortality. Psalm 41 (42) was sung as part of the liturgy of baptism as Christian catechumens approached the font.