Home > Late Antiquity, Notes From Athens > Delphi Mosaics and the Late Roman Hybrid

Delphi Mosaics and the Late Roman Hybrid

Late Antiquity (300-700 AD, it is also called the Early Christian period or the Late Roman period) is a perfect period for exploring the notion of hybridity in material culture.  Not only was it a time of unprecedented change in culture and society, but there is also a vast and growing body of Late Roman material that is relatively unencumbered by long generations of study.  For Greece this is particularly the case.  At present I am working on an article arguing that ecclesiastical architecture (particularly in Greece) is quintessential hybrid space.  The intersection of Early Christian liturgical rites with architectural forms and decorative motifs with longstanding currency in Greece allowed the newly empowered ecclesiastical elite to express their social, economic and political authority in a way accessible to the Greek society.  This process was reciprocal, however, in that donors to churches, for example, had some access to the authority articulated by liturgical ritual and found ways to redeploy it in service of their own social goals.  Thus, Early Christian basilicas (churches) constructed by local elites became platforms for self expression while at the same time the clergy’s control over the mediation between the divine and the mundane worlds ensured that ecclesiastical elite gradually acquired increased privilege in an Greek society (i.e. Bishops and the clergy in general became more powerful).

A 6th century floor mosaics from a rather typical Early Christian basilica found near the ancient site of Delphi is a great (and under-explored) example of this process.  I will spare you a comprehensive examination of the floor (with comparanda and the like), but present you with a short(ish) teaser.  The western most panel in the main nave (the central room of the church through which all liturgical processions would pass) has a central emblema showing leopard pouncing on a deer. 


This is surrounded by scenes of peacocks and eagles.  In the corners of the mosaic panel are two figures rushing toward the south.  We know from other mosaics in Greece (and elsewhere) that these figures are the personifications of the months.  So we have one pouncing leopard, four majestic birds, and two rushing months (no lords-aleaping, ladies dancing or rings of any kind!).  The months, it turns out are the key to understanding this mosaic.  The rushing months probably represent June (or July) and August.  Again, we know this from mosaics elsewhere on which the months are labeled.  The eastern month is labeled with the Greek letters KA and the western with letters KAI. This means nothing, until we assume that there were two more months with inscriptions reading LOI and ROI that have been destroyed (you can see in the picture above that the southern half of the mosaic has been destroyed).  This would spell KALOI KAIROI or “Good Times” or “Good Seasons”.  Thus we can assume that the months of July and perhaps September are missing.  We have then the depictions of the summer months (June, July, August, September) with an inscription that says “Good Times”.

This unlocks a possible meaning for the leopard and deer motif in the middle, which hardly seems appropriate for a mosaic in a church.  This scene, I think, is meant to evoke arena combats between animals.  This was a favorite ancient past time: release an exotic animal (like a leopard) and watch it attack another animal.  Moreover, animal combat scenes are sometimes associated with calendar mosaics (C. Kondoleon, “Timing Spectacles: Roman Domestic Art and Performance,”  in The Art of Ancient Spectacle. (Washington 1999), 321-341.).  The reason for this is because arena contests were often parts of seasonal games or festivals.  So the the calendar mosaics served to evoke specific time of year when games and arena combat took place.  Moreover, this kind of mosaic, when put up by a wealthy patron, often served to advertise the generosity of that patron who presumably paid to provide the exotic animals for a particular set of games.  So, in some cases the link between the months and a scene of violence referred to a specific contest. 


One last thing, during the Roman empire festivals to Apollo were very common in the summer months.  These festivals were good opportunities for games and arena shows.  Delphi was a shrine to Apollo and it’s games — the Pythian Games — were held in the summer (although there is no indication that they involved arena contests).  In fact, the association between Apollo and the summertime was so close that he sometimes appeared as the personification of summer in sculpture and mosaics (see:  George Hanfmann, The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks. Cambridge, MA, 1951, 156). 

A half century ago, a scholar might have said “AH HA! Syncretism between Christianity and paganism!  An invocation of pagan festivals in a Christian church!  I knew it!  The pagan gods did not disappear they merely changed their names.”  Now, we approach this differently.  I might suggest, for example, that the link between “Good Times”, the summer, and a scene from the arena is not designed to evoke Apollo — after all the oracle of Apollo at Delphi had not uttered a word since the later 4th century AD — but rather to evoke general images of wealth, prosperity, and happiness.  It is predictable that these images of wealth, prosperity, and good times would be influenced by images deriving in part from paganism, but in a Christian context the pagan aspects of these motifs (if they still existed in the 6th century) would have been appropriated by the patron of the church (whom we know nothing about except for a fragmentary inscription that suggests he or she paid for the mosaic or the entire church) to show his or her own prosperity and generosity.  In fact, the floors seem to hint, that the building the church was equivalent to providing games in the arena. 

Finally, in the Greek liturgy of this time, the clergy would have walked across this floor on the way to sacred eastern end of the church.  These ritual processions were important opportunities for the clergy to demonstrate their unique position in Christian society as the links between God and the mundane world.  Thus, the ritual of the liturgy appropriated the space of the church for clerical display which, in turn, reinforced the position of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  The mosaic floor, with its references to prosperity and generosity provided a suitable setting for ecclesiastical ritual which transformed the social and economic meaning of the mosaic and translated it to the religious realm.  The liturgy made clear that prosperity and generosity worked in the service of the church and the clergy.  The patron of the floors certainly recognized this, but also realized that their generosity
in the service of the liturgy would gain them greater access to the same divine advantages of the clergy.  After all, providing for a church was a noble calling worthy of rich rewards in the afterlife!

Thus, the hybridity of Early Christian space in Greece.  The ecclesiastical elite and the local patron (assuming in this case that they were separate institutions) appealed to images and rituals which had independent meanings but also informed one another.  In this simplified (and superficial) analysis, the space of the church becomes an active place of reinterpretation where the juxtaposition of ritual, decoration, and social and institutional structures produce new combinations of meaning (hybrids!) which both benefited the varying parties involved in creating the hybrid space, and produce a new iconography which could be deployed later in its own hybrid combinations.

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