VIII. Late Antiquity

VIII-1 Christ-Helios

Late 3rd-early 4th century AD

Ceiling of tomb under St. Peter's in Rome. There was a street of tomb buildings that were buried when Constantine took the site for the first church of St. Peter. The hole in the ceiling of this tomb was apparently made in the Sixteenth Century. Modern excavators lowered a lamp through it and were surprised to see on the walls pictures that alerted them to the possibility that the tomb might have belonged to Christians.

Most of the tombs were pagan, with a few Christian burials. This mausoleum, mausoleum M, has a representation of Jonah on one wall, a man fishing on another, and the Good Shepherd on a third. On the ceiling is this mosaic: small pieces of stone and glass set into wet plaster to form the picture. The picture shows Helios (the sun god) in a chariot drawn by white horses. Only two survive, but their placement shows that there were once two more. Helios holds the orb of the world in one hand. Rays come out from his head. Some scholars see the pattern of the rays as indicating a Tor Tau cross.

"it has long been proved from early Christian literature that the sun symbolism of antiquity was transferred to Christ during the first Christian centuries (Engelbert Kirschbaum, 1959, The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, 40.) Kischbaum cites several early Christian authors who say how suitable it is that Christians gather on Sun-day, the day when Christ arose. He quotes a poem saying: "Arise from sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ the Lord with enlighten thee, the Sun of the Resurrection, Fashioned before the morning star, Dispensing life with its radiance" (41).

VIII-2 Christ and Bellerophon mosaic, Hinton St. Mary

Mosaic from Hinton St. Mary, England, now in the British Museum in London. Nineteen by twenty-eight feet (6 x 9 m). The floor of two adjoining spaces. The building had been almost completely destroyed, so we cannot be sure what its purpose was. Probably it was a country house (villa).

In the center of the larger space four circles of geometric patterns frame a central picture. (Seen right side up by someone standing at the left hand side of the room as the picture is placed here) It shows a man, beardless, with long blond hair. Behind his head is the Chi Rho Monogram (X, the Greek letter chi, and P, the Greek letter Rho, the first two letters of the word Christos). On one side is of the X is a pomegranate, a fruit linked to eternal life. Is this a representation of Christ? Most people think so, but it is odd, and particularly odd that it should be placed a floor.

In the center of the smaller space there is a larger roundel. (Seen right side up by someone standing at the extreme right of the picture shown here) A man rides a horse above a composite creature, with the body of a lion, a goat's head coming out of its back, and a snake tail: Bellerophon rides the flying horse Pegasus to kill the chimaera.

"Jocelyn Toynbee has discussed the further matter of whether the other motifs on the mosaic could be interpreted in a Christian light/Bellerophon on Pegasus, slaying the snake-tailed Chimaera, may be the Divine Hero overcoming death and evil. A spreading tree, in a lunette below the central roundel, might be a Tree of Life. Four persons shown as busts in the spandrels, if they are the Four Winds, could signify the evangelists. ... Either the villa-owner's understanding of Christianity was syncretic--he was prepared to embrace Christianity without renouncing his pagan heritage--or he was a cautious man, not convinced that Christianity would eventually win the day..." (Charles Thomas, Christianity of Roman Britain to AD 500, 106). This quotation by no means exhausts the opinions about this piece!

Detail of Christ

Detail of Bellerophon. A man rides a horse above a composite creature, with the body of a lion, a goat's head coming out of its back, and a snake tail: i.e., Bellerophon rides the winged horse Pegasus to kill the chimaera.

VIII-3 Bellerophon mosaic, Lullingstone

Detail of mosaic from the reception room of the villa at Lullingstone, England, laid when that room was rebuilt and redecorated in the Fourth Century. There were four roundels with four busts representing the Seasons: Winter (dark hooded cloak) Spring (bird on shoulder) and Fall (Grain-crowned) survive; Summer has been lost. in the middle, a man rides a winged horse, and holds lance he is directing toward the creature beneath him. It is a lion with a tiny goat head sprouting from its back, and a partly destroyed snake tail. All around these figures are sea creatures.

VIII-4 Europa and the Bull, Lullingstone

Central part of mosaic from dining room in the villa at Lullingstone, England as it was rebuilt and redecorated in the Fourth Century. Europa rides the bull over the dark sea. A cupid leads the way, and another pulls on the bull's tail. Over the picture are two lines of poor Latin verse saying that Juno (Jupiter's wife) would have ground for jealousy if she saw this scene.

VIII-5 Hercules in Garden

Fresco from Christian catacombs in Rome, 4th century AD.

Niche for placing body: in back, Hercules brings a woman back from the Underworld (note the three-headed dog, Cerberus), on the left side he fights the Hydra, and on the right side he is involved in getting the apples of the Hesperides.

Detail of Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides. Scene painted to the right of Hercules with Cerberus.

Detail of Hercules and the Hydra. Scene painted to the left of Hercules with Cerberus.

VIII-6 The Projecta Casket, Equiline Treasure

Late 4th century AD

A box made of silver decorated with silver gilt. It measures 30 by 55 by 43 cm (roughly 12 by 22 by 17 inches). It was found together with over sixty more pieces, a total of over seventy pounds, of silver objects discovered in 1793 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. They are known collectively as the Esquiline Treasure. It is now in the British Museum.

Top of the lid of Projecta's casket. Busts of a man and woman, probably Projecta and Secundus, in a wreath held by cupids. Silver and silver gilt.

Projecta's casket, detail of front of lid: Venus rides on a shell over the waves, looking in a mirror and arranging her hair. For more details, see picture of whole casket.

VIII-7 The Great Dish from the Mildenhall Treasure

Part of the Mildenhall Treasure: Thirty-four silver plates, cups, and spoons, were deliberately buried, perhaps in the 360's, near modern Mildenhall, Suffolk, in England. They were recovered in the 1940s.

The "Great Dish" in the center of this photograph has a diameter of 60.5 cm, and a weight of 8.256 kg. It shows the Bacchic thiasos as well as other pagan themes.

In the center, the head of Oceanus: his beard is seaweed, his mustache turns into dolphins, and dolphins come out of this hair. Around him sea nymphs (nereids) ride on sea creatures (sea horses and sea centaurs). Around them, around the outer edge of the plate, maenads and satyrs dance. At the top of this picture we see the head and upper body of Dionysus, who holds a thyrsus.

Dionysos and Satyr

Dancing Maenad (compare VI-18)

Dancing Maenad (compare VI-18)

Note the small figures of Laocoön's sons bound to him by the serpent. Compare VI-10.

VIII-8 Laocoön, Vatican Virgil

Laocoön and his sons attached by snakes (not visible here) as he sacrifices at an altar. Illustration from a manuscript of the Aeneid called the Vatican Virgil: Vergilius Vaticanus, Vat. lat. 3225. Paint on parchment. The manuscript is now incomplete. It is thought to have been made early in the Fourth Century.

VIII-9 Dido and Aeneas, Vatican Virgil

Dido and Aeneas take shelter in a cave during a thunderstorm the gods have caused so that Aeneas can seduce Dido (queen of Carthage). Their horses are tethered outside the cave on the right, and two attendants sit nearby, one holding his shield over his head to protect himself from the storm.

Miniature 15, fol. 106, in a manuscript of Vergil called the Vergilius Romanus, now in the Vatican Library, Vat. lat. 3867.

Persons and Events:

  • Bellerophon

  • Chimaera

  • Dionysos

  • Europa

  • Horses of the Sun

  • Laocoön

  • Maenads

  • Satyrs

  • Venus

  • Labors

  • Loves of Jupiter

  • Monster killing

  • Punishment

Objects and Places:

  • Silver plate

  • Book

  • Mosaic in house

  • Mosaic in tomb

  • Painting in tomb

  • Funerary art

  • Private space

  • Public religious space

Texts and Authors:

  • Virgil

  • Aeneid