Basilica Palace Mosaics

More than 50 years ago, British archaeologists from the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh headed by J.H. Baxter unearthed a large peristyle court with an axially joining apse hall and some adjacent parts of a large group of buildings. The complex, erected on an artificial terrace over substructures, extended over fully 3,500 to 4,000 square metres. When the peristyle was redone under The Great Palace Justinian I (527-565), the hall floor was decorated with the splendid ornamental pavement

 The combination of a peristyle adjoined by the palace aula has its roots in the Graeco-Roman design of state and residential buildings. The Great Palace shows the unmistakable influence of the Roman palace building tradition. It is also noticeable how well the orientation of the peristyle court and aula matches that of Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, which are aligned basically along the same axis. Probes underneath the palace mosaic in the north-eastern hall discovered elements of a peristyle dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Pottery found in the soil filling underneath the mosaic indicates that comprehensive conversion and construction work, including the laying of the mosaic, took place under Justinian I in the first half of the 6th century. The palace district was enlarged and houses were built on the three lower-lying terraces of the western slope right down to the coast. The main buildings and imperial quarters were shifted to the middle terrace above the palace harbour near the Golden Triclinium.


Nowhere else in antiquity can we find a tessellated floor of quite the size and quality of the Great Palace Mosaic in Istanbul. This unique masterpiece also provides us with the single reference that we have of the furnishings of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. At the time of its making, the mosaicist craft, rooted in Anatolia and artistically perfected in Greece and Italy, could draw on a long-established tradition. The best artists from all corners of the Empire were employed to lay this splendidly ornamented floor. With no comparable works available, it is, however, difficult to interpret and date the mosaic solely on the basis of typological and stylistic criteria. The mosaic floor was made up of three layers: the bottom stratum consisted of a thick (0.30 to 0.50 metres) bed of packed quarrystone (statumen), covered by a mortar screed of 9 cm in thickness topped by a compacted insulating layer of loam, soil and charcoal and a hard screed layer containing a high rate of stone chips (rudus), which in turn supported the embedding mortar and tesserae (nucleus).

 Due to destruction and numerous conversions since the days of Justinian I, only some 250 square metres of the floor survived in the south-western, north-western and north-eastern halls of the peristylar court, about one seventh or one eighth of the original expanse. In spite of its fragmented state, the unearthed parts of the mosaic suffice to give us an impression of the splendour common in early Byzantine palaces. The continuous section of the north-eastern hall in particular, which was returned in situ after its successful restoration, provides an excellent view of the technical, artistic and iconographical details of the tessellated pavement. 



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Mosaic Motifs

Hunting the Tiger

Two men carrying long hunting spears advance towards an attacking tiger. They wear sleeveless shirts with a wide sash over sleeved tunics. Their long trousers are tucked into fasciae crurales (leggings). The men appear to be courtiers: the shield-like applications on their tunics could be badges of a schola.

Hunting the Boar

A hunter armed with a spear kneels on the ground. He wears an exomis (coat) and sandals; much of his light-skinned face has been destroyed. In spite of the bad state of repair, we can still see a wild boar on the left hand rushing headlong at the spear. Blood spurts from its grey-black fur, is shagginess depicted by alternating light and dark lines.

Hunting the Lion with a Bow and Arrow

A highly fragmented scene in the tradition of Hellenistic royal iconography. The lion hunt was deemed the most distinguished of all aristocratic pleasures. Killing the king of beasts was always reserved to the monarch, be it at the Persian court or under Alexander the Great. In this scene, the mounted hunter aims his drawn bow at a lion about to jump and attack the horse from behind. The quiver is partly visible behind the rider's right shoulder. He wears a knee-length tunic (ornamented with platelets across the breast) and coat over trousers tucked into boots. The horse is harnessed without stirrups.

The Eagle and the Snake

The motif, symbolising the victory of light over darkness, is widespread in all of antiquity (e.g. as a sepulchral symbol on Attic funeral steles from the 5th century BC). It was depicted on the monumental pyre that Alexander the Great had erected for his deified friend Hephaistion in Babylon (324 BC), and it formed part of the standards of the Roman army. Defeat is inevitable for the snake that has wound itself around the raptor's body.

The Lion and the Bull

Two adversaries of equal prowess meet in this scene: the bull stands straddle-legged, its head bowed low in fury, goring the lion's flank, while the lion in turn tears into the bull's back. Both horns of the bull are visible, a slight prevarication on the mosaicist's part.

The Stag and the Snake

The stag was considered an adversary of the snake ever since early Hellenistic times: with its breath it draws the reptile from its pit, and it is immune to its poison. Here too, the snake has wound itself around the enemy's body. The stag bows its head so as to get a better grip on the snake. As a result, its legs are slightly abbreviated in the picture.

A Group of Bears

A half-standing bear has attacked a man who has dropped on his knees. Of his clothes we still recognise a loose tunic, a cloak taken up at the right shoulder and sandals. In the background, a (probably female) bear has climbed a pomegranate tree to shake loose some fruits for its young that sit under the tree.

Stallion, Mare and Foal

Grazing horses in the wild, symbolising peaceful rural life, were a popular subject of Roman sarcophagi in the imperial period. The horses depicted on the mosaic have small heads in proportion to their bodies. An interesting aspect is the different artistic treatment of their bodies: the brown stallion is shown with all its muscles (except on its back) while in the grey mare and the foal this plastic representation is limited to their legs. T

he Monkey as Bird Catcher

A tailless monkey stands underneath a date palm, carrying

a wooden cage on its back that holds a brown raptor (falcon). Its face set in concentration, it wields a lime-covered stick trying to catch birds flitting about in the treetop. The scene describes an antique animal fable. The stick provides us with an indication of the date, because lime-twigs were not used until the second half of the 6th century.
A Nursing Mother and Dog A typical bucolic genre scene is
the mother breast-feeding her child. The image reminds us of the fertility symbol of the Egyptian Isis holding the boy Horus in her lap. A small, sharp-muzzled dog sits to her left, looking at her with raised head.
The Fisherman A peaceful scene at the river, hemmed in by rocks on either side. A fisherman with rod and line sits at the right, pulling in his catch. His left foot is immersed in the blue-green water where two fish are darting about. His dark skin and simple loin-cloth point to a simple life in close communion with nature. A fish basket is placed on a rock. Towards the right gap of the panel we see the hand of a second fisherman. This type of genre scene reaches back to early Hellenism.
apparel (exomis) sits next to a simple reed cabin with leaves over the door. His furrowed brow signals his old age. While he milks one of his long-haired goats, a boy to his left, dressed in a short blue tunic, is busy with a milk jug. Numerous depictions of pastoral life in Roman sepulchral art point to the existence of pattern books that served as models for such motifs.
Workers in the Field
Scenes of rustic life make up a large part of the Palace Mosaic. Similar images of labouring peasants are found on Roman sarcophagi and on the so-called Brooklyn textiles. Two men in belted chitons (Greek tunics) are working bare-footed in the field. The man on the right has just raised his two-pronged hoe; his companion bows down to draw his tool through the soil.
Herdsman Milking a Goat A bearded man in red herdsman's
A Wellhouse The scene shows a square tower-like building. The thick-trunked stone pine shadowing the wellhouse places the scene in the open country. An arched entrance gives access to the well inside where the water is drawn from a rectangular basin fed by a lion-headed gargoyle.
Two Boys Riding a Dromedary and their Guide A rarely depicted scene, it is part of a group of children's pictures
included in the Palace Mosaic. Two boys ride a dromedary led by the rein by a very tall man dressed in a belted chiton and boots. The boy in the front appears to be the scion of an aristocratic house. He is adorned with a wreath and holds a tame bird in his hands, while the second boy, his playmate, is not distinguished by any attributes. Their plastic appearance is achieved by white highlights on their tunics.
Children Playing the Hoop Game Four boys drive two hoops each with sticks. Two boys wear tunics trimmed in blue, the others tunics edged in green, an allusion to the "Blues" and "Greens" at the circus, chariot teams at the hippodrome which also represented political convictions. The two turning columns (metae) indicate that the scene is a race track. Portrayals of playing children were favourite motifs in Roman sarcophagi decoration.
The Child Dionysos Riding on Pan's Shoulders One of the few surviving mythological scenes of the Palace Mosaic is Dionysos's triumphal procession from India. The scene is unusual in that it shows the god as a child. A wreath of leaves in his hair, a wily expression in his dark face, Dionysos grips the horns of goat-footed Pan, who
wears a shaggy fur across his left shoulder and holds a stick in each hand, probably parts of a double flute. An African elephant trots behind Pan and Dionysos, driven by a man whose right hand holding a prodding stick is still visible.
childlike appearance. But whether intentional or not, the innocent charm of his round features (his little arms, legs and cheeks) is well depicted. Bare-footed, clothed in a red tunic, the little boy is earnestly enjoying the attentions of his grey doggy.
Bellerophon and the Chimaera Of the mounted hero, only the lance tip used to slay the monster is visible, together with two hind legs of his horse Pegasus. The three heads of the beast are well defined: a three-forked tongue darts from the lion's mouth; out of the back grows the goat's head, at which Bellerophon points his lance; and the serpent's head sits at the end of its tail.
The Lion Griffin Fabulous creatures are a favourite subject of the Palace Mosaic, depicted with the same seeming accuracy as the real animals. The muscles of the grey-brown lion griffin are made to stand out from its body by dark shadows. One of the ambling animal's feathered wings is still visible.
patterning and colour of its body. Its head and neck, however, are an enigma. A horned projection grows from its forehead, and four sharp teeth are wedged in its slightly gaping, fiery red mouth. Because of the extraordinary shape of its head, the mysterious creature has recently been associated with an okapi.
The Tigress Griffin Another rarity, this griffin again bears witness to the imagination of the artists working on the Palace Mosaic. Its head, legs and tail are those of a tiger, its teats indicate the tigress. Two mighty wings emphasise its majestically erect pose; its forehead is crowned with two horns. The blood sprouting from the body of a dark-green lizard about to be devoured by the griffin bespeaks its deadly bite.
Small Boy and Dog The boy's overly large head —compared to his body — appears to be intentional to emphasise his

The Okapi-headed Leopard Griffin The creature, known to ancient literature as a "winged unicorn", resembles a leopard in the

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