Hinton St Mary Mosaic

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This mosaic is probably one of the oldest surviving depictions of Christ. It comes from a Roman villa in Dorset. Christ is portrayed as a fair-haired and clean-shaven man wearing a tunic and cloak. Behind his head are the letters chi (X) and rho (P), the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ - Christos. Christ's head is a part of a larger mosaic, also containing pagan elements. These include the Greek hero Bellerophon riding Pegasus and slaying the monstrous Chimera.

When did the Roman Empire become Christian?

In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the religion began to spread freely throughout the Roman Empire. Britain was at that point a far-flung province of the empire that would be abandoned 100 years later. This mosaic may have come from a villa's dining room or house-church owned by one of Britain's long-established Roman aristocratic families. Combining Christian and pagan imagery was common in this period and Bellerophon slaying the monster may represent Christ's triumph over death and evil.

Roman emperors banned the depiction of Christ on mosaic floors. It was thought disgraceful to walk or spill food on him

What inspired the mosaic?

The Hinton St Mary mosaic can provoke debates about Christian iconography and Christianity in Britain, but it also asks us to consider what inspired its designer in Dorset. I have argued before that the villa owner or mosaicist was inspired by a coin of the emperor Magnentius (AD 350-3) which was struck in large numbers at Amiens, Trier, Lyon and Arles in France in AD 352-3. It is the first overtly Christian coin ever to be struck in the Roman Empire.

If one looks at the reverse of the coin, one sees a prominent Christian symbol, the chi-rho, between an alpha and omega (‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’ – Revelation 21.6). The obverse shows the bare-headed bust of the emperor with a distinctive chin and swept back hair.
Comparison with the head of Christ on the mosaic immediately shows that there are similarities. I believe that the head of Magnentius has been turned to face us on the mosaic, the hairstyle and prominent chin of the emperor being preserved on the mosaic. Furthermore, the Chi-Rho has been placed behind the head of Christ, in a way mirroring its appearance on the reverse of the coin. The artist has changed the image slightly, giving Christ a tunica and pallium instead of an imperial cloak and military cuirass. Furthermore, the alpha and omega are replaced by pomegranates, figurative images of eternal life commonly used in the ancient world.

Can we imagine that the patron of the mosaic asked a local mosaicist for an image of Christ on his floor? Is it possible that the mosaicist looked back in bemusement, stating that he did not know how to represent Christ? Was it then that a coin of Magnentius was produced to act as a model for the head of Christ? This is all speculation, but it is interesting to note that such a coin was found pierced, for use as a pendant, in a Roman cemetery just outside of Dorchester – for at least one local it was certainly an important Christian symbol.

Sam Moorhead, National Finds Advisor, British Museum

Colonising a pagan culture

Remember we know very little about the social context of these images. There are Christian images popping up all over Roman Britain in the fourth century. There are very similar images at Lullington in Kent, at Frampton in Devon. You find the Chi Ro symbol and Bellerophon in both those places, so it seems that there is an accepted symbolic language which people might have known. They clearly knew what the Chi Ro symbol meant. Constantine had given that currency literally: it appeared on his coins. But whether people – or everyone who saw the Bellerophon fighting the chimera – realised that this was some sort of symbol for Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness, or whether they simply absorbed it as decoration, would be hard to say. I mean on the Hinton St Mary pavement we really don’t know what the four figures around Christ mean – are they the four winds, are they the four seasons, are they the four evangelists?

This is a period of cultural flux when half-converted people who have adopted Christianity may still be practicing pagan magic, they may still have some of these pagan notions knocking around in their heads, they may well be hedging their bets - and that’s true at every period when Christianity encounters a pagan culture. It’s absorbed into the culture but there is no instantaneous transition from the old religion to the new. There’s a period in which people are just living in two worlds – even Constantine after his conversion had inscriptions to the sun god Sol Invictus on his coins - sometimes alongside the Chi Ro.

So it enables us actually to see the point at which Christianity begins to colonise a great pagan culture, and of course in the process is partly colonised itself by that culture.

Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity, University of Cambridge

Converting to Christianity

The Hinton St Mary mosaic is absolutely fundamental; it’s very well known. It’s a youthful Christ without a beard; he seems to be wearing Roman clothing and I think this is an experiment. It’s an experiment in how to depict Christ in familiar iconographic form.

The problem with the mosaic is that we can’t date it very precisely. But let’s suppose its fourth century AD – that was after the emperor Constantine, and the emperor Constantine seems to have converted himself to Christianity, and started to favour the Christians. It’s impossible to underestimate that connection. Whatever Constantine himself believed, he set Christianity on a completely different track, and by the end of the fourth century it was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and that continued for both East and West until right through the Middle Ages.

We don’t know that the impact was immediate in Britain, but what we have from Britain – Roman Britain in 4 AD after Constantine - are a number of archaeological finds including this mosaic and some silverware from Water Newton in Cambridgeshire, and also another mosaic from Kent, in Lullingstone, with Christian signs on them. So we know that members of the elite – probably Romans – were converting to Christianity and they were members of the bureaucracy; the people who were out there ruling the provinces. And they were decorating their villas, their elaborate villas, with Christian signs and symbols. What we don’t know much about is the general population. We have these elite objects but who knows what the general population was thinking at this time?

Dame Averil Cameron, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History, University of Oxford

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Comments

  • 7 comments
  • 1. At 05:30 on 3 June 2010, Paul White wrote:

    I think it's an awesome piece of work! It was discovered by my dad when I was a toddler! The hole near the centre has a story... I like this image because it is not a Western stereotype of Jesus, but very culturally relevant to the Roman world. Amazing how he is still shaping history 2000+ years on.

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  • 2. At 21:23 on 4 June 2010, Wayne Cerullo wrote:

    Wow! Paul - How did your dad discover it??? What is the story about the hole in the centre?

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  • 3. At 22:11 on 7 June 2010, SolarMcPanel wrote:

    To me the figure actually looks like the Emperor Constantine. It has the same chin, face shape and eyes. The Chi-Rho symbol is also associated with the Emperor Constantine. What does anyone else think?

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  • 4. At 15:44 on 14 June 2010, khazo wrote:

    I wonder why Bellerophon and Christ are facing different ways. One would expect them either to be facing the same way, for the convenience of the people walking through, or they would both be facing the centre, for the convenience of people wishing to see both from the centre.

    It seens to me likely that there were entrances to both sections from the outside, and therefore possibly no through way between them. The old-fashioned pagans would pay homage to Bellerophon, the Christians to Christ.

    The 4 corners could possibly represent the 4 seasons - 2 depict flowers and 2 fruit. Of the fruit ones (those nearest to Bellerophon) the left one would depict autumn, the right winter, as the leaves of the right one look like they might be about to fall off. Of the flower depictions, the left has more leaves than the right, so perhpas the right in spring (the blosson has just come out) and the left is summer (flowers and leaves are both out).

    But these thoughts are probably just fanciful.

    To SolarMcPanel

    What you say is interesting. Perhaps the image was doing homage to the Emperor and the artist was unaware of the Christian connotations - but then why the pomegranates? Again, perhaps these also appear of some Roman coins - after all, Roman Emperors liked to think they were, or would become, gods, and therefore live for ever.

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  • 5. At 21:36 on 30 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Doesn?t the Head of Constantine's colossal statue at the Capitoline Museums, as viewed in Wikipedia, look just like the figure on the mosaic and should that surprise me? Why can?t The Hinton St Mary mosaic be a mosaic of Constantine and not Christ? Constantine was after all Mithraic too. ?Sol Invictus? and the naming of Sunday are typically his and resultant of Mithraic sun worship aren?t they? Mithrace worship was an officer class thing wasn?t it? More likely to find examples of it archaeologically I would have thought. If the latter more powerful church wanted to eradicate irreverent walked on images mistakenly associated with their Christ that was their business and simply emphasizes the possibility in my mind that they were not intended to be interpreted that way in the first place.
    A quick google search reveals that the symbols chi rho appeared on ancient Egyptian coins struck over 200 yrs B.c in the Ptolomies period. A tad wierd for a Christian God don?t you think? Wikipedia says:- The Chi-Rho symbol was also used by pagan Greek scribes to mark, in the margin, a particularly valuable or relevant passage; the combined letters Chi and Rho standing for chr?ston, meaning "good."[2][3] Some coins of Ptolemy III Euergetes were marked with a Chi-Rho.[4]
    I wonder what Emperor Constantine was reading the evening before the battle of The Milvian Bridge? The sermon on the mount? I don?t think so.
    Also,I had a feeling there would be an Egyptian connection. Didn?t early Christian zealots there destroy and then trash what remained of religious practises a little while later? Didn?t they murder Hypatia, legendary pagan mathematician-philosopher of Alexandria, mathmatician and woman? Clever old Christians. I don?t think so. Clever new Wikipedia!!!! Thanks The British Museum. Fabulous series.

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  • 6. At 13:31 on 2 July 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    In the Mithraeum of the Seven Sphere excavated by Petrini, in the years 1802-1804 the constellations are separated by an eight pointed star symbols in the mosaic. Pomegranates are also associated with the birth of Mythrace.
    Now here?s a thought. After a night in contemplation in a Mithraeum Constantine emerges and both he and his troops witness a star rising (say Mars or Venus for example) into the pre-dawn sky. Suddenly remembering the eight pointed star symbol used to join up the constellations in the mosaic of some Mithraeum Constantine decided upon it as the symbol to be painted on the shields of his men before the battle. He might have thought it would act as a potent sign for his officers and troops to rally behind. It would have been seen as especially good as identification was always a necessity in battles between fellow Romans and some such symbol had to be chosen anyway. In my imagination I can see two possibilities exist there after:

    In describing the eight pointed star symbol from the Mythraeum he may have referred to the chi rho symbol used by Greek scribes (as pointer marks in the margins of books to indicate something good in an adjacent passage) to his aid de camp. He might even have handed over the book (or astrological prediction) he had been reading that night with the Greek chi rho marks he had penned himself in the margin. In a mix up his aid de camp orders the wrong symbol to be painted on the shields.
    Or
    Perhaps: He had a second inspiring thought. Maybe seeing that the Chi Rho itself might be used to unite Mythracians, Greeks, Egyptians, Christians and possibly even Indian mercenaries (chi rho for Krishna) by some mystical associations that each might give it. Thus I imagine how it might have become the winning symbol of unification to rally an empire under. For poor old Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius October 28 ought to have been the happy sixth anniversary of the day that he assumed the Empire. He probably read the night sky differently. I wonder how he ended up in the river?

    Afterwards the emperor?s men no doubt used the chi rho symbol in mosaics to remind themselves of their part in his rising stardom. Christianity which was already prominent in Roman society chose this moment as the earliest possible indicator of his Imperial favor. Can anyone tell me if it was Constantine who proposed it after becoming the head of the Christian church? Only later came the purge on mosaics with the emperors image placed before the chi rho symbol lest he be mistaken for Christ. Was that after he died?

    Anyway, thus I imagine. Should I worry myself about it? Fortunately since we ran out of emperors and confession torturing churches its no-longer a necessity. Thanks again. Really enjoying your series. Thanks also to Wikipedia.

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  • 7. At 14:16 on 14 November 2010, Andrew Rogers wrote:

    Paul White, in the first blog, mentioned a story that explained the hole in the Hinton Pavement but never elaborated. Paul is my third cousin and when his father John was born his grandmother told her husband Walter (my great uncle and Paul?s grandfather) that an extension to the clothes line would be needed to dry the nappies. He unwittingly dug the hole for the new post through the pavement, commenting how hard it had been. The pavement was not far below the surface and the adjacent field had always been known as ?stony ground?. It was not until John himself dug up some tessarae and realised their significance that the pavement was revealed. In 1963 I was a teenager and remember the excavation.

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