Heraclea, the capital city of Lyncestida, a region of Upper Macedonia, located in the immediate vicinity of Bitola is one of the most significant cities of Antique Macedonia. Its foundation, connected to Philip II of Macedon is dated back to the middle of the 4th century B.C.
Heraclea Linkestis – panorama – pass your mouse over the photo to see an enlarged view
Throughout its millennial existence and development, this city has experienced a high flourish in the early royal Roman era, especially in the early Christian period. To a considerable extent, this is due to his location on the famous traffic artery of the Roman Empire – Via Egnatia. Thanks to this, Heraclea will be cross-road to a various influences from the western and eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, but in doing so it will never lose her indigenous character.
By the spacious systematic archaeological explorations conducted during the last decades, Heraclea revealed its urban expression once again showing its development through the phases of Hellenistic, Roman and Early-Christianity period. In addition to the numerous and various remains of the material culture which are discovered, nowadays Heraclea is famous and important due to its floor mosaics.
Although the mosaics discovered so far are not older than the Late-Antique period, many moments from the organization, motives and mosaic techniques indicate a longer continuity in its development. The sample shows similarities to the Hellenistic and to the classical Roman mosaic, which may indicate the moment that the floor mosaic in Heraclea will be applied to a greater extent in the Roman period, probably sometime in the Early Royal epoch. According to its characteristics, the discovered mosaics can be categorized into two groups. The first group, performed in a variety of mosaic techniques: opus sygninum, opus sectile, belong to the late Roman period, while the second and much more important group, dominated by the opus tessalatum technique, represents the early Christian period.
The Late-Roman mosaics are excavated inside two profane facilities (villa and therma) outside from the city wall. The presentations are figurative and geometric, similar to the type of classical Roman mosaics. Although located into a sacral Christian facility in this group is also encountered the floor mosaic of the central aisle and altar place in the Small Basilica made in opus sectile, as a representative of this technique, which is quite frequent in the profane facilities of the Late-Antique period. All those mosaics are dated to the 4th century A.D.
The oldest Early-Christianity mosaics are represented by geometric motifs (loops, diamond cross, crossed circles), such as mosaics of the central aisle and deaconry of the Great Basilica, as well as the mosaic in the catechumenum. According to the organization and motifs those mosaics are overturning of the previous group. The combination of the geometrical and figural motifs is depicted in the presentations of the mosaics located in the baptisterium and the exonarthex of the Small Basilica. The most significant group of the mosaics so far unearthed in Heraclea are the Early-Christianity mosaics, with figurative portraits in the narthex, side walls and the northern chapel of the Great Basilica, as well as the mosaics of the four premises of the Episcopal Residence. And in this case, in the inspirational and developmental moment the tangle of the remnants of Hellenic and Roman arts can be felt, as well as the new Christian art, with their repertoire and symbolism based on the previous. Due to this, the moments inspired by the Hellenistic literature are visible, especially where we have presentations of gardens, as is the case in the narthex of the Great Basilica or in the representation of the mosaic from the chamber IV in the Episcopal residence.
At the same time, the influences from Rome, Syria and Alexandria are also noticeable. In most cases, in this group of mosaics we have Eucharistic representations, a vine symbol of Christ, which comes out of a cup or cantharos most often flanked with a deer and a hind as a symbol of believers and peacocks as a symbol of immortality. There is also the theme of the water-source fountain and where animal deer, hinds and birds are powered at the source of life, as is the case of the presentation of the room II in the Episcopal residence. In all of this, the Christian message about the inclination to Christ’s science is symbolically represented through the scenes of hunting or the representations of the Christian paradise through the landscape, as the eternal place of the righteous, where “the lion will eat straw like the bull”. The Eucharistic displays, as a symbol of the high sphere of the kingdom of God, expose on their basis the ancient specimens of art, especially cultivated and applied in the Sassanid tapestry art. The presence of aquatic animals and the watery landscape points to the remains of the Alexandrian -Hellenistic art inspired by the landscape of the river Neil.
By its technical, artistic, iconographic, stylish and symbolic characteristics the mosaic of the narthex of the Great Basilica is distinguished, as a remarkable example of the early-Christianity art. This mosaic entirely sublimate traditions of the Hellenistic art, especially Alexandrian art, as well as roman painted landscape and Syrian influence. Certainly this mosaic is a work of the mosaic makers who came to Heraclea from the more important center. The close ties of Heraclea’s episcopacy to Thessalonica episcopacy of this period may probably insinuate that they came from Thessalonica, but there is possibility that they are mosaic makers from Constantinople, Antioch or Alexandria. At the same time, the application of the glass past in large extent as a mosaic building material makes this floor mosaic to be similar to the wall mosaics. Obvious is that the later mosaic makers, who perform the mosaics of the Episcopal Residence, were inspired by this mosaic. This is accented by the bordure of the apse room and the presentation of the floor of the room 4.
According to the previous examinations, the most important period of mosaic manufacturing in Heraclea is the 5th and the first half of the 6th century A.D., actually by the end of the reign of Justinian I. Stylish and iconographic characteristics of the Heraclea’s floor mosaics makes them similar to those from Stobi and Lichnidos (Ohrid) from Macedonia, and Nicopolis in old Epirus which may be the same artistic region. At the same time those characteristics point out to the new Byzantine art which is in its initiation.
MOSAIC ANSSEMBLE OF THE GREAT BASILICA
This figurative mosaic picture of extraordinary qualities is excavated in 1964 over the floor of the narthex. It can be encountered among numberless preserved master pieces of the antique painting. Mosaic covers the surface of more than 100 square meters (21,5 x 4,7 meters) The composition has several zones: in the center presented is oval medallion with symmetrical picture, located in the middle of the rectangular elongated frieze cutting in on half; into the frieze a line of fruitful trees is depicted, birds flying around the trees, and between there are flower bushes.
Starting from the left side the first tree is cedar tree, its crown is consist of bunch of needle-leafs and big nutgalls, it is followed by cherry tree, apple, olive and a cypress on each side of the medallion. To the right of the medallion, beside the cypress there is a palm tree, followed by pear tree, fig and in the right end of the frieze stands a pomegranate tree.
Between the trees there are flower bushes of roses, lily or treacle as well as wild animals, from which only six are preserved.
On the left side of the frieze a wild-goat is shown in a position of interrupted prod of a hunted animal, which in the moment of rest seems to be echoing backwards.
The bull and the lion jump on each other, they fly in the air with outstretched back legs, with which they have just dropped from the ground – the bull with the bent head and with the horns directed towards the lion, and this with an open jaw strikes.
On the right half of the frieze, tied to a fig tree stands a red dog with large canine teeth and, ultimately, under the tree of pomegranate, long-legged cheetah tears a gazelle which is lying on her back with her blood in jets flowing from the beast’s jaws.
The board consists of octagonal fields connected with meanders in an ornamental array. Of the total of 36, 28 fields have been preserved, and only aquatic animals are represented, in 11 fields they live in fresh waters: wild ducks, two ducks in a flower of elk, large white swans on a red base and one heron. In 17 octagonal fields, marine animals are represented: dolphins, fish, cuttlefish and octopuses.
In the oval medallion stands a motif of a symmetric composition: in the axle of the middle leaf of the acanthus bouquet stand the grail, cantharos and a grape tree is rising from it which full fill the grail with its leaves, grape and carnivores; a pair of peacocks stand tuned to each other in the upper register (peacocks are almost entirely destroyed), while a pair of deer, a hind and a roebuck are placed in the lower register standing positioned toward the vase, the deer on the left and the hind on the right side. The lower part of the oval medallion is surrounded by two side leaves of the acanthus bouquet stylized on a manner that they look like a laurel wreath.
This mosaic by far exceeds the well known floor mosaics, due to its artistic qualities, its contents and the symbolic meaning given to this content, as well as the iconographic solution of the composition.
The species of plants and animals are well distinguished, so as the most important features of the leaves, flowers or fruits of the plants, as well as what is most characteristic of the appearance, attitude and movement of the animals are given. In an idealization of the real forms and relationships, showing the most important, without introducing unnecessary details, in this mosaic there are the spirit and magnitude of the former classical Greek painting.
The luxurious color is achieved with about 20 colors and shades, with stone blocks, enamel (glass paste) and ceramics, which is more suitable for the “painting palette” for wall mosaics. It is obvious that direct stylistic comparisons and inspirations should be sought between works of painting, and not with concurrent floor mosaics. The thick but translucent tissue of the picture, like a gentle lace is laid around the white base of the marble cubes.
The crowns of the trees, tempered, transparent, without density and depth, are painted on a white basis, as if plants were pressed into herbarium. From all sides surrounded by white, the colors of the glass and the stone become even more intense, and the white fields between them shine as countless small light sources. It fluttered with air and light, creating an illusion of some unreal, extraterrestrial beauty. These are the powerful coloristic and light effects, one kind of impressionism of the Hellenic art in Alexandria.
While the four animals: the chamois, the gazelle, the hind, and the deer are in harmony with natural, inexorable proportions, in the appearance and motions of the other four animals: the bull, the lion, the dog, and the cheetah have a lot of clumsiness and incongruity, but also the immediacy that is inherent in the “naive” art: they are disproportionate, the movement does not have the required strength, and the expression is not always in line with the struggle in which those animals are found. The mannerism, and partly the conventionality in determining the details, the full two dimensionality, without depth, the “literal” realism and the other features of the naïve art reveal the style of the time in which this work was created, and that is the Early Byzantine time. Thus here we have a synthesis of three stylistic components: the classical Greek, the Hellenistic and the early Byzantine art.
The fruitful trees, birds flying around and flowering shrubs represent the Christian paradise. The theme of Paradise Christianity took over from the Jewish religious tradition: the earthly paradise, Eden, the Jews imagined it as a wonderful place for bliss, like a fenced garden (hortus conclusus), with trees that are not dried or dying, which are full of eternal fruits. Here rest the souls of the righteous to wait for the day of the terrible judgment. The frieze contains only animals belonging to the realm of water, seafarers and freshwater swamp birds, without any land animals.
Both the composition and the motifs presented on this mosaic are unusual and cannot be compared with the works so far known. It is a “synthetic” composition, a composition composed of four independent motives, one representing paradise, and the other one representing water.
Paradise and water – these are the two of the four areas of the Christian universe. The Christian thought, taking the older pagan opinion, but in conformity with its content, that the cosmos consists of four areas: in the first, the most sacred, abstract and incomprehensible, there is the kingdom of heaven, the first heaven, and the other three belong to the sensual world: In the second area is paradise, in the third is the earth. In the fourth and last area were the waters that surround them.
The only left unidentified motifs are the symmetrical picture of the medallion and the struggle of the animals in the frieze, and from the areas of the universe, the kingdom of heaven and the earth. Then, we assumed that these two motives relate to those two areas. Although the beasts in the frieze are together in paradise, they are depicted in situations that do not correspond to the idea of paradise, where peace and love rule: the fight belongs to the earth, and here the bull and the lion are shown in battle, the cheetah as tearing away his prey and the chamois as if persecuted, can only mark the earth. Only the red dog should be excluded; he is the Cerberus, the guardian of the lost paradise (in pagan mythology, Cerberus keeps the lower world where the souls of the dead rests).
The motive represented in the medallion is Communion (eucharistic) and baptism: the grapevine is a symbol of Christ, the hind and the deer one who draw their mouth to the cup symbolize the mystery of the communion, the union with God by taking his blood and body, and representing those who approached the new faith, illustrating at the same time the forty first David’s psalm:
„Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul is yearning for you my God””
Will show how the equations:
I area, Heavenly kingdom – symmetrical motif of the medallion
II area, paradise – fruitful trees, birds, flowers
III area, the earth – animal struggle, beasts and their prey
IV area, water – dolphins, cuttlefish, octopuses, wetland birds and other aquatic animals
Assumed scheme of the composition for the representation of the spherical universe
Scheme of the composition of the Mosaic Narthex
Even the composition of this mosaic is very peculiar, with no closer parallels among other famous works: the rectangle contains two concentric zones and one rectangular zone. One of the concentric zones is a circular medallion that is placed in the center of the rectangular zone, halving it, while the second concentric zone collapses the rectangular zone.
Why is this so and what can this scheme mean??
In seeking the solution, we began from the assumption that the composition reflects the appearance and structure of the cosmos. But the Christian cosmos was conceived as a cubus, a coffin, in which the fields stacked one over the other (as shown on the miniatures in the Christian topography of the Cosma Indicopleust, for example). This is obviously not the case with the composition of the narthex. According to an older pagan understanding, the cosmos is a sphere, in which the four areas are concentric, one around the other, they are linear according to the degree of holiness, from the center to the periphery.
The layout of the areas, the appearance and the ratio of the zones in our composition – from the three zones, the two are concentric and the one is rectangular, elongated – we were only able to explain that it is derived from the composition of circular concentric zones, with the zones inscribed one into another. Such a composition is a projection in the plane of the described spherical universe. In each of the four zones there was a motif that symbolizes one of the four areas of the universe: in the circle, in the center – in the medallion – is the first and most sacred area, the kingdom of heaven. The remaining three areas belonging to the sensuous world are placed in ring friezes that line up according to the degree of holiness: paradise, earth and even the outer ring, the water (ocean).
In the composition of the narthex, the first area is in the central zone, in the oval medallion, and the last one in the peripheral zone, in the bordure; The two middle areas are shown together, in a rectangle which is halved in the middle with the medallion.
Thus, the two middle zones of the original circular and concentric composition that were ring-shaped, are cut and erect, the medallion from the center of the composition “dropped” now in the middle of the rectangle crossing it in half. The outer ring zone with a aquatic motif, actually the fourth area, is surrounding the right frieze and its rectangular field.
It seems that the Heraclea composition is a rectangular derivative of the circular composition. The iconographic formula for the representation of the spherical universe in a plane is here adapted to the rectangular field. In addition, the two areas of the cosmos, from the two middle ring friezes, are collected and displayed in a single frieze, so in one field is the motif of paradise, and the motif of the earth, the first depicted by the landscape, and the second with the struggle of animals.
This interpretation, for the first time given for this mosaic of the narthex in Heraclea, sheds some new light on some insufficiently known notions of ancient philosophy and science, revealing a different way of thinking and a different view of the world. It allows to answer many so far unexplained questions about the meaning and iconography in the works of the old art, as well as to explain phenomena in some types of compositions that are encountered on wall paintings, domes, vaults or floors. Let us mention those found in Early Christian cult buildings in Ravenna and Rome, as well as early Christian mosaics on the floors of the 5th century in Antioch.
The believe that the world has a shape of a sphere is a pagan understanding, which was strongly opposed by the Christian ideology. The presence of that sphere formula in a church reveals, among other things, that painting manuals or other models used, contained much older iconographic solutions, whose original meaning was no longer understood.
In order to present a figure, as well as a whole scene, group or composition, the artists used examples, “templates”, which were found in painting manuals or in drafts, and the works they saw around them could serve also as an example; miniatures of a handwriting, painting or mosaic on a wall. Of course, based on the works preserved, it is not possible to determine the prototype for any presented motive today or at least not quite precisely.
It is evident that there was not only one model for the performance in the frieze: the paradise landscape here is given as a cultivated tree-line on a promenade, as the main ally of the park, or an orchard, and not as a native forest tree. The prototype, as it seems, could have been formed even in pre-classical Greek art – perhaps in the image of an orchard with the Feachan king Alkinoy and in the image of the garden of Hesperides. This landscape painting was particularly developed in Hellenism with the appearance of the planned gardens in Antioch, Seleucia and Alexandria. From that painting are preserved Roman replicas – for example frescoes in Prima Porte and in the house of Livia in Rome, as well as several frescoes from Pompei.
There are no comparisons and analogies with simultaneous floor mosaics, but can be found among other works of this time, in wall paintings, in miniatures and reliefs. From the preserved texts we realize that in this period there were churches whose walls were decorated with paintings of gardens and trees full of beautiful fruits, hunting scenes, fights of animals and the like, but this is not preserved. The “pale copy” of this type of landscape can be noticed on the wall mosaics of the 5th and 6th century in the baptistery of the Arians and in the basilica San Apolinare Nuovo in Ravenna, in St. John Lateran in Rome, and somewhat later in St. Sophia in Thessaloniki (9th / 10th century) and others. But here the landscape is not alone. Among the trees, mostly palm trees hanging fruits, shrubs, roses and screams, stand human figures of apostles or saints. On the miniature of many manuscripts from the 6th century AD, the paradise is represented by a series of trees – in the scene of sin and the persecution of Eden (Beckhekhekes), on the miniatures with the image of St. The tomb (Rabulus Gospel), in the scene with crazy and smart fads (the Rosano Code), on the map of the world in the indented work of Cosma Indigo-Pleurot. The closest analogy to the look of the crowns of the trees is found in the miniatures from the manuscript of Dioscorides of 528, which represent various medicinal plants, and which are similar to the crowns of the trees of Heraclea.
The prototype for animals could originate from the representation of pagan “paradeisos”. Pairidaesa are the great hunting parks for Persian kings and satraps: they are fenced forests in which wild animals were kept. In the works of the same time, some similarities in the representation and appearance of the animals are found on the mosaics in the city of Nebo in Transjordan (6th century) and on the mosaic of the floor of the large palace in Constantinople (probably 6th century).
The remote prototype of a symmetrical image, as it is in the medallion, reaches until the Minoan time (the third millennium BC, in Crete), and it is taken from even older oriental cultures, while the prototype of the vine is found in the works of the pre-classical and classical period of Greek art tied to the cult of Dionysus. Thus, in presenting this Jewish-Christian content, the old Oriental and Greek Hellenistic prototypes are united. The closest analogies of the same time, we have on the relief of the parapet plate in San Apolinarre Nuovo and the ivory throne of Archbishop Maximian of Ravenna.
As we can conclude, this is not one of those decorations common on the floors of that time, nor does it belong to the circle of compositions with “historical style,” which at that time was formed on the walls of the churches.
Based on the style and the degree of development of the shape and the appearance of the individual motifs of this mosaic, the time of its creation is dated to the 5th century AD. In 479, Heraclea was burned by the Eastern Goths headed by Theodorich. The last decade of the 5th century of our era – immediately after the Goths’ withdrawal from these parts – was a decade of reconstruction and construction.
The text is an excerpt from the publications:
1. „Од раката на нашите мајстори – Мозаиците на Хераклеjа Lинкестис 4-6 век
Автор: Србиновски Пецо (Вовед)
2. Хераклеја Линкестис – водич, издавач Одбор за Хераклеjа Битола 1974,
Автор: Гордана Ц. Томашевиќ (Мозаик ансамбл нa Големата базилика)
Translation in English: Silvana Petrova Nasuh