You’ll find many stunning Byzantine and early Christian mosaics while visiting Rome, Venice, Palermo, or Ravenna. These mosaics sparkle in the sunlight and are just as stunning as ever. These mosaics are also rich in early Christian imagery and symbols. This way, even the illiterate (most of the population in the 6th and 10th centuries) would still have been able “read” the mosaics and understand the meanings.
Are you not equipped with the same knowledge? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you “decode” Italy’s Byzantine and early Christian mosaics. Many symbols are repeated in early Christian art. Bonus: You’ll also see many of the same symbols in early Christian catacombs. (We won’t be going into all of the Biblical scenes… but that’s another day!) ).
Remember that Byzantine artists loved to label scenes and people. It’s easy to assume that Matthus is Matthew and Iordanes is the River Jordan, even if you don’t know Greek!
Some of the most iconic symbols of all time are:
Sheep and lambs: Christ, also known as the “lamb-of-God,” is often seen as a symbol of humanity’s sacrifice. It is common to see him as a shepherd or as a lamb. It is often surrounded by twelve sheep–the apostles and is usually adorned with a halo. You can see it in: Both the triumphal arch and apse tiles of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome (6th c.); Santa Cecilia’s Trastevere apse tile in Rome (9th c.); San Clemente’s apse tile in Rome (12th c.).Shepherd The idea of a shepherd as a caregiver and protector was common in pagan Rome. The idea was adopted by early Christians to portray Christ as the ultimate caregiver. You can see it at: The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (5th century); and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (6th century).
The symbols of the four Evangelists who wrote the Gospels of New Testament are the lion, eagle, eagle, and winged man. The lion represents St. Mark, while the ox St. Luke and the eagle St. John are the symbols. You can see them at The triumphal arch mosaic of Santa Maria In Trastevere in Rome (12th century); and the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice (11th-12th centuries).
Phoenix The phoenix, a mythological bird that rises from its ashes, is an appropriate symbol for the Resurrection. This is when all the dead are raised from their graves and bound for Heaven or Hell. It was also believed by early Christians. You can see it at The apse of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome (6th c.); and the apse of Santa Prassede, Rome (9th c.).
Grapevines and Grapevines: Vines are often used in pagan Roman art to represent the harvest of life. Other meanings were added by early Christians. The vineyard was also a reference to Israel, and therefore Christians as well as Jews, or the wine of Christ’s blood. Christ’s statement, “I am The True Vine, You are the Branch” helped to explain the idea that the baptized were the harvest. View them at: Santa Costanza in Rome (4th Century).
The peacock: Everybody, from Aristotle and St. Augustine, claimed that the flesh of a peacock doesn’t go to waste after it dies. Early Christians used the peacock to symbolize eternal life. You can see it at The ambulatory mosaics of Santa Costanza, Rome (4th Century).
Palm tree branch: The Palm fronds are a pagan symbol that dates back to ancient Greece. They were used by the Romans to signify victory. The palm was also associated with life. The palm tree was associated with life in early Christian iconography. You can see it at The apse of Santa Prassede, Rome (9th century), the apse of Santa Cecilia, Rome (9th century), and the ceiling mosaic of Arian Baptistery (Renna 5th century); the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (6th century).
Seven candlesticks These stood for the seven spirits of God. You can see them at The triumphal arch mosaics Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome (6th c.); and the apse of Santa Maria In Trastevere, Rome (12th c.).
Round versus square “halos”: The round halos have pagan origins. Ancient Romans used to carry their heroes or gods with them. These halos are what characterize saints. The patron of the mosaic was often a square halo, more commonly called a “nimbus”, which was used to honor “eminent” religious persons who were alive at the time the mosaic was made. You can see it at The apse of Santa Prassede in Rome (9th century).
A figure holding a church: This is the patron of the building that you are standing in! The figure will be located in the corner of an image that depicts Christ and saints. You can see it at The apse Mosaic of Santa Prassede, Rome (9th century); and the apse Mosaic of Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome (12th century).