Syria

Although few mosaic pavements in Syria dating before the first century AD survive, there can be little doubt that mosaic production in the region, one of the wealthiest provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire and formerly the center of the Greek Seleucid kingdom, evolved directly from Hellenistic Greek traditions. Unlike Gaul and North Africa in the first and second centuries AD, where the style of mosaics was strongly influenced by the presence of itinerant craftsmen who introduced the black-and-white style popular in Italy at that time, Syria preferred the Hellenistic style of detailed narrative mosaics that imitated paintings. The abundance of Roman mosaics preserved at various sites, notably at the great metropolis of Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), demonstrates that the pictorial style remained dominant in Syria until at least the end of the fourth century AD.1

The mosaics excavated at Antioch and the surrounding area date from about the beginning of the second century AD until soon after the destruction of the city by earthquakes in AD 526 and 528.2 Figural scenes from classical mythology, often inspired by literary sources, were especially prevalent. The Atrium House at Antioch illustrates the characteristic style of mosaics from the region in the early second century AD. Three separate mythological scenes decorate the pavement of the triclinium: the love story of Aphrodite and Adonis; the Judgment of Paris; and a drinking contest between Dionysos and Herakles.3 The naturalistic treatment of the figures, the rendering of three-dimensional space, and the variety of colors reflect the influence of Hellenistic painting. Although the origin of the Getty’s Mosaic Floor with Achilles and Briseis (cat. 6) is unknown, the style of the mosaic, as well as its conception as a framed picture panel, is clearly part of this tradition. The use of geometric patterns and vegetal motifs as borders surrounding figural panels is reminiscent of the framing of Hellenistic emblemata. Additionally, while few mosaics are preserved in other parts of Syria before the third century AD, the cities that later became prominent production centers, such as Apamea, Emesa (present-day Homs), and Shahba Philippopolis, continued to draw on a similar style of pictorial composition.

The influence of Hellenistic Greek art and a preference for subjects from Greek mythology characterize Syrian mosaics well into the Christian period, long after different styles and themes had become more popular in other regions of the Roman Empire. At the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries AD, however, the use of complex narrative themes diminished in favor of simpler figural compositions framed by elaborate decorative patterns.4 A distinctive ornamental design that had been introduced in mosaics of the Roman East during the second century AD—the so-called rainbow style, in which colored tesserae are arranged in a diagonal sequence to produce a kaleidoscopic effect—became increasingly widespread in the mid-fourth century AD. The spiral pattern of alternating colors surrounding the central figural panel (with a hare eating grapes) of the Getty’s Mosaic Floor with Animals (cat. 7), from the Bath of Apolausis at Antioch, exemplifies this style. Such designs were not confined to secular settings; mosaic pavements with various versions of the rainbow style cover entire floors of a church in Kaoussie, a suburb of Antioch, which is dated by an inscription to AD 387.5

By the fifth century AD, a new repertoire of images developed to fit the needs of the growing number of churches established throughout the region. Animals, both real and fantastic, dominate the imagery of fifth- and sixth-century Syrian church mosaics. Arranged freely across the floor, they are typically shown walking or standing among small landscape elements. They are occasionally paired in lively chase scenes, such as the Getty’s mosaic panel depicting a lion pursuing a bull (cat. 19). Vegetal components, such as scrolling vines, were placed around an assortment of animals—lions, bulls, and peacocks and other birds—alluding to the Christian vision of Paradise. The majority of the beasts represented on the Getty’s mosaic panels with animals (see cats. 9–19), which are thought to be from an early Christian church in Homs, can be read simply as representing the great variety of creation.

  1. A pebble mosaic from Tarsus in Cilicia (in present-day Turkey) dates to the late third or early second century BC (Salzmann 1982, 37, 113, no. 125); and mosaics in Palestine have been dated to the late second or first century BC (Dunbabin 1999, 187–88nn1–3). On Hellenistic mosaics in general, see Westgate 2002.

  2. On the mosaics of Antioch and its vicinity, in general, see Levi 1947; Campbell 1988; Cimok 2000; Kondoleon 2000; and Becker and Kondoleon 2005.

  3. Levi 1947, 15–25, plates 1–2a, 142a, 145–48. The mosaic of Aphrodite and Adonis is now in the Princeton University Art Museum (y1940-156); the Judgment of Paris is in the Louvre (Ma 3443); and the drinking contest between Dionysos and Herakles is in the Worcester Art Museum (1933.36).

  4. Kitzinger 1965; Balty 1984; and Donceel-Voûte 1994.

  5. Levi 1947, 283–85, 423–25 (on the decorative style of the mosaics), plates 113–15, 139; and Donceel-Voûte 1988, 21–31, with additional bibliography.