Happy Holiday SeasonHistory & Mythology

Early Christian Mosaic Art in the Spirit of Christmas 2019

Mosaic art is varied, diverse, and with its ancient history, often iconic. For example, early Christian examples portray luminous scenes from the Bible, glowing portraits of saints, and angels galore. These depictions, centuries old, show pivotal scenes like the Nativity. For Christmas 2019, we’ve been inspired by various images of the Nativity, celestial choirs, and even Saint Nicholas!

The Church of the Nativity

We really can’t talk about the subject without mentioning the restored Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Each year, it welcomes more than 100,000 visitors in the week leading up to Christmas. 

This year, pilgrims can witness an original mosaic tile floor, dating back to the 4th century. The extensive renovations at the holy site have included painstaking restoration of the mosaic patterns.

Church of Nativity Floor
Image Source: Middle East Eye

At the time, mosaic art was more likely to be used on the floor than the walls – it was used instead of carpet. In time, these original floors were covered, leading to exceptional preservation. 

For those of us who love the art form  – there’s outstanding mosaic wall art. This angel was unearthed only a few years ago. She was also discovered during the extensive renovations. Crafted from rocks, shells, glass mosaic, and stone the piece dates to the 12th century.

Church of Nativity Angel
Image Source: Middle East Eye

Amazingly, at the time of her discovery, the restoration team had no idea she existed! There were no records, and no indication that there was anything beneath the layers of plaster. Only a laser scan found this beautiful piece.

Earliest Nativity Scenes and Their Evolution

Some of the earliest depictions of the Nativity are in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy. Built in the 5th Century, its mosaic wall art was iconic. It influenced the way the Holy Family was depicted from that point forward.

Adoration of the Magi
Scene from the Triumphal Arch at Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Image Source:
Diaconia-IDC.org

This detail shows the Adoration of the Magi. It’s formal and seems odd today. Jesus is presented not in a crib, but on a throne, attended by angels. The Star of Bethlehem can be seen just over them. 

The Nativity scene is one of many depicted on the Basilica’s Triumphant Arch, where the lives of Christ and Virgin Mary can be followed from panel to panel.

Basilica’s Triumphant Arch
The Nativity Scene at Basilica’s Triumphant Arch. Image Source: Diaconia-IDC.org

This section shows Bethlehem, with the sheep representing the faithful flock. The early mosaic artists set the individual tiles unevenly so that they would catch and reflect the light. One can imagine how the mosaic patterns and images would seem alive in the candlelight.

Bethlehem
Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the Early Christian Arch Mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore.
Image Source: WikiArt

Also from the 5th century, at the Santi Cosma e Damiano church in Rome is this mosaic piece of the Lamb of God. The level of detail in these early pieces can be admired even now. 

Apse of Santi Cosma e Damiano depicts the Lamb of God
Apse of Santi Cosma e Damiano depicts the Lamb of God. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 6th Century, the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Church in Ravenna, Italy, was a showcase of the finest mosaic art. Here are two close-ups of the nativity scene from the nave. 

First, we see the 3 Magi, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Three Magi, Byzantine Mosaic
The Three Magi Byzantine Mosaic. Image Source: Pinterest

And then, Mary and infant – seated and surrounded by angels. 

Mary and Infant. Image Source: Pinterest

It seems very stylized and formal, doesn’t it? When compared to the Nativity scenes we see everywhere at Christmas, it’s very different. There’s no stable, no shepherds, no donkeys or cows – not even Joseph. In later pieces of Christian mosaic wall art, this early style is still holding strong.

For comparison, see this 13th-century depiction of Mary was the work of the artist Jacopo Torriti. This is also located at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. It’s very stylized and rather severe.

Coronation of the Virgin. Image Source: wga.hu

But, depictions changed over the centuries. How about this lustrous glass mosaic wall art is from the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo, Sicily.

Icon of Nativity at Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio in Palermo, Sicily.
Icon of Nativity at Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo, Sicily.
Image Source:
ReginaMundi.info

The 12th Century mosaic shows the common features of Orthodox Nativities that are more familiar to us. Mary is with the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. Joseph is finally there – that’s him with his hand on his cheek. The shepherds have heard the news and arrived. Art from this period usually showed 3 midwives washing the baby – they are at the bottom right. 

Even those midwives were controversial! By the 14th Century, Western interpretations of the Nativity story had removed them from the narrative. Why? Well, the  belief was that the Christ Child was born immaculate. No midwives or bathing were needed.

Angels Amongst Us

Mosaic of Nativity at Icon of Nativity at Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Mosaic of Nativity at Icon of Nativity at Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Image Source: wga.hu

Angels were a constant in all Nativity mosaic art throughout the earliest centuries of Christianity. As seen with the Nativity scenes, styles changed with the times. 

Here’s a 5th Century example of a ceiling mosaic at the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Christ is seated between two angels – depicted as tall male figures, heavily draped in white robes.

ceiling mosaic at the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Ceiling mosaic at the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Image Source: Emplyees Oneonta

Compare them to this 9th century mosaic piece from the Hagia Sophia. Standing at over 30 feet tall, Gabriel and his brother Michael must have been incredibly imposing. 

Image Source: Pallas Web.

Also in the same location are these Seraphim. They are a more abstract interpretation of the angel motif, perhaps because they were just a part of a nameless multitude. 

Seraphim Mosaic, Hagia Sophia
Seraphim Mosaic, Hagia Sophia. Image Source: Pallas Web.

In this 11th Century glass mosaic wall art from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine, the angel is still male – but his halo blends more subtly into the radiant background.

Angel Mosaic at mosaic wall art from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine.
Image Source:
wga.hu

By the 14th Century, the angel from Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey is looking a bit more feminine and plump – although still quite radiant.

Angel from Chora Church, Istanbul. Image Source: WikiArt.

Our Angel Mosaic art combines a little bit of each, with a chubby cherub assisting the sweet trumpet-playing angel.

Religious Angel Mosaic Art by Mozaico.
Religious Angel Mosaic Art by Mozaico.

Saint Nicholas 

Santa Claus, as he is most commonly known, has a saintly history. He was inspired by St. Nicholas, the former Bishop of Myra, Turkey. Born to a wealthy family in Greece, Nicholas was renowned for his charity and good deeds. 

The young Nicholas gave money to the poor, opposed putting criminals to death, and aided children. Legend has it that he would leave anonymous gifts of gold for the destitute, even before he became a man of the cloth. 

Through time, his compassion for those in greatest need became legendary. It inspired others and imitated especially around Christmas. Why? Well, his feast day is conveniently celebrated on December 6th. 

Santa Claus Mosaic Art by Mozaico
Santa Clause Mosaic Art by Mozaico.

The good saint is an indisputable part of history, and his original church still stands in Myra. Today, rosy-cheeked Saint Nick (Or Claus) is everyone’s favorite holiday icon.

With all the variations in angels, saints, and Nativity scenes, what’s your favorite? Do you prefer your angels more realistic, or more serene? Does the traditional depiction of Saint Nicholas warn your heart, or do you like the modern version? Let us know in the comments – and don’t forget to check out all of our mosaic wall art here.

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