The Hinton St Mary Mosaic

Dorset, England, Roman Britain, 4th century AD

This magnificent mosaic was discovered buried beneath a field in the village of Hinton St Mary, Dorset, in 1963. Is it the earliest known image of Christ?

There were traces of a substantial building complex, probably including the remains of a villa. The mosaic was part of the best-preserved wing. The walls on either side had been demolished, probably in the post-Roman period.

The mosaic was designed as a continuous floor in two panels for one large room divided by a pair of short cross-walls. As often happened in the Roman world, pagan imagery was juxtaposed with that of Christianity.

The smaller panel contains a central roundel which shows the hero Bellerophon mounted on his winged horse, Pegasus. He is spearing the mythical three-headed monster, Chimaera, a scene perhaps intended to illustrate the triumph of good over evil. The roundel is flanked on two sides by hunting scenes showing stags pursued by hounds.

The larger panel comprises a central roundel flanked by four semi-circles. Three show similar hunting scenes and one a large, spreading tree. In the corners are busts of four male figures with windswept hair. They may represent the four Evangelists, the four winds, or indeed both.

In the central roundel is what is thought to be one of the earliest representations of Christ and, if so, the only such portrait on a mosaic floor from anywhere in the Roman Empire.

He is portrayed as a clean-shaven man. The bust is placed before the Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of Christ's name. Placed together as a monogram they formed the normal symbol for Christianity at this time.

If it is Christ, it stands at the very beginning of a tradition seen most strikingly on the wall and vault mosaics of Byzantine churches.

Roman Britain


Towards the end of the fourth millennium BC independent city-states unified to begin of over 3,000 years of pharaonic civilisation in the Nile Valley.

Roman Britain world culture

Ancient Rome world culture

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Object details

Length: 8.1 m
Width: 5.2 m


P&EE 1965 4-9 1

Room 49: Roman Britain


    J.M.C. Toynbee, 'A new Roman mosaic pavement found in Dorset', Journal of Roman Studies, 64 (1964), pp. 7-14

    K.S. Painter, 'The Roman site at Hinton St. Mary, Dorset', The British Museum Quarterly-3, 31 (1967), pp. 15-31

    C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, Batsford, 1981)

    M. Henig, The art of Roman Britain (London, Batsford, 1995)

    S. Pearce, ‘The Hinton St Mary mosaic: Christ or emperor?’ Britannia 39 (2008), pp. 193-218Bottom of Form

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    N. Cookson, ‘The Christian Church in Roman Britain: a Synthesis of Archaeology’, World Archaeology, 18 (1987), 426–433

    S.R. Cosh, ‘Seasonal Dining Rooms in Romano-British houses’, Britannia, 32 (2001), 219–242

    W.H.C. Frend, ‘Pagans, Christians and ‘the Barbarian Conspiracy’ of AD 367 in Roman Britain’, Britannia, 23 (1992), 121–131

    T. Sam N. Moorhead, ‘The Hinton St Mary Head of Christ and a Coin of Magnentius’, in N. Crummy (ed.), Image, Craft and the Classical World (Montagnac, 2005), pp. 209–212

    D. Perring,‘”Gnosticism” in Fourth-century Britain: the Frampton Mosaics Reconsidered’, Britannia, 34 (2003), 97–127

    D. Petts, Christianity in Roman Britain (Stroud, Tempus, 2003)

    D. Mattingly, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire (London, Penguin, 2007)

    P. Witts, ‘Mosaics and Room Function: The Evidence From Some Fourth-century Romano-British Villas’, Britannia, 31 (2000), 291–324

    J. Bowker, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religion (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002)