The Hinton St Mary Mosaic
Dorset, England, Roman Britain, 4th century AD
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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.