Aquileia, with its immense archaeological site and its Patriarchal Basilica, became a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998. It was also one of the largest and richest Mediterranean cities within the Roman Empire, and eventually was made seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that lasted until 1751. Thus, Aquileia became a dominant hub of the Christian world for Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century. The archaeological excavations have not brought to light everything regarding the Roman Era city; nevertheless those that have been found are certainly one of the best-preserved testimonies to Ancient Rome’s grandeur. Among the jewels of this city is the Patriarchal Basilica, built c. 1000, and brilliant with its magnificent 4th-Century mosaics.
Founded by the Romans as a military outpost against the Barbarians in 181 BC, Aquileia, given its position on the River Natissa, grew into an important trade and commerce center. Gradually it turned out as one of the most thriving cities in the Empire, yet saw partial destruction once Attila the Hun arrived. Its forum, the basilica (Roman Government building), the macellum or indoor produce market, the baths, the mausoleum, residential complexes, defensive walls, the Sepolcreto Romano, the circus (or racing arena) and the amphitheatre are all still visible in part today, as are the ruins on the river port, complete with warehouses and piers. Dating back to the 2nd-3rd Century AD, Aquileia’s forum was the heart of public life. The splendid Basilica – facing south, the section of it so far excavated – was the civic hall for Governmental affairs.
Standing slightly away from the center of the city are the Baptistery and Patriarchal Basilica, symbol of Aquileia that was completed in 1031 (including the bell tower) with the commission of the Patriarch Popone. This new Basilica constituted a radical restoration of the most ancient religious complex (from the 4th Century BC) that had been damaged by the Barbarian Invasions and earthquakes. The ruins of the former Basilica include the Paleochristian Complex, built by the Bishop Theodorus, and the floor mosaic, also 4th Century, depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The floor mosaic was not discovered until the beginning of the 1900s, when the flooring that had been laid in later centuries was removed. Other ancient remains and mosaics were found in the so-called “Slaves’ Crypt,” accessible from inside the Basilica. Not only, but the “Crypt of Frescoes” holds Byzantine-style frescoes from the 1100s. The Basilica as is today is in the Romanesque, with a few Gothic details (added in 1348) and Renaissance additions that were the fruit of successive renovations.
The architectural development of the Basilica of Aquileia, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the saints Hermagora and Fortunatus, started in the years immediately after 313 AD. In that period the Edict of Milan put an end to religious persecution and the Christian community was legally able to build its first place of public worship. In the following centuries, after the destruction of this first church, seat of a bishopric, the inhabitants of Aquileia built it up again other four times, using each time the structures of the previous buildings: Theodorian Hall, first half of the 4th century; Post-Theodorian North, middle of the 4th century; Post-Theodorian South, end of the 4th century or after the middle of the 5th century; hall of Maxentius, 9th century; Poppo's church, first half of the 11th century; rebuilding of the upper part of the church by Markward von Randeck, from the pointed arches to the roof, 14th-15th century.
The Basilica, as it is today, is in Romanesque-Gothic style. The inside is majestic and solemn and pervades us with a deep spirituality, which has grown along with the centuries. The entire floor is a wonderful coloured mosaic of the 4th century, brought to light in the years 1909-1912. The elegant hull-shaped timber roof dates back to the 15th century. This means that between floor and ceiling there are more than one thousand years of historical and artistic development. With its 760 square meters the floor is the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic of the western world. It alone could be enough to satisfy the traveler coming here to visit the Ecclesia Mater, which has become part of the world heritage. The mosaic was partly damaged due to the construction of the columns flanking the right side at the end of the 4th century according to some scholars and after the middle of the 5th century according to others. It is also possible to see the foundations of the columns because at the beginning of the 20th century the medieval white and red tiled floor made under Patriarch Poppo (1031) was removed in order to uncover the precious Paleo-Christian mosaic. The glass platforms are situated at the level of the medieval floor.
Walking along the platform we can admire the first scene: the Battle between Cock and Tortoise. The cock is the symbol of the light of a new day, thus representing Christ, the "light of the world". The tortoise, whose Greek name means "dweller of the darkness", is instead the symbol of the Evil. Passing on to the right we can see the scene of the Good Shepherd with the Mystic Flock. Christ is portrayed as a beardless young man bearing the lost lamb upon his shoulders. In one hand he holds the syrinx (the shepherds' flute), symbol of the gentleness he takes care of his flock with. He is surrounded by land, sky and sea animals, because his flock is composed of all men "of good will", of whatever race and culture. In the clipeus we see several portraits of benefactors (a man wearing a toga, a veiled woman and girls). In the other round frames there are the images of the seasons (Summer and Autumn; Winter and Spring have been destroyed by the foundations of the columns) and of the acrostic fish ICHTYS (the Greek name for "fish"; each single letter is the initial letter of the words "Iesus Christòs Theu Yòs Sotér", meaning "Jesus Christ Son of God the Savior"). Close to the carpet with the portraits we can see the images of the donors and of the Christian Victory. The classic winged Victory bearing a laurel crown and the palm branch for the winner has been transformed into the Christian Victory donating the Eucharist to the believer winning the battle against the sins. The magnificent Fishing scene is a work of the Sea Master and describes the preaching of the Apostles ("Follow me and I will make you fishers of men": Matthew 4:19). The fishes represent the people listening to the good news, the boat is the symbol of the church, the net (but also the fishing-line) represents the kingdom of heaven ("The kingdom of heaven is like a big net that was cast into the sea…": Matthew 13:47). In the great fishing scene we can admire the three episodes concerning Jonas and representing the allegorical announcement of death, resurrection and ascent to heaven of Christ: Jonah swallowed by the sea monster, Jonah thrown up by the sea monster, Jonah resting under a vine.