Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

The Great Palace Mosaic Museum was originally part of the Great Palace complex of Byzantine Constantinople. The site, which included a peristyle courtyard that led to an apsed hall, is one of the few extensively excavated sections of the palace, while its mosaic floor is one of the best surviving examples of art from Late Antiquity. The date and identity of the various structures of the complex are controversial, though it is clear it had various phases, including a marble floor that later covered the mosaic floor.

The mosaic floor belonged to three sides of a peristyle (55.5 x 66.5 m), which consisted of colonnaded porticoes and a courtyard. The substructures of an apsed hall, along with substructures of other buildings on its northeastern and southwestern sides, were found to the southeast of the peristyle. This apsed hall had the same orientation as the Hippodrome. Earlier phases of the site were also discovered during surveys and excavations. The site was initially surveyed by Mamboury and Wiegand in 1934. It was later excavated by the University of St. Andrews in Scotland over two campaigns in 1935-38 and 1952-54, with the first campaign unearthing a peristyle and its mosaics, and the second discovering the remains of an apsed hall. The mosaics were restored between 1983 and 1997. The museum was opened to the public in 1987.

The earliest phase of this site consists of a cistern found under the southwestern portico and a paved way that aligned with a building predating the apsed hall. This phase also involved the construction of piers that were the substructures of this earlier building to the southeast. Findings in the cistern include a lamp probably dating to the 4th-5th century and unfinished impost capitals. Furthermore, around half of the bricks of this cistern had stamps. A peristyle was later built over the paved way, as it goes under the northwestern portico. Its outer walls consisted of stones with mortared joints and a rubble core. There was a corridor outside the northwestern wall of the peristyle, which continued to the southwest past the peristyle. It communicated with a marble paved room to the southwest, while marble steps were found to the northwest. There was also a groin-vaulted cellar beneath the corridor. 

The peristyle had three phases, including an earlier phase than the mosaic floor. It is unclear whether this earliest phase had mosaics, though numerous tesserae were discovered. A fragment of Phocaean Red Slip Ware, perhaps dating to the late 5th or early 6th century, was found below the peristyle floor level. The brickstamp of this phase perhaps date to the early 6th century. In the second phase, the mortar bed of the first floor was covered with several layers of material including another layer of mortar and the famous mosaic floor now on display at the museum. At a later phase, the mosaic floor of the peristyle was covered with Proconnesian marble paving, while its northeastern and southwestern colonnades were transformed into corridors, with the stylobates used as foundations for a brick walls. The entire site, along with much of the rest of the palace complex, was probably in ruins by the 12th century.

The apsed hall (32 m. long by 16.5 m. wide) can be compared with earlier basilican halls, including the Constantinian basilica at Trier. It apse was oriented to the southeast and had a diameter of 10.9 m. The site has multiple phases of construction, including phases from an earlier building. Remains of the substructure of this earlier building, which was the destination of the earlier paved way, consist of piers and vaulting. It is unclear how this building was connected to the cruciform building (“Mamboury D.d”) to the northeast. The apsed hall was likely built either when the peristyle was first built or later when mosaic floor was laid. Additions and changes were made to the earlier substructures to support the apsed hall, its antechamber, and a triple arch that separated them. When it was first excavated, most of its floor had disappeared save for a small area of bricks at the western end.

The remains of others buildings are on the northeastern and southwestern sides of the apsed hall. The substructures of the cruciform building (“Mamboury D.d”) to the northeast were built prior to the apsed hall and might be the substructures of a church (it has been suggested it was the Church of St. Mary of Daphne). Its large arched entrance and small window on its southwestern side were blocked by the construction of the foundations of the apsed hall. It is unclear how it is related to the structure built before the apsed hall. The complex of substructures to the southwest (“Mamboury D.c”) consists of three vaulted chambers, connected to a larger square, vaulted chamber. These were built over the remains of Late Antique cisterns, perhaps dating to the late 6th or early 7th century. While initially dated to the Ottoman era, it seems that it also has an earlier stage dating to the Late Byzantine era. This entire complex, along with other adjacent buildings, was built on an artificial terrace approximately 26 m. high. The existing retaining wall to the south has both Ottoman and Byzantine masonry, though it seems that it was built later than the complex.

While there are only textual descriptions for most of the palace complex, it is the opposite for the mosaic peristyle. The dates of the various phases of the site are controversial with published opinions ranging from the early fifth century to as late as around 700. Most scholars now agree that the peristyle mosaic cannot be earlier than the reign of Justinian I (527-565). It is possible that the earlier phase of the site was a Justinianic addition to the Great Palace. The peristyle and its mosaic have been attributed to many emperors, including Justin II (565-578), Tiberius II (578-582), Maurice (582-602), and Heraclius (610-641). Recent research has suggested that the paved way and a cistern might date to around the late 5th -early 6th century, while the mosaic peristyle and apsed hall perhaps date between the late 6th and early 7th century. The later phase of the peristyle, which involved covering the mosaic floor with marble paving, has been variously dated from the late 7th to the 9th century. The identification of the complex is also quite controversial, with suggestions that the peristyle and apsed hall might be the Augusteus of the Daphne Palace, Karianos Palace, the Apsis, or even the Phiale of the Greens.

The mosaic floor at the museum belongs to three sides of a peristyle. It can be estimated that the original mosaic floor had a total area of around 1,900 m², though less than a quarter of the mosaics now survives. Enough, though, has survived to reveal the general character of the work. The mosaic had a lavish inhabited scroll along its borders, with a field of white tesserae set in a scale or fan pattern. Within this field, there are at least 75 scenes or fragments of scenes arranged in four horizontal registers that are the only structure in the field. The figure style is highly naturalistic, with the unrelated scenes having the character of vignettes. There are no frames or other separating devices, except for occasional trees marking the boundaries between scenes, though they are more often simply part of the scenes themselves. These scenes also differ in scale and do not share a unified space; they are juxtaposed without apparent logic, with idyllic village life and children’s games being found next to scenes of violence. Their motifs can be grouped into thematic categories, including scenes involving animals portrayed on their own, being hunted, or fighting other animals. There are also several scenes of rural daily life as well as mythological creatures and at least two possible personifications.

The mosaic has been interpreted in various ways. The wide range of subject matter – a variety of animals, hunts, village life, and nature personifications that was common in other Late Antique floors – can be seen as an expression of domination over the rich resources of the natural world. The mosaic has often been associated with Heraclius (610-641), suggesting that its scenes depict the rural life of North Africa. Furthermore its scenes have been viewed as a form of complex imperial symbolism. While it might at first seem randomly juxtaposed, it can also be interpreted as revealing the peace and harmony that imperial rule brings to an otherwise chaotic world. This mosaic, generally speaking, can be viewed as part of the Greco-Roman “naturalistic” tradition, which coexisted for centuries with the abstract tendencies of Late Antiquity. While these abstract tendencies increasingly came to dominate the Late Roman world, it never precluded a flourishing of the classicism even centuries later. The peristyle also marks a major shift in imperial decoration, as the later Proconnesian marble paving reveals a tendency in imperial palaces to have rich marble floors.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg
Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Circus parody with boys racing with hoops

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

One-horned “griffin” / two leopards eating an antelope (upper register)

Boy with a lamb / a “griffin” and a lizard (lower register)

Mythological and allegorical scenes
1. Bellerophon and the Chimera 
2. Reclining semi-nude figure 
3. Satyr carrying child
4. Samson and the lion 

Scenes of daily life 
5. Boy putting basket over hare
6. Shepherd with lute and dog and two mares, one with foal 
7. Shepherd milking goats, boy with large jar for milk 
8. Boy offering feedbag to donkey 
9. Woman carrying large jar on her shoulder 
10. Boys herding geese 
11. Woman nursing baby 
12. Fisherman 
13. Boy with lamb 
14. Seated person with small fish (fragmentary)
15. Herdsman with three goats 
16. Shaking fruit out of a tree (fragmentary)
17. Man kicked by a mule 
18. Camel ride 
19. Two peasants hoeing 

Hunting 
20. Hare hunt with two hounds and trident 
21. Boar hunt (and swampy habitat of the boar?) 
22. Hare hunt with four hounds 
23. Boar hunt (fragmentary)
24. Two hounds pursuing gazelle 
25. Soldier and leopard 
26. Mounted spearman pursuing two antelope 

"Hunting" in the arena 
27. Swordsman and tiger
28. Two spearmen and tiger


Predation and animal combats 
Fights or predation scenes as they might occur in nature 
29. Small bird predation (shrike?) 
30. Two leopards eating an antelope 
31. Lion and prey (fragmentary)
32. Hawk and small bird 
33. Lion and onager(?) 
34. Leopard and deer 
35. Bear eating a kid(?) 
36. Mongoose and prey 

37. Elephant and lion 

Fanciful or symbolic fights and predation scenes 

38. Deer and snake 

39. "Griffin" and lizard 

40. Eagle and snake 

41. Griffin and camel(?)

Real animals 
42. Grazing wild goat 
43. Grazing sheep 
44. Elephant with rider (fragmentary)
45. Monkey harvesting dates 
46. Bear in a tree (fleeing griffin?) 
47. Reclining cow with other domestic animals (fragmentary)
48. Lion (fragmentary, possible part of violent scene with the preceding) 

49. Two antelope 
50. Two deer (fragmentary)
51. Wild goat(?) 
52. Lion 
53. Lion with rocky habitat (fragmentary)
54. Two horses browsing on a tree 

Fantastic animals 
55. One-horned "griffin" 
56. Eagle-beaked griffin 

Figural scenes
57. Circus parody with boys racing with hoops 
58. Soldier with shield and spear
59. Soldier with shield and spear 

Non-figural scenes
60. Date palm and portico 
61. Arched bridge 
62. Water mill 
63. Fountain 
64. Building with water gushing through it 

Scenes with multiple elements 

65. Shepherd with three goats; dog watches them; wolf steals a kid 
66. Bear attacks person while another bear pulls fruit from tree for cubs 
67. Shepherd rescues a lamb while wolf eats a sheep

Fragmentary Scenes

68. Boy 
69. Donkey 
70. Female figure crossing a stream 
71. Mounted archer 

72. Fragmentary figure 
73. Lioness(?) 
74. Figure with hat 
75. Man with long hair 

 

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Two mares and a foal (upper register)

Boy with a large jar for milk and a shepherd milking goats (lower register)

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Two spearmen “hunting” a tiger in the arena

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Oceanus from inhabited scroll of the mosaic border

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Woman carrying large jar on her shoulder

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Elephant with rider

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Monkey harvesting dates

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Hare hunt with two hounds

Eagle and snake

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Eagle-beaked griffin

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Goats

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Boys herding geese

Elephant and lion probably fighting in the arena

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Deer and snake

Camel ride

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Inhabited scroll of mosaic borders

Great Palace Mosaic Museum.jpg

Stylobate of the colonnade

Plan by Müller-Wiener

Trier_Konstantinbasilika_BW_1.jpg

Constantinian Basilica at Trier

Photo by Berthold Werner

Apse Hall Plan by D. Talbot Rice

“Mamboury D.d” from Mamboury & Wiegand (1934)

“Mamboury D.d” Plan

Map.png
Artifacts in the Museum Garden
Garden of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Garden of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Fragments of cornices or architraves from the Great Palace

Garden of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Garden of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Garden of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Sources
An Architectural Interpretation of the Early Byzantine Great Palace in Constantinople, from Constantine I to Heraclius by Nigel Westbrook

Brickstamps of Constantinople by Jonathan Bardill

The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, Second Report edited by D. Talbot Rice

Die Kaiserpaläste von Konstantinopel zwischen Hippodrom und Marmara-Meer by E. Mamboury & T. Wiegand

Mosaikenforschung im Kaiserpalast von Konstantinopel by W. Jobst & H. Vetters

“The Soul of the Empire: Style and Meaning in the Mosaic Pavement of the Byzantine Imperial Palace in Constantinople” by James Trilling

“The Third Season of the Great Palace Survey” by E. Bolognesi Recchi-Franceschini

“The Mosaics of the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors” by PJ Nordhagen

 “The Artistic Patronage of Justin II” by Averil Cameron

“The Medieval Floors of the Great Palace” by Henry Maguire

Resources
Great Palace Mosaic Museum Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)

Byzantine Palaces of Constantinople Photo Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)

Mosaic Peristyle (Byzantium 1200)

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Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016