Ancient Serdica

    Archaeologists have discovered mosaics on both sides of Serdica’s decumanus maximus (the main street oriented East – West in Roman urban planning) or present-day Sofia’s “Largo” zone. The mosaics decorated the floors of important public buildings as well as private residences of the Roman city’s elite and magistrates. This is the so called “Serdica I” mosaic area, which boasts three mosaic monuments so far.

    Floor Mosaic from the House of Felix – 4th century CE

    This domus (building A6 on the excavation plan) consists of several rooms and is located near the apse of a basilica (№1) on the same street. The floor in one of the rooms is entirely covered with mosaics (Pillinger et al. 2016, No 63, 288-295; Ivanov 2017), which are mainly ornamental-geometric compositions. Five rectangular panels surround a pseudo-emblem, which is not at the mosaic’s center but near one of its longer panels. Two of the five panels have a light background color so that the pseudo-emblem stands out. The panel around the emblem holds interlacing circles forming four-leaf rosettes. The other four panels are set around the mosaic’s edge and display variations of octagonal and square plans. In the mosaic’s lower right corner can be seen part of a newer sixth panel, probably made as a replacement for the poorly preserved older panel in which it is set. The new panel depicts four-pointed stars with lozenges between them.

    The panels surrounding the emblem are polychrome with predominantly warm colors and are filled with small geometric shapes with other geometric designs inside. These geometric elements’ small size and their color palette and thin outlines are reminiscent of the barbarian jewelry technique of filling small geometric units with enameling known as cloisonée. Given the greater involvement of barbarian tribes in the Balkans as allies and enemies throughout Late Antiquity, it is probable that this stylistic resemblance marks the real influence of such peoples’ art on the art of Late Antique Serdica.

    A peculiarity of the mosaics in the “House of Felix” are the distorted floors of the room in which they were set and the consequent folding of the mosaic pavement itself. These disruptions were caused by severe earthquakes that hit the region of Sofia in Late Antiquity, which exacerbated the issue of the mosaic already missing the usual bottom layer of stones (the statumen) that served to hold together the mosaic’s upper layers. Given the extensive earthquake damage to the mosaic, it was only partially restored and then conserved in place.

    The pseudo-emblem in the mosaic of the “House of Felix” is a depiction of the imperial diadem, which  does not appear in ancient art and jewelry before Late Antiquity. Until then, the corona civica was used in Roman imperial art. Depending on the specific context, it was made of laurel-, olive-, or oak-tree branches. In earlier Roman art, such wreaths were worn by emperors, priests, and victors in military battles and public games.  Later in  Early Christian art, saints and martyrs were also depicted with wreaths since they were regarded as victors over paganism and death.

    The diadem was introduced as an imperial symbol during Constantine I’s reign, when it began appearing in his official portraits and especially on coins and medallions. His sons and their successors continued this tradition until the end of the 4th century. The type of the diadem and its decoration in particular changes after the Constantinian dynasty. The diadem depicted in the “House of Felix” mosaic has a unique decoration with no known parallels so far. It is a wide golden band that imitates a vegetal wreath. Its decoration consists of a repeating three-leaf element across its width, in which a bigger central leaf is flanked by two smaller ones. Based on their shape and colors, the bigger leaves are probably meant to represent stylized leaf-shaped precious stones like amethysts and emeralds that are framed by small pearls. The wreath is divided in the middle over the forehead and ends in a round amethyst stone in the back. When compared to imperial coin and sculptural portraits, the mosaic wreath is missing the two tied bands, teniae, that typically fall from it to the left and right over the shoulders.

    In the “House of Felix” mosaic, the diadem encircles a large round field with several spirals turning to the left. The spiral bands are polychrome and have a warm color palette.The Latin word felix meaning “happy” is rendered in yellow lettering in the lower ends of the spirals over a background of three stripes. In this case, felix is not a name but a wish for happiness and prosperity for the house’s owner and his household. Such a meaning, for example, was behind Emperor Galerius’ naming of his birth city Romuliana Felix.

    The spiral motif at the mosaic’s center is similarly symbolic, in this case of eternal life, movement, and development. Since ancient times, this spiral motif was apotropaic, and in Late Antiquity it found its way into mosaic art but took on a new Christian meaning. It came to symbolize the protected sacred space of the church. Further evidence that the mosaic in the “House of Felix” belongs to an early Christian milieu is the inclusion of a small Greek cross made of a central golden tessera surrounded by four turquoise tesserae. Two other Greek crosses can be found in another one of the mosaic’s geometric pаnеls, but already in linear treatment (Popova 2022a).

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    Линк към Google Maps:

    Plan of excavated buildings on “Knyaginya Maria Luiza” Blvd.

    Ancient Serdica, Felix building. Ground plan.

    Gallery Zone “Ancient Serdica”

    Mosaics from the Complex South of the Largo

    A large complex with a peristyle was discovered south of the “Largo” and dated to the 4th – 6th centuries (Шалганов, Козарев 2012). Archaeologists discovered one-half of a large floor mosaic in one of the rooms around the courtyard. They excavated and conserved the mosaic in situ. The mosaic depicts a kantharos in a rectangular field outlined with white tesserae. The vessel’s interior is rendered in dark-colored tesserae while the middle of its body holds a large, almost oval decorative element. The border is wide and a light color, possibly white. The depiction of the kantharos is probably connected to the function of the room as a bath, an interpretation that is based on the plan of the complex in which the room is set. This interpretation is further supported by parallels with other Late Antique baths decorated with similar mosaics.

    A second, badly preserved mosaic was discovered in another room. No clear images or motives can be distinguished.  Based on the iconography and style of the kantharos fragment, the mosaic was dated to the second half of the 3rd – beginning of the 4th century CE.

    Мosaic Fragments beneath the Building of the Council of Ministers

    Two sections of another polychrome mosaic were discovered and conserved in situ just under the Ministerial council building north of the “Largo” in central Sofia. These mosaic sections show intricate knots: the first section was part of a thin border while the second belonged to the inner fields of the mosaic. The colors were bright and dominated by red, white, and black. The mosaic continues further under the Ministerial council building and cannot be completely revealed at this time. Based on the mosaic’s large interlacing circles and crude technique, is dates to the second half of the 4th – 5th centuries.