National History Museum
Mosaic Fragments in the National History Museum
The ancient mosaics on display at the National History Museum (NHM) are technically not part of Serdica’s cultural heritage because they do not originate from the city or its environs. They are, however, available to Sofia’s inhabitants and visitors, so their stories deserve some remark here.
In Hall 2 of the NHM there is an entire wall displaying mosaic fragments from different locations across Bulgaria. Two of the fragments are a gift from the National Polytechnic Museum, which in turn received them from the General Directorate of the Police for Fighting Organized Crime (GDBOP). This division of the Ministry of the Interior recovered the mosaic fragments at the border from foreign citizens attempting to enter Bulgaria with them. The fragments were most likely illegally cut out from a larger Early Byzantine floor somewhere in Asia Minor and were in transit to Western Europe.
These two mosaic fragments each depict a vessel sprouting ivy leaves. The symmetrical shapes and outlines of the scenes are uncharacteristic of mosaics from the Roman and late Roman provinces in the territory of present-day Bulgaria. These mosaics are, however, typical for those from territories in modern Turkey. The mosaics were created using the opus tessellatum technique and are of very high-quality artisanship. The color palette is cool; the only bright color is the green of the leaves, which is typical for the style and execution of 5th century mosaics.
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The other fragments in Hall 2 of the NHM come from a basilica in Pautalia (modern Kyustendil, Bulgaria) that dates to the 4th century CE. The basilica had two construction phases and consists of three isles intersected by a transept. The mosaic floor dates from the second construction period at the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th century CE. Today the basilica’s conserved remains can be seen in the yard of the former “Youth center” at Kyustendil, and parts of its mosaic are displayed in the Regional History Museum, Kyustendil.
The fragments of the Pautalia basilica’s mosaic floor are from the section in front of the chancel and depict dogs with red ribbons chasing after a deer, a rabbit, and other animals. During the Early Byzantine period, the hunt and this specific way of depicting these animals symbolized the four seasons. In Roman times, the red ribbons, usually depicted on green parrots, were apotropaic, meaning that they were magical symbols of good fortune intended to ward off evil forces. The mosaic from Pautalia is the earliest known depiction of dogs wearing these symbols and so marks the first time that this symbolism was connected with the idea that Christianity and its sacred spaces, like Pautalia’s basilica, would protect the Christian faithful from all evil.
Other images from the mosaic include intertwined circles filled with various ornamental and geometric shapes. Among them are fruit baskets, wild birds and geese, rosettes, and symbols of xenia (guest-friendship), especially apples and pears (for which the Kyustendil region is famous today). In Antiquity, typical gifts for guests included fruits, vegetables, game animals, fish, sheep, goats, and other animals and birds suitable for a feast. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, the Romans were famous for their long and extravagant banquets, which is why xenia was a common theme in mosaic art. In early Christian basilicas, however, xenia held a different meaning, now standing for the abundance of nature created by God for humankind. Churches’ mosaic floors symbolized the earth and the sea, so believers could admire the abundance provided by both and thank God for it.
The mosaic in the presbytery of Pautalia’s basilica, which is also on display in Hall 2 of the NHM, was laid in opus tessellatum and held colorful octagonal tiles in the opus sectile technique. The color palette is mainly dark and light brown with accents in green, yellow, and red. The white color is used as a background in the octagons and rosettes formed by rhomboids and meanders, but in the opus sectile tiles it gives way to multiple colors.