The Basilica St. Sophia

    Mosaic from the Three-aisled Cemetery Church beneath St. Sophia

    The mosaic is laid 30 cm above the “lower one” and probably belongs to the penultimate basilica at the site of St. Sophia. This second basilica was built partially on top of the earlier one-aisled martyrium but had three aisles and a “Syrian type” apse. The mosaic from the basilica, which consists of five panels, was set in its nave and was found preserved up to the chancel (Pillinger et al. 2016, No 66, 300 – 317).

    The mosaic’s central panel has a rectangular shape with an inscribed square and circle, the latter of which contains the symbolic “spring of life” scene or a kantharos (a wide-brimmed vase) containing wine for Communion. The corners of the square also hold four kantharoi sprouting vines. The square field itself is flanked by intersecting circles that form four-leaf rosette shapes.

    The rest of the mosaic’s panels are: octagonal and separated by squares, square and holding four triangles that form a star; and square holding straight standing figures and also figures bent at an angle  with eight-pointed stars between them. Most octagons contain rosettes, “Solomon knots,” crosses, palm branches, and geometric figures. Two of the panels oriented north-south are framed by alternating rectangles and squares with inscribed rhomboids and circles holding rosettes or a large heart-shaped leaf.

    A long narrow border and second wider frame oriented east-west separate the five mosaic panels in the nave from three other mosaics with ornamental geometric decoration. These three panels probably belong to the basilica’s northern aisle even though their compositions are similar to those in the nave, except that they include more floral elements, shields and cubic shapes. Based on coins discovered between the “upper” and “lower” mosaic, the “upper” one was created during or after the reign of Emperor Arcadius (395-408).

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    Ground plans of the four consecutive churches:

    St. Sophia Basilica, ground plans

    The magnificent “St. Sophia” church in Serdica was erected during the second half of Emperor Justinian’s reign. Single tesserae made of colored glass and covered in gold leaf were discovered during excavations at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Based on these finds, archaeologists believe that the walls and domes of the last and most impressive of the four churches “St. Sophia” were decorated with mosaics. These type of tesserae are typical for the opus musivum technique, which is too fragile for floor decoration. Further support for this theory is the fact that besides borrowing the name “St. Sophia” from the original in Constantinople, almost all basilicas constructed in Justinian’s time not only in the capital but also in the Balkans and Asia Minor followed the same decorative scheme. Unfortunately, the wall mosaics from Serdica’s “St. Sophia” do not survive because this church’s original walls and arches were destroyed by multiple earthquakes, invasions, and fires and then rebuilt less extravagantly several times.


    Mosaic from the Apse of the Earliest Church beneath St. Sophia

    Антична мозайка от базиликата

    The original mosaic from the apse of the earliest church beneath “St. Sophia” displayed at the National Archaeological Institute with Museum – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

    Perhaps the most interesting and semantically important mosaic from Serdica is that from the apse of the earliest church beneath “St. Sophia.” This mosaic is currently on display at the National Archaeological Institute with Museum – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. It depicts two cypress trees—a popular motif in funerary art and the decoration of martyria—with massive vines twisted around them. They are very schematic in their execution, which contrasts with their rich, predominantly red and green color palette. The style of the trees resembles that of the massive vines on the sarcophagus of Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena and on some wall mosaics in “Santa Constanza,” both of which are at Rome.

    The center of the mosaic holds a vase with a palm branch and two birds pecking at it. This scene originates in Hellenistic times (the 3rd – 1st century BCE) when the famous mosaic artist Sosus of Pergamon created its original version of doves perched on a vessel and drinking water from it. The painstaking detail of the doves’ coloring and of their reflections in the water created the illusion that the birds are real.

    Since this original, the iconography of birds perched on a vessel became so popular that it was reproduced in a multitude of variations not just in Antiquity but in the Middle Ages as well (Popova 2017b). In the case of the martyrium from Serdica, the motif was reimagined to carry a Christian message. The palm branch is specifically chosen as a Christian symbol of victory over death, of the martyr’s sacrifice and Jesus Christ’s atonement for original sin, thereby giving Christians the gift of eternal bliss in the kingdom of heaven. The birds pecking at the branch and flowers symbolize this spiritual fulfillment. Thus, all the mosaic’s decorative elements emphasize the promise of heaven for the martyr and all the righteous. This mosaic was the work of an unknown workshop and is later than the earliest western part of the basilica, but it predates the mosaic from the chancel. It probably dates to the period from the end of Constantius II’s reign in 361 until the Valentinian dynasty (363-379), excepting the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) when Christianity was out-of-favor with imperial authority.