I don’t want to get carried away, but I think the Rotunda mosaics in Thessaloniki, Greece, might be it. It as in the beginning. Not the beginning of mosaics as we know them (that happened down the road at Pella), not even the beginning of Christian mosaics (although that’s possible) but the beginning of the use of mosaics in Byzantine architecture to dazzle and awe. If not the actual beginning, then as close as damn it, to the first use of gold and brilliance, of life like mosaic portraits, intricate architectural designs, soaring, glittering ceilings made to draw the eye upwards and induce a feeling of humble wonder at this earthly reflection of heavenly glory.
The Rotunda was built in 306 AD and was originally intended to be the mausoleum of the tetrarch Galerius but he ended up being buried in Serbia, and so around a century later the abandoned structure was turned into a church and this – sometime in the early 5th century – is when the mosaic decoration was added. Bearing in mind that Constantine I moved the capital of the (disintergrating) Roman empire from Rome to Byzantium (later called Constantinople) somewhere between 324 and 330 BC, then these could well be the very first examples of Byzantine mosaics as we have come to think of them – glinting with multi coloured splendour, richly ornate and highly life like.
It certaintly means that the Rotunda mosaics, as fine and brilliantly executed as anything in Ravenna, antedate their famous counter parts by at least 100 years. There are other serious contenders for first place in the claim to be the oldest Christian church in the world (the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and there are other early Christian stuctures with mosaics (the Basilica of Aquileia is an obvious example) but the Rotunda mosaics could quite easily be the oldest of their kind and so I am going to leave that delicious possibility in the air as I admire the fragments that remain.
The only problem with the Rotunda mosaics is that is that you cant actually see them. Earthquake damage over the centuries is largely to blame but even if they were miraculously intact, the fact remains that they are typical crink-in-the-neck mosaics – mosaics so high up on the 30 metre domed ceilings that you haven’t a hope of seeing them in detail. And then to cap it all, they have been smothered with scaffolding for as long as I have known them (12 years) with no indication when it will be dismantled.
So the most you can do, for now, is to enjoy the mosaics in the vaults of three of the rectangular recesses set into the six-metre thick walls which are purely decorative, showing birds and fruit, set within geometric and twisting bands of silver tesserae on a gold background. For the ceiling fragments of martyrs, saints and buildings which are not obscured by the scaffolding, you need binoculars or a good zoom lens (which I don’t have).
Under the years of Ottoman rule, the Rotunda became a mosque but its mosaics remained. A minaret and a fountain were added to help serve its new function and these remain although when the city won independence in 1912, it was re-consecrated as the church of Agios Dimitrios and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Despite the scaffolding and the earthquakes, I am fond of the Rotunda for more than its mosaics. It’s eccentric roundness and formidably ancient brickwork make it a pleasing relief from the ugliness of the modern utilitarian architecture around it. I like it, too, for these broken stones in the gardens which I assume come from the vast Jewish cemetery which once adjoined the building, was destroyed during Nazi occupation and now lies under the city’s university complex. I cannot read the names or inscriptions half buried in the long grass, but I can remember.