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Mosaics in Greece: the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki

Bird and flowers, 6th century basilica, Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.

We all have our favourite museums. If not a favourite museum, then a favourite wing of a museum, or a display case, or even a single object that makes our heart stop with its beauty or intricacy or fragile, impossible antiquity.

The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece (or Museum of Byzantine Culture as it is properly called) has many of the hall marks of the museums I love: a good coffee shop, some wonderful icons, charming signage:

Museum sign with mosaics. Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.

And of course it has it’s mosaics….mosaics which are particularly significant as far as I am concerned because it was these mosaics which I first really looked at after my epiphany on a Pelion beach when I realised that mosaics were what I wanted to make and do and think and be. The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki  includes 4th century patterned stone mosaics from private houses, a 5th century work incorporating the months of the year, and exquisite fragments of dedicatory church churches from the 7th – 9th centuries with all the glass and gold confidence of the best Byzantine murals.

Fountain mosaic, Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki.
Fountain mosaic, Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.

Let’s start at the beginning with these sixth century mosaics which greet you in the first room of the museum. According to the label, they are from a basilica north of the Church of the Taxiarchs in Thessaloniki. Remarkably secular for Christian mosaics but perhaps (my own little theory) they were borrowed from an older, Roman, structure. I love mosaics which have a made feel to them – silly, all mosaics are made, but it’s the ones which show their making, the hands that have pressed the tesserae into the soft mortar that I have a special weakness for.

In the same room you will find the Byzantine church mosaics from the Church of St. Dimtrios which I will write about in a separate post. For now, continue on your journey and as you continue consider that these mosaics were being made as the Roman empire was collapsing, that they were laid during a two-hundred year span as one empire fell and another, the new Byzantine empire centred in Constantinople,  was rising. The next room you come across is largely dedicated to one vast floor mosaic from a fifth century reception room:

Nearby is a strip of mosaics from a Thessaloniki house floor dating from the fourth century:

In order not to appear entirely blind to everything in the world except mosaics, here are some early Christian tomb paintings (which would make wonderful mosaic designs). Again, they have that utterly beguiling spontaneity; you can see the brush stokes, feel the painter standing back and thinking: ‘Hmmm, we need a bit more grass here, an extra squiggle there.’

Goose and lamb, Early Christian tomb, Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki.
Goose and lamb, Early Christian tomb, Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.
Pigeon. Early Christian tomb painting, Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki.
Pigeon. Early Christian tomb painting. Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.

The final room contains part of another large floor mosaic, with the months of the year depicted as portraits – a common theme in ancient mosaics. This one was also once a reception room in a 5th century Thessaloniki house:

With so much to offer mosaic-wise, the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki should have a firm place on my list of Top Favourite Museums, and it’s no fault of its own that it doesn’t. It is just a tad too orderly and organised for my liking. I tend to be a chaotic, jumbled museum sort of person – a devotee of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the ultimate disordered delight of the Cairo Museum in Egypt. I like museums which you can never really see no matter how many times you visit. I still relish the moment I stumbled across an El Amarna sandstone lavatory seat – gently moulded and perfectly designed for purpose – in a dusty corridor of the Egyptian museum.

And for an extra ten marks, can anyone identify this creature chasing the bull – a lion gone badly awry perhaps? Or an oversized, over optimistic lamb?

Lion (?) chasing bull, 5th century, Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki.



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