Byzantine Imperial Mosaics in Istanbul

The entrance to the Mosaic Museum in Istanbul is through the Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet. Descending to a couple of levels below that of the bazaar, you find yourself faced with some remarkable mosaics from the Byzantine Imperial Palace that occupied most of what is the modern Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.

The mosaics, first discovered in the 1930s, are believed to have been part of the colonnade between the Imperial apartments and the Imperial enclosure on the Hippodrome. An enormous restoration project lifted the mosaics and put them on to new backing material in order to preserve them. The museum’s roof allows filtered light though so that you can view the mosaics in natural light.

There are some charming domestic scenes, such as this one of boys playing some sort of chariot racing game:

Two boys riding on a camel led by a slave:

Two boys driving geese:

I am curious as to why the boys in these mosaic scenes look more like small, stocky men rather than children, though their faces are quite distinct from the faces of the adult men depicted. I wonder if it is connected with a view of children as mini adult: the cult of childhood being a much later (probably seventeenth or eighteenth century) invention.

The depiction of animals and the human form is generally very well done, as in these scenes of animal husbandry:

A striking feature of the mosaics is the absence of images of women (apart from the one below and another one showing a woman with an infant on her lap).

The surviving mosaics give the strong impression of a male world, often involving cruelty to animals, at least to a modern sensibility.  Here for example are hunters fighting wild animals:

Animals fight each other in a struggle for survival, frequently depicted in gory detail:

Even an apparently straightforward depiction of a boy with a puppy seems to have an undertone of cruelty: the puppy appears to be springing out of the boy’s arms in fear – and is that an evil look on the boy’s face? Is it just the limitations of mosaic art? Or are we projecting our own interpretation on a more innocent scene?

There are certainly some fine animals depicted, from the exotic:

to the mythical / fantastical:

And finally two remarkable faces in the border decoration which look remarkably medieval to me and also remind me of the green man motif.

The overall impression I get from these mosaics is that are very Roman and pagan in their subject matter, style and execution. It came as a bit of a shock to me that they formed part of an Imperial Palace, perhaps because in my experience Byzantine imagery is mainly religious and stylistically very different. But these are early mosaics (5th century) in terms of Byzantine history and culture, so perhaps it is not so surprising that they are as strongly Roman as they seem.  

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5 thoughts on “Byzantine Imperial Mosaics in Istanbul

  1. These mosaics remind me of some I saw in central Sicily. Yes, very Roman, but also strikingly African. I wonder if the patrons were familiar with the central African wildlife depicted, or if it was only the artists who had first-hand knowledge of these creatures.

      • Good point. They may not have traveled to central Africa, but the animals were certainly brought to them. I assume the popular depictions of lions and such in coliseums is based on some historical fact.

  2. Pingback: Review of 2013 posts | wordscene

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