Thessaloniki, Hosios David, apse mosaic

Era 5AD
Location Epimenidou 17, Thessaloniki 546 33, Greece

The church of Hosios David is very small. When built in the fifth century, it was a diminutive cross-in-square church, perhaps 12.1 metres by 12.3 metres, with a single protruding apse and probably a central internal dome. It's up a steep hill, often locked in my experience and guarded by a dragon of a woman who gets very cross if you try to take pictures of the mosaic.

The mosaic is equally small since the apse is all of 5.5 metres by 2.5 metres. But it is striking and very unusual and difficult to understand – indeed, I’m not sure we do understand it. The iconography is unique – among surviving mosaics. In the centre, seated within a circular mandorla on a rainbow, is a young and beardless Christ holding an open scroll. He has been variously interpreted as an Emperor, as Christ Emmanuel (EXPLAIN), and even as a feminised figure. Around the mandorla are the four apocalyptic creatures/evangelist symbols, man (Matthew), lion (Mark), ox (Luke), eagle (John). Below the mandorla, the four rivers of Paradise flow. But uniquely (in surviving imagery), to Christ’s right stands a grey-bearded male figure, raising his hands to his ears and bending down. Behind him is a city situated in a rural landscape and in front of him, a bearded male figure, half-length and naked, shown in almost a grisaille technique, looks back at him, wide-eyed, and hand upraised, from the blue fish-filled water of the rivers below. On Christ’s left is a seated figure, also grey-bearded, an open book on his lap, hand to chin in contemplative pose. The text within this book reads: ‘A living source, capable of receiving and nourishing the souls of the faithful [is] this all-honoured house’ Behind this figure, in the rocky landscape, is a hut.

Who these two men and the figure in the water were meant to be is totally obscure. Were they meant as Old Testament prophets? New Testament figures? A mixture of both? And if so, which ones? : suggestions include Ezekiel and Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zachariah, Ezekiel and John the Evangelist, Isaiah and John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul, and Ezekiel and Habakkuk. This last is the most widely-accepted interpretation, because this is how a (probably) twelfth-century account written by an Abbot Ignatios identified the two figures What was the reason for the city and the hut in the background? Who is the bloke in the river? He is sometimes identified as a personification of the River Jordan. Such personifications of rivers, landscapes and abstract ideas (like ‘Victory’ or ‘Good Health’) were common in Roman art.

Below the image, along the bottom of the mosaic, runs a cryptic inscription, raising as many questions as it answers: ‘A living source, capable of receiving and nourishing the souls of the faithful [is] this all-honoured house. Having vowed, I succeeded and succeeding I paid in full. For the vow of her of whom God knows the name’. It is a text that implies that the subject matter was highly personal, and this may be what makes the mosaic so hard to decipher now (and perhaps also in the fifth century). It also makes it clear that the patron was a woman, not a rare phenomenon in Late Antiquity, but nonetheless a remarkable one. Her anonymity was shared by other patrons in Thessaloniki; at the Acheiropoietas, for example, the same phrase ‘known only to God’ is used of the male patron. It seems deliberately to underline the donor’s humility. The inscription at Hosios David suggests that the church was a private foundation, a gift in fulfilment of a vow: the church was built in return for success in something.


The existence of church and mosaic indicate that the patron could command the resources needed for the building, though the relative absence of gold and silver tesserae at Hosios David might indicate that they were beyond her purse. It might, of course, reveal that she could not get hold of them, but the use of metallic tesserae elsewhere in fifth-century Thessaloniki suggests that supply was not necessarily the issue. In fact, the mosaic generally appears to lack the clarity and quantity of glass in bright colours found in the other churches in Thessaloniki such as Rotunda or the Acheiropoietas and the background appears to be largely stone.

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