Durrës, Amphitheatre chapel,

Also known as Dyrrachium
Era 7AD - 11AD
Location Rruga Kalase, Durrës, Albania

In Durrës, a single wall mosaic survives in a very small chapel built into the Roman amphitheatre. It is a very puzzling image. A series of scenes survive on the rear and south walls. On the rear wall, a single figure, thought to be the Virgin rather than Christ, is flanked by two angels flanked in turn by two female figures, identified through an inscription as Eirene (Peace) and Sophia (Wisdom). Mary is dressed in imperial-looking robes as if a queen or empress. The figure of a small female donor survives; there may have been another donor to the Virgin’s right. On the south wall, one panel depicts St Stephen with golden hands, the other the Virgin, dressed as an empress, holding an orb and staff or sceptre and without her child. She is flanked by two angels and two donors. The inscription here records a prayer: ‘Lord, preserve your servant Alexander’. Mary’s halo is of gold glass, inserted at an angle and widely spaced; the background, however, is made from white, yellow and green tesserae, implying a lack of gold. Red and blue glass is also used. The theme of the images is that of intercession: the patrons (we assume) appealing to the Virgin, with the angels perhaps marking her heavenly court or perhaps acting as intermediaries (or both). The chapel may have been a burial space, in which case, the Virgin may be receiving her suppliants in heaven.

The chapel itself is odd: the space appears damp and unprepossessing, but was clearly significant enough to warrant mosaic decoration. This sort of imagery with this sort of message is a version of scenes in mosaic visible at Poreč, in Rome (though Christ is the central figure here) and at Thessaloniki. The gold hands also suggest Thessaloniki: in the church of St Demetrios, the saint in one of the fifth-century fragmentary panels has golden hands. The Maria Regina (Queen Mary) may suggest Rome (images of Maria Regina are known from S Maria Maggiore in the fifth century, a wall painting usually dated to the early sixth century in S Maria Antiqua, and an icon in S Maria in Trastevere dated between the sixth and eighth centuries) or Byzantium. The personifications of Sophia and Eirene are striking, in mosaic at least, though such personifications were freely used in other media and this is yet another example of the diversity of images found in mosaics. The use of Greek in the inscription might mean that the patrons belonged to the local Greek-speaking elite and had connections with Constantinople. The panels of the two walls may even have been made by different artists.

Date? You pays your money, you takes your choice. The style (the way it looks) and the similarities with the mosaics in St Demetrios in Thessaloniki suggest a sixth or seventh century date, supported perhaps by the links that can be drawn with Poreč and Rome. The archaeology of the chapel and the interpretation of the relationship between the mosaics and the wall paintings that cover the south and rear walls and underlie the mosaics – the mosaics have been inserted over the paintings - to an extent suggest the possibility of a conservative programme that can be dated anywhere between the ninth and eleventh centuries. So essentially, there is no means of dating this panel; nor can we really be sure what it is doing here. However, within the context of the bigger picture of mosaics, its existence at whatever date between the seventh and eleventh centuries should not be surprising; it is its survival that is fortuitous.


Dyrrachium (Durrës ) was an important Roman town, a provincial capital in the fourth century, and birthplace of the fifth-century eastern emperor, Anastasios I, who rebuilt it significantly, especially in terms of its walls. Though it was besieged by Theoderic in 481, the city seems to have remained a part of the Eastern Empire throughout the Middle Ages, albeit a contested one. As an Adriatic port, Dyrrachium was of significant strategic importance and there is much discussion as to how far in the sixth to eighth centuries it looked to and was influenced by Rome or Byzantium.