52. Preference for the four-fold




Fig. 426 – Four-fold decoration in the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in Palermo. The chapel was commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in 1132 and took eight years to built (Photo: Marten Kuilman, Oct. 2012).

The mosaic is a typical artistic representation of the Roman Empire, in particular, from the first century BC until the fourth century AD, covering a period of some five hundred years (ROSSI, 1968). The sources and skills were mainly drawn from Greece.

Earlier mosaic work had been known from the Chaldeans of around 2500 BC. The so-called ‘Standard of Ur‘ is on display in the British Museum in London. The Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians did not feel, in general, attracted to mosaics. Their specialism was a wall-decoration with (colored) tiles, like those used by Nebuchadnezzar in the temple area of the upper seven stairs of the ‘tower of Babylon’ (EISELE, 1980; p. 160).

The Roman ‘Alexander mosaic’, with the confrontation of the Macedonians and the Persians, dated from the first century B.C and can be seen in the National Museum at Naples (FOX, 1980). King Darius of Persia drives a quadriga with black horses at the right part of the mosaic. To the left is Alexander the Great. The wall decoration, originally from the ‘House of the Faun‘ in Pompeii (excavated in 1831), was probably copied from a painting of Philoxenos, made in 318 BC, depicting the battle by the Issos (333 BC). The four ‘classical’ colors were used in the mosaic:

 ——————–    black                        white                           red                           yellow

L’ORANGE & NORDHAGEN (1960) divided the prominence of the mosaics within the Roman culture in two periods. The first epoch was a period of expansion from 333 – 30 B.C. The second time span ran from emperor Augustus to 476 AD. Mosaics were widespread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean.

A concentration of mosaics in the center of the Roman Empire was present in Ostia (Neptune in his quadriga, late second century AD), Rome (Santa Costanze, S. Pudenziana, S. Clemente, S. Agnese), Florence (S. Giovanni), Venice (San Marco), Aquileia (Dom) and Ravenna (San Vitale, mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Sant’ Apollinare in Classe and S. Apollinare Nuovo).

Roman mosaics displayed a preference for four-fold symmetrical motifs. This predilection can be either in the details, like the knots of Salomon, but also in the choice of the subjects, like the four seasons – which was a favorite theme. A mosaic floor in a villa at Hinton St. Mary, Dorset (England) – now in the British Museum in London – figured Christ in the middle of a Chi-Rho-diagram between two pomegranates. The four seasons filled the corners (CAMPBELL, 1982). It will always remain a hypothetical question if the application of p4-symmetry in mosaics was a sign of tetradic thinking or simply generated and dictated by the square shape of the floor or ceiling.

Mosaics with the four seasons are also known from Syria (Antioch, fourth century; MYERS & COPPLESTONE, 1985; p. 223, pl. 33 and Dair Solaib), Cyprus (Paphos, third century), Libya (Tripolitania, around 100 BC; the seasons and nilotic subjects are figured in emblemata in the Archeological Museum of Tripoli (fig. 427). The Museum Bardo in Tunis acquired a mosaic from Bir-Chana, showing the (seven) planets in a hexagonal setting. The astrological knowledge was transferred to the West in a number of documents, of which the ‘Tetrabiblos‘ of Ptolemaeus was probably the most famous. Other mosaics of four seasons are in Palestine (Beit-Jibrin; LEVI, 1947) and Tunisia (Cartage).


Fig. 427 – The four seasons and Nilotic themes are seen here in a mosaic composed of emblemata. From Zliten, Tripolitania. Around 100 AD. Now in the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli. The art of mosaic-making as a means of interior and exterior decorating had a Greek-Hellenistic origin (third century BC, Sicily) and was used widespread around 100 BC throughout the Roman Empire. The executing artists were often of Greek origin (HENIG, 1983).


Fig. 428 – Symmetrical mosaics from Misis-Mopsuhestia in southeastern Turkey, near Adana. The mosaics are from the northern nave in the basilica, the so-called ‘Samson cycle‘. This representation is a reconstruction from the damaged original floor coverings (BUDDE, 1969).

Important mosaics were unearthed in the outlying districts, underlining the widespread occurrence in the latter centuries of the Empire. Examples are found in south-east Turkey (near Misis-Mopsuhestia; BUDDE (1969) (fig. 428), Cyprus (Paphos), Syria (Antioch), North Africa and Sicily. The Piazza Armerina, being part of the Sicilian villa where Maximian, the partner of Diocletian, retired after the dissolving of the tetrarchy in 305 AD, exhibits some three hundred square meters of mosaic floors (fig. 429). Roman outposts, like Jerash (Gerasa, Jordan; fig. 430), Spain and Britain have their own wealth of mosaics.


Fig. 429 – Mosaics with tetradic-geometric themes in the Villa Romana del Casale/Piazza Armerina (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 2012).


Fig. 430 – Mosaic with tetradic features in Jerash (Gerasa, Jordan) (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 1999).

An interesting mosaic was found in the Beth Alpha synagogue near Galilee, Israël (KITZINGER, 1965; SHANKS, 1979), which was discovered in 1929. The mosaic dated from the sixth century AD and was part of an exotic termination of the period of (Roman) Byzantine mosaic making. The central part showed Helios on a quadriga, flanked by the four seasons and the twelve signs of the zodiac (fig. 412-4 and 431).


Fig. 431 – Central part of the mosaic in Beth Alpha (Galilea, Israel) with a quadriga. Six cent. AD. (SHANKS, 1979).

The seasons do not correspond with the actual signs (CAMPBELL, 1974). The top of the mosaic depicted a symmetric representation of the arc, with lions and two ‘menorahs‘. A picture of Abraham, offering his son Isaac and a lion and a bull – two of the four living creatures – are given at the bottom. A similar (zodiac) mosaic was found in Na’aran (Israël). These motifs indicated the pluriform nature of thoughts at the end of the Roman Empire. STERN (1953) described, in his article on a calendar manuscript dated from 354, several examples of the zodiac and the planets (or planisphere) and indicated that the astrological knowledge was abundant in the later centuries of the Roman Empire (fig. 432).


Fig. 432 – The planets and the zodiac are seen here as Roman graffiti (now lost). Drawings like this indicate that astrological knowledge was fairly well established in the first centuries AD.

The transition from the (late) Roman-Byzantine to the (early) Christian mosaics in the sixth century, like in Ravenna, was a gradual one: ‘For ten centuries mosaic was to be the decoration of the eastern churches’, said MYERS & COPPLESTONE (1985) and ‘there does not appear to have been any break.’ The octagon of the San Vitale at Ravenna, with its overwhelming mosaic-decorations in the presbytery, was built between 546 – 548 AD and had strong four-fold affinities: four arches, with four apostles reaching to a central Lamb of God (fig. 433).


Fig. 433 – The presbytery in Ravenna (Italy): four arches support a dome, which is fully decorated with mosaics in a four-fold pattern. The Holy Lamb takes a central position.  (MYERS, 1985).

The early-Christian mosaics (fourth-sixth century) in Bulgaria are important, because of their geographical position between East and West. KORANDA (1991) stated that most late-antique mosaic-floors in Bulgaria did have a clear geometric or plant like character. They occur in the basilicas of Sandanski, Garmen, Skorpilovci, Varna, Plovdiv and Arcar and possess obvious tetradic references (fig. 434).


Fig. 434 – Geometric mosaic-forms from Bulgaria, dated from the fourth to the sixth century AD. (KORANDA, 1991).

The swastika-meander, pelta or ‘knot of Salomon’ was often used in mosaics as a means of decoration. This motif was first used in Pompei, according to KORANDA (1991), in the third quarter of the first century and reached a great popularity during the second and third century in the northern provinces, Spain and Northern-Africa. The structural theme was uncommon in Greece, in the Syrian-Palestine and the Upper-Adriatic region, and only appeared in the early Christian times.

The pattern of the pelta or swastika-meander came into being as an amplification of the sun symbol (or swastika), by bending and intertwining the four spokes into two links. The result found its way in such diverse fields as graffiti, rock paintings, mosaics and manuscripts. They occur on a worldwide scale, including the development in the Mediterranean area, and are fascinating and playful manifestations of tetradic thinking in a graphic way (fig. 435).


Fig. 435 – The ‘Knot of Salomon‘ or the swastika-meander (pelta) in various disguises. 1. The sun sign with rotating arms (tetraskele). The Anglo-Saxon term is ‘fyllot‘ (quadruped); variations are the four Greek gammas, connected with the bases (the ‘gammadion‘, middle) and the knot of Salomon (right)  (WARRE & STAFFORD, 1974); 2. Villa no. 1, Milhajlovgrad (Bulgaria) (KORANDA, 1991); 3. Tile (fleur-de-lis) from Butley Priory, Suffolk (WIGHT, 1975).; 4. Roman mosaic design (WIHR, 1985); 5. Kourion, Cyprus (photo: M. Kuilman); 6. Part of an illustration in a fourteenth-century ‘Manual for the Virtues’, Genua. British Library, London. p. 451 in: WRIGHT (1969 /1985); 7. Graffiti in St. John’s Church at Duxford, England (PRITCHARD, 1967); 8. Indian stamp sign, southern Appalachians (NAYLOR, 1975); 9. Magic drawing from Bali (Indonesia), from the Korn-collection at Leiden (HOOYKAAS, 1980); 10. Vignet for the ‘Cassa Rurale‘-bank. La Banca della Comunita locale. Cavalese (TN), Italy.

The mosaic was an art form, which put quantity into action to arrive at unity. The Greek word ‘abakischoi‘ (pieces) turned into the Latin ‘abaculi‘ or ‘tesserae‘, and was used as a collective name: ‘opus tesselatum‘. The arrangement of a multitude of individual members (tessae) led to a new meaning. This (symbolic) exercise was the essence of the mosaic art and in the human endeavor to create a new visibility beyond the individual part. The ‘horror vacui’, or the fear to leave an open space, was an important element in the interpretation of mosaics: the concept of unity enforced a totalitarian character: every part should be subordinate to the organization (fig. 436/437).


Fig. 436 – Unity in multiplicity. The former cosmaten-floor in the church of Monte Cassino (Italy) dated from 1070 AD. The Benedictine monastery was destroyed in World War II after massive bombardments on February 15, 1944, but since restored  (WIHR, 1985).


Fig. 437 – Cosmati-work in the cathedral of Capua, Italy. The name is derived from the Cosmati-family of architects and decorators. They perfected, between 1170 and 1240, the so-called ‘intarsio‘ technique, with inlayed stones in stead of the adhesive method of the mosaics (ROSSI, 1968/1970).

This short review of the abundant world of mosaics will be cut short here. It would be impossible to mention the occurrences of ‘tetradic’ features in mosaics on a wider scale. The main point here is the psychological genesis of mosaics in a world of division thinking. The major human drive to create a unity out of pluriformity has been emphasized before (The Garden of Eden; 42. Paradise). Mosaics are indicators of a state of mind. The painstaking process to create them can be accommodated (and understood) in a Fourth Quadrant outlook.

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