Roman Mosaics

The patterns of Roman mosaics are important forerunners of the designs used to adorn and embellish the much later Celtic Crosses. Basic crosses are present as patterns in the tesselation designs of early Roman mosaics in Britain. For example, a mosaic from the Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex, made between the years 70 and 100, is patterned with equal-armed crosses. Another monochrome labyrinth mosaic dating from the fourth century, found at Cirencester, is concentric around an equal-armed cross at the centre. Roman labyrinth mosaics in general are constructed in a cross-form. Most are square, but there are a number of round forms known. A polychrome mosaic found in London in 180$ during the construction of the Bank of England, illustrated here, has an equal-armed cross set within a circle that itself is surrounded by a square panel of interlace. The circles or scrolls at the ends of the cross-arms are similar to the treatment of many later representations of crosses and Trees of Life on runestones.

Many Roman mosaics contain panels surrounded by the interlace pattern known as the guilloche chain. The fact that mosaic researchers

A cross from a panel of a Roman mosaic discovered in 1805 on the future site of the Bank of England, London, preserved in the British Museum.

Simple Roman Mosaics

use this specialized name for the interlace has tended to distance the pattern from its later derivatives. There are two basic forms of guilloche chain. One is a simple twist of two separate 'ribbons', while the other is usually composed of three 'ribbons' interlaced in the manner of much Celtic work. This form, which appears later throughout Celtic, Nordic and Romanesque art, was used universally in Roman mosaic. It was clearly an influence upon this kind of Celtic interlace pattern.

The wheel-cross actually appears in Roman mosaic work, as it does on tomb stelae. One fine example is in the mosaic of Orpheus found at Littlecote Park in Wiltshire. Dating from around the year 360, it has a wheel-cross roundel with an image of lyre-playing Orpheus at the centre. In the four quarters made by the cross are four goddesses, riding various beasts sidesaddle. They symbolize the four directions, the four elements and the four seasons. Later Christian cross-makers sometimes re-used this perennial motif by presenting Christ at the same place as the centre of the four elements within the circle.

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