In the photograph above is the central roundel of a large mosaic floor in a Roman Villa, now know as the Hinton St Mary Mosaic. The portrait of a man, depicted as fair-haired and clean-shaven, wearing a tunic and cloak, is widely thought to be a representation of Christ. Directly behind the man’s head are the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P). These are the first two letters of the word Christos, the Greek name for Christ. This is, however, not just another representation of Christ.
Although the exact age of the Hinton St Mary mosaic is unknown, it was created sometime in the fourth century, probably around 350 AD. This depiction then is one of the oldest surviving representations of Christ. It’s presence in a Roman villa in Dorset is important for our understanding of the state of Christianity in Roman Britain at this time.
Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 321 AD, and by the end of the fourth century it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. How people in the various Provinces then converted to Christianity is the subject of much discussion, and the Hinton St Mary mosaic contributes to that discussion, certainly for Roman Britain. There are a number of pagan elements in the rest of the mosaic floor, for example the Greek hero Bellerophon is depicted riding Pegasus while slaying Chimera. For some scholars, this suggests that the imagery of mosaic floor seen as a whole signified Christ’s triumph over death and evil, Christianity’s power over pagan rituals and beliefs.
Where is the Hinton St Mary Mosaic?
The Hinton St Mary Mosaic is so named because the Roman villa in which it was excavated from is in the small, Dorset (southern England) village of Hinton St Mary. Today, the central roundel depicting Christ is on display in the British Museum, as part of the permanent Roman Britain display. The rest of what remains of what was once a large mosaic floor is in storage.
Not surprisingly, this mosaic image of Christ features in the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. It is object number 44, and features in a collection of artefacts related to the rise of World faiths between 200 and 600 AD.
You can listen to the original 15 minute episode on the Hinton St Mary Mosaic, or read a transcript of the episode, as well as read further information about the shift from a pagan to a Christian society with the arrival of the Romans in Britannia, on the BBC’s webpage for this object.