Thyrsos Basilica at Tegea

The folks on Western Argolid Regional Project are heading to the Tripoli museum and then to Tegea tomorrow while I stay back to take care of some editing and databasing. 

In anticipation of their trip, I looked up the section in my dissertation where I talk about the Early Christian basilica there that was excavated by Anastasios Orlandos and published in the 1970s. The calendar mosaic from the building is remarkable as is its metrical inscription.

Another scrappier inscription seems to evoke the sanctus and might be one of the few inscription from Early Christian Greece that preserves a clear liturgical utterance that has significance in the Christological controversies of Late Antiquity. Here’s a link to something I wrote a while back.

Here’s what I said 15 years ago in my dissertation.

The Thyrsos basilica at Tegea is quite remarkable. [82] The main nave is decorated with a grid of 16 panels containing personifications of the 12 months and at its eastern and western end the four rivers of paradise (figs. 75-82). Seven of the panels are well preserved and demonstrate careful workmanship. Each month is dressed appropriately for the season and is depicted performing some seasonally characteristic activity, except November whose activities are unclear (fig. 80). In the apse, a panel which is now destroyed showed two youths, identified as the “Kaloi Karoi”, carrying baskets of fruit and rushing toward a central figure of a man. At the western end, two putti hold a metrical inscription praising the Bishop Thyrsos, discussed in more detail in the next chapter (fig. 83). The presence of a tomb in the northern bay of the narthex hints at a possible funerary function for this church.

Mosaics depicting the months were very popular in Greece during Late Antiquity. Additional examples exist from The Villa of the Falconer at Argos, a Christian building at Thebes (figs. 32-35), and Loutro Hypatis. Perhaps the most famous of these is in conjunction with a falcon hunt mosaic from the Villa of the Falconer in Argos (figs. 21- 26). The presence of mosaics depicting the months in such a variety of locations emphasized that this motif had a meaning appropriate to a wide variety of contexts.

While Äkerström-Hougen’s thorough study of the mosaics from the Villa of the Falconer outside of Argos, stressed the relationship between the calendar mosaic there and illustrated Late Roman calendars, she also found this mosaic generally consistent with the calendars at Tegea, the preserved panels from Thebes, and the mosaic at Delphi even though the architectural context for these panels varied considerably. For example, at least one traditional festival is expressed in the calendars of the Tegea and Argos despite the fact that they derive from a “Christian” and “secular” setting respectively. In Argos, for the month of May, the mosaics depict a man with a basket of roses, a wreath of flowers, and a floral crown (fig. 23). At Tegea, the personification of May is shown with a basket of flowers and a floral crown (fig. 76). This mosaic at Argos makes a clear allusion to the rosaria or rosalia, initially a festival to honor the dead, but by the fourth century a feast to celebrate the arrival of summer. [83] A similar depiction of this feast is found on the Calendar of 354, which was prepared for an aristocratic Christian patron.84 Salzman, in her study of this important Late Roman calendar, emphasized the significance of this festival in both religious and economic terms. In religious terms she associated the importance of the Rose Festival, which was celebrated with games, to the rise in interest in astrological and seasonal celebrations during the fourth century. [85] While there is insufficient evidence to argue that the depiction of a May on the Tegea floor was a direct allusion to a pagan festival as it appears to be at Argos or in the Calendar of 354, the continued use of the iconography at Tegea reflects a preference for traditional symbolism over personifications of an explicitly non-pagan nature. The clear allusion to the Rose Festival in the mosaic in nearby Argos which appears roughly contemporary, places the Tegea mosaic in a discourse which operated to a considerable degree outside the specific religious context of the building. It seems, then, reasonable to consider that the floor at Tegea, like the floor at Argos, served to show the prosperity found within the cycle of rural life and linked this ideal to the patron, individual, or institution most closely associated with the floor. [86] This adds an additional level of meaning to H. Maguire’s already rich reading of this floor as a depiction of earth and ocean. [87] Now the earth and its prosperity is not only the domain of man, but also a world constituted in aristocratic terms and linked to the authority of the clergy through their privileged access to the central nave and the liturgical procession. 

82. The mosaic found at the so-called basilica of Thyrsos at Tegea has evoked considerable debate over the 100 years since its discovery. The building itself was originally reported as a single naved, oriented, apsidal structure. Spiro, suggested that the building was perhaps a secular audience hall on account of the inscription at the west entrance to the building which she considered to be of “the kind of inscription one would expect to find in the more secularised atmosphere of an audience hall in which “the most holy Thyrsos” held court.”(Spiro, Critical Corpus, 181.) She further argued against this building having a liturgical function because of the lack of any evidence for such basic liturgical furnishings as the foundation of an ambo or chancel screens. The east end of the church, including the mosaics in the apse there, is very poorly preserved leaving open the very real possibility that these features did actually exist. Orlandos in his general discussion of the Christian monuments in Tegea, considered this building as a three-aisled basilica on account of the presence of a narthex to the east of the paved nave and the discovery of several cross-inscribed ionic impost capitals, which as I have shown are rare outside a liturgical context (Orlandos, ABME 12 (1973), 66-69.). Furthermore he mentioned in his general survey of Early Christian architecture in Greece that he was aware of an unpublished sigma table excavated from the Thyrsos basilica suggesting some liturgical activity in that place, although not necessarily confirming the building as having a primarily liturgical function since such tables have been found in a wide array of contexts, including villas such as in Athens (Orlandos, Hē xylostegos palaiochristianikē basilikē (1956), 485). A tomb arranged parallel to the north wall of the western antechamber further suggested the presence of a narthex. This, along with evidence for the use of several ionic impost capitals points to this being a three-aisled basilica (Orlandos, AMBE 12 (1973), 12-19, 22-81). Avramea, quite recently, has argued unconvincingly that this building was a martyrium to the bishop Thyrsos and that the tomb found to the north of the narthex chamber belonged to the esteemed bishop (A. Avramea, DXAE (1999), 35-40; cf. D. Feissel, BE (2000), 797.). To the north of the central nave there exists another series of inscribed mosaic panels whose relationship to the main nave is unclear. Orlandos has suggested that this room was a parecclesia, but examples of this feature are rare in Greece. The mosaic inscription which separates the two badly damaged panels runs, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God with the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and this could allude to a liturgical utterance, and thus suggests a liturgical function for the room. The published reports and studies are quite inadequate making it unlikely ever to determine the form and function of this building. The presence of a tomb mitigates against it being a reception hall, and the reference to a bishop in the inscription makes the most likely identification of this building as a church or a very large private chapel.

83 G. Äkerström-Hougen, The Calendar and Hunting Mosaics, 80.

84 M.R. Salzman, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Antiquity. (Berkeley 1990), 96-99.

85 Salzman, On Roman Time, 129, 183.

86 Parrish, Season Mosaics of Roman North Africa. (Rome 1984), 13. “In an imperial context, this term [felicitas temporum] had a propagandistic meaning, referring to the Emperor’s beneficent rule and the promised return of the golden age. But in a private house, the seasons had more generalized associations with prosperity and good fortune, and lacked any direct political overtones.”

87 Maguire, Earth and Ocean, 21-28.

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