This weekend I enjoyed John Mitchell's new book, The Butrint Baptistery Mosaics, published this year by the Butrint Foundation. The circular baptistery at Butrint is among the most important Early Christian buildings in the Balkans and a fairly well-preserved example of the art of mosaic decoration on the Adriatic coast. (A nice line drawing of the mosaic is here).
The book brings out several particularly interesting aspects of the baptistery mosaics and their architectural context. First, The two central scenes in the mosaic, peacocks surrounding a kantharos sprouting vines and two stages at a fountain, are clearly tied to Christian iconography of eternal life. Peacocks symbolized eternal life as their flesh was thought not to decompose and the stags evoked the first verse of the Psalm 41 (33-37) in which stags and water were combined lending the text baptismal significance. Aside from these two panels, however, there was very little on this floor that lent itself immediately to exegetical interpretation.
The rest of this round building's floor is covered with linked medallions filled with birds, sea creatures, and domestic and exotic animals. Mitchell reads these critters as representing "A New Creating and an Earthly Paradise" (41). This, indeed, seems plausible. It is worth noting, however, that some of the panels appear to represent rural pursuits like the hunt. Three consecutive roundels show a hunting dog, a stage, and a net. Throughout Classical Antiquity, the hunt was identified with aristocratic pursuits. Moreover, the juxtaposition of exotic animals like lions and leopards with more mundane animals like dogs and donkeys could link the life of the countryside where more typical domesticated animals were common with the life of the city with its exotic animals representing shows in the arena. Animal combat scenes and staged hunts, frequently involving exotic animals, would have been a familiar aspect of the more cosmopolitan centers of the empire into the 6th century. The otium of aristocratic life in the countryside is a well-developed theme in Late Antiquity and would have complemented allusions to animal games in the urban center likely sponsored by the elite. Thus, paradise, in part, is framed by themes tinged with aristocratic values the same way that the presiding Bishops homilies would have been enlivened with the aristocratic language of Classical paideia.
Slight differences in how we read the mosaic floors do little to challenge Mitchell's careful reading of the floors at Butrint. Of particular value are his suggestions that subtle variations in the floors -- for example, different motifs in the interlinked roundels -- marked out places of ritual importance in the baptistery. Checkerboard patterns in several of the outer most ring of roundels evoke the checkered pattern immediately surrounding the central font. Mitchell suggests that coincidence may have marked the area where the bishop stood during the baptismal ceremony. In effect the checked pattern marks linked the ritual power of the central font to the place where the bishop presided.
Finally, the baptistery at Burtint has intriguing connections with important buildings elsewhere in the Balkans. The mosaics floors were almost certainly the product of a workshop based in Nikopolis in Epirus (31). The presence of a fountain in the baptistery, roughly on axis with the font and the axial mosaic panels depicting the stags and the peacocks has parallels with the similar fountain from the baptistery at the Lechaion basilica in Corinth. The large, free-standing and centrally planned baptistery finds comparanda from several other sites in the Mediterranean. Relatively recent geophysical work in the eastern part of the city of Corinth has produced an image that looks very much like a large octagonal baptistery there (G. D. R. Sanders, “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches. D. N. Schowalter and S. J. Friesen eds. (Cambridge 2005), 440). This would form another link between the site of Butrint and Corinth. Scholars have long recognized the connection between the prominent transept basilicas at Corinth and the city of Nikopolis (and elsewhere in the Epirus) (see: D. I. Pallas “Corinth et Nicopolis pendant le haut moyen-âge,” FR 18 (1979), 93-142). The Butrint baptisteries through links to both Nikopolis and Corinth reinforce the place of the latter city in the Adriatic world of the West with its close ties to Italy and Rome.