The Meander Tattoo
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
A better title for this post is “How My Wife Ended up with a Fifth Century Mosaic Tattooed on Her Foot.” It’s an odd connection between art and body art.
This took place some years ago while we were planning yet another trip to Italy. And Barbara was seriously thinking of getting a tattoo. Her first. Not a butterfly or a rose, although I do not mean to disparage inked imagery of the kind. She desired something unique, memorable, not your typical tat. As I researched all the potential sites we could visit, I came across the historic site of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, an early Christian building covered in glittering mosaics. I had never visited it and my accountant non-art historical wife was impressed with the tiny square fragments that literally cover the walls and ceilings inside the building.
Of particular interest was an intertwining geometric design of greens, reds, yellow, and blues used as a border covering an arch. Intrigued with the beauty of this design, she chose this pattern as her body art starter. Having brought a photograph to the tattooist, she endured more than six hours of colored ink injected into the top of her right foot. And in doing so, visiting Galla Placida’s Mausoleum in Ravenna became a must-do on our itinerary.
Florence was our headquarters and starting point. After exploring Renaissance wonders and my old stomping grounds from my studies, we moved to a very old rural Tuscany villa converted for tourists. We planned trips from there to various towns and cities. Our big, and most arduous day trip, was to Ravenna.
We felt some childlike elation bringing her foot to the mosaics that inspired her body art. Would it look as good as the reproductions in the book? Was this five-hour round trip car ride in a puny Fiat, racing to keep up on the autostrada, in a constant drizzle of rain, really the best use of our vacation time? As the Italians say, vale la pena? Literally, is it worth the pain?
There are no less than eight early Christian monuments in Ravenna, which is situated close to the Adriatic Sea. About a two-hour drive on a sunny day with no traffic directly south of Venice, Ravenna is not a top tourist destination, save for mosaic loving visitors. From the outside the monuments are plain and non-descript brick buildings. But the interiors are captivating.
Floor to Wall
Before we get to Ravenna and her foot, we need to go back a bit in time to understand how mosaics developed and came about in Ravenna. Mosaic decorations on church walls and vaults are innovative but also part of a long tradition beginning with floor mosaics, although it is not a continuous evolution from floor to wall and ceiling. Each culture had its own traditions. The earliest floor mosaics probably came from present day Turkey in the eighth century BCE. Greek mosaics from fifth century BCE survive, and mosaic design really took off by the end of the fourth century BCE.
It’s fair to say wealthy Romans loved floor mosaics in their homes, villas, and public baths. Romans used mosaics on wall grottos and outdoor cave like structures, but mostly on floors. Early Christian art, in many ways, is inseparable from late Roman art. Christian art took the medium to the next level, literally, decorating church walls and vaults. Romans continued the Greek and Near East tradition of pebble and shell floor mosaics but added different materials and a lot more scenes and figures. The tradition in mosaics favors intricate designs and for a good while black and white mosaics were popular.
Some Roman mosaics had very elaborate scenes of mythological figures, but hunting scenes and wild beasts were most common. Keep in mind that what we see now in museums on the walls were originally underfoot. The Greek-based mythological scene of a Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey resembles a typical Roman figurative or animal scene. They can be rather gruesome, and usually the animals do not fare well. In this case, it may not end up well for the the half-man half-horse centaur who eyes the leopard as he is about to launch his rock. The Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) built a huge villa in Tivoli, outside of Rome. It consisted of thirty buildings on about two hundred acres. This 22” X 36” inch mosaic fragment only gives a hint as to the extravagant décor. This scene comes from a large dining room floor mosaic of natural stone, which must have taken an enormous amount of time to break into tiny pieces. It looks like a painting with subtle color and shading.
Mosaic designs often mimicked the function of the room they were in. Dining areas often had mosaics of bread, fruit, meat, chicken, or even dessert, like the almond cake pictured here. Greek mythological scenes were meant to impress the with the host’s knowledge of Greek culture and language, like the story of Medusa, which lent itself to a scary head in the center with undulating patterns surrounding the head. Meant as a protective image, the Medusa head (there are about 100 extant floor mosaics of this subject) invites visitors to walk around the mosaic. This Head of Medusa is nearly nine feet by nine feet, weighs nearly 4,000 lbs., and was found in Rome. It is made of stones. The corner vessels refer to the god of wine, Bacchus.
Entryways might have bold black and white designs while bedrooms might have mythological scenes suitable to procreation and pleasure or outdoor scenes for relaxation. Romans upped the game from the Greeks with more color, glass, marble, and making the mosaic pieces very small for greater visual effect.
Mosaics are labor intensive and required preparation. A twenty square meter (215 square feet) floor mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun depicts a complex battle scene with many figures depicting Alexander the Great. It likely took five mosaicists five years to complete. Four base layers of preparation were necessary for floor mosaics: 2-3 inches of a stone foundation, a thick layer of rubble and lime of approximately nine inches, fine mortar mixed with crushed terracotta tile or potshards and lime, and last, a very fine layer of mortar a few millimeters thick into which the small decorative pieces were pressed to form the design.
Pieces of marble, glass, or stone were broken into very small pieces, called tesserae, with a pointed hammer. Some tesserae are very small - .25 cm and many less than 1 mm (.039 inch). Glass was better suited to walls than floors and offered color variations. Gold foil was inserted between layers of glass, like a sandwich, and drops of metal copper turned glass red. When dry, the floor was leveled, smoothed, and polished. We don’t know much about the craftspeople who made the mosaics but we know the name Sosos, a Greek mosaicist, mentioned by the historian Pliny. Signing works of art was not at all common at the time. The most elaborate floor mosaics were made on site, but some were pre-fabricated, especially smaller designs.
312- When Everything Changed
The first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity was Constantine in 312, and by doing so made it the privileged religion. Christians not only went from underground and underdogs to official recognition, but empowered to profess their faith and celebrate their religion. From initially observing religious ceremonies and burials in the catacombs beneath Rome they could now build structures for their liturgy and rituals. Christians also became real players politically and socially.
Early Christian artists often adapting existing pagan images into Christian art, such as doves, fish, Apollo the Sun God as Christ, the shepherd, and the lamb. These were easily understood by people and as time went on these images exclusively took on Christian meaning. As Roman pagan themes, gods, and mythological stories faded into the rear-view mirror, Christian art boldly took on stories and themes from the Old and New Testament. Ravenna’s mosaics bridge these visual cultures by using some Roman motifs in a Christian setting.
Mosaics were a beautiful medium to convey the stories of the Bible and key events from the life of Christ. Tiny glass tesserae on walls and ceilings were part and parcel of Christian church decoration for 1000 years. Unlike Roman pagan temples, whose decorations and rituals took place outside the temples, Christian liturgy and rituals took place inside and needed appropriate space and imagery. Depictions of Jesus’ baptism and miracles were common; his crucifixion and resurrection uncommon. The apostles and early saints were mainstays, especially in towns where they were lauded as protectors.
Early Christian art emphasized teaching the faithful and newly converted, giving visual evidence to the new religion. Rome and Ravenna were the main centers of early Christian mosaic art. However, there are spectacular mosaics also in Venice, Sicily, Naples, and Milan.
Who was Galla Placidia?
As we made our way north on the E55 autostrada we finally reached our exit to Via Classicana and enter the city of Ravenna, surrounded by modern life – gas stations, restaurants, schools, and shops. Rome, Florence, and Venice are the best-known art centers and seats of powerful historical families and rulers. Ravenna doesn’t immediately come to mind when picturing the art of Italy. The Mausoleum of Galla Placida is dwarfed by apartment buildings and busy streets. The fifth century exists adjacent to the twenty-first, without a whole lot to show for it in between.
When the Mausoleum and nearby churches such as San Vitale were constructed, Ravenna was at the height of power. In the fourth century the Roman Empire was divided into different regions, each ruled by a different leader. Ravenna, not Rome, was named the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 by Galla Placidia’s brother, due to its strategic position on the Adriatic as it was an important port during Rome’s heyday. She grew up with her father as the ruler of the Eastern Roman empire, with its capital in Constantinople, present day Istanbul. She, and her family, straddled two very different worlds.
Ravenna epitomized the uniqueness of early Christian religion in the fifth century. Christian faith came in a few different flavors. Some of Ravenna’s churches were constructed during the Ostrogoths or Visigoths rule, Germanic subgroups which followed their version of Arianism Christian faith, also known as Latin Homoianism, which denied that Jesus is equal to God, in essence denying his divinity. When the Goths lost control of the region Arian religious buildings were seamlessly transferred to the Catholic Church.
From a doctrinal point of view, this is a big deal, but from an art historical viewpoint, it is splitting hairs. Very few differences, if any, can be discerned in the iconography and pictorial representations between Arian or Roman Catholic art. Ravenna by all accounts was tolerant of differing religious views. The strains between the Goths and newly Christianized Roman Empire were more political and geographic than religious.
Galla Placidia (c.388-450) found herself in the middle of Goth and Byzantine struggles for control of Italy, especially on the eastern coast. During her lifetime she witnessed a weakening and eroding Roman empire with decline in trade and military strength. She was a politically powerful woman. Daughter of Theodosius the Great, she married twice, the first to Ataulf, King of the Visigoths, the second to Constantius III, Roman Emperor of the West. By all accounts her marriages were politically convenient and not by her choosing. Her son became Roman Emperor, but was too young to take control, so she acted as Empress. Galla lived in southern France, Spain, Ravenna, Rome, and Constantinople.
We easily found parking for the Fiat Punto very nearby. There were no lack of shops selling everything mosaic, reproductions, books, postcards, prints, ashtrays. We evaded the shops and entered the small cross-shaped brick building. It felt like a time machine. Traffic, the long drive, and the trappings of life fade into the background as the senses are taken in by multi-colored gleaming mosaics. The multitude of different colors and geometrical designs, along with figural scenes, on the walls and vaults is a little overwhelming, but somehow it all works together.
Built as a final resting place, there are three sarcophagi in the building. But Galla is not in any of these. Scholars aren’t sure if the sarcophagi were installed at the time of construction or later. But the name Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a misnomer as she is most likely buried in Rome where she died.
Inside there are four “arms” of the cross plan, each with a rounded lunette (semi-circular arch) with a mosaic above and below, plus the cupola (dome). The first seven feet up inside are marble, and above that every inch is covered in glass mosaic. Unlike floor mosaic, the glass tesserae are not set flat but set at slight angles to catch the light and sparkle. The windows are covered in alabaster which gives the intimate interior a warm glow.
The Mausoleum opens on the north side and faces the mosaic of a saint holding a book, a cross, and moving towards a flaming grate (with wheels!). An open cabinet holds books marked with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is most likely St. Lawrence who was martyred by fire, but scholars don’t fully understand why he is holding a book or the placement of the cabinet with the evangelist’s gospels. Like all the figures, the saint wears white, a symbol of purity.
We lift our gaze upwards to the barrel vault arch above St. Lawrence and there it is! The geometric design tattooed on her foot! There are at least eight colors in mosaic, bright and preserved just as they were in 425. Called a meander design, it is very common in Roman floor mosaics, and comes in a variety of shapes and patterns. The colors give this a 3-D effect. Each of the four arches have a different floral, geometric and meander designs. The decorative elements are fascinating in their opulence, and although it is small space, it is easy to spend time getting lost in the details – grape vines, acanthus leaves, fruits, and other meander patterns on the barrel vaults. These patterns are found frequently in Roman art, and the Head of Medusa pictured earlier has a meander design in a rope pattern around the edges and the circle.
We decided that the tattoo artist did the mosaic representation justice on her foot, with some artistic license, and that the concept of the meander fits well with her personality. Colorful, distinct, and yes, she does tend to meander and wander.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, south lunette, meander pattern in arch, 425 CE, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Barbara's foot.
Above St. Lawrence are two apostles along with two doves at a vessel of water. Two apostles appear on the east and west upper mosaics of the wall, also with doves. Some doves drink from the vessel, other approach it, or rest on the rim. The Greek mosaicist Sosos is remembered for his depiction of two doves drinking from a vessel. These images utilize Roman art in a different context, yet understandable to those who visited.
On the lower lunette opposite St. Lawrence is the Good Shepherd. Late Roman graves frequently featured a shepherd as a wish for a good afterlife. Here the early Christian artists have depicted a youthful beardless Christ in a gold tunic with blue stripes. A purple mantle is draped over his shoulder and lap. Purple was a symbol of the imperial family as not just anyone could wear the color. Flanking the St. Lawrence and Good Shepherd scene are two lunettes with deer approaching water, directly from Psalm 42, referring to deer thirsting for water just as the author of the psalm thirsts for God. Water elements also refer to baptism.
The apostles on the three walls above the lunettes look up and gesture towards the cupola. A magnificence mosaic with a deep blue background contrasts with a gold cross at the center. The cross faces east, alluding to the second coming. The gold stars – and they are real gold encased in glass – number 567. In the corners are iconic references to the four evangelists: Matthew as a winged man, Mark as a winged Lion, Luke as a winged Ox, John as an Eagle. The wings may refer to the heavens and also to the second coming, something early Christians were predisposed to focus on, and in this representation, they are in the order of the Apocalypse.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 425 CE, various details, photos Steven Zucker,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
The wonderful decorative elements found in much of Roman art were re-purposed here with new meaning, but resulting in the same visual joy. But that’s not the end of Ravenna mosaics. We went on to see other famous mosaics of Ravenna, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica di San Vitale, the Arian Baptistry, and the Orthodox Baptistry, all mosaic worthy sites. Galla Placidia is the most decorative of these. Note to those traveling to Ravenna as a day trip in a Fiat Punto: the Mausoleum, San Vitale, and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo are the best use of your time. There’s yet another church, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, about six miles outside of Ravenna that is also noteworthy.
And Barbara’s reaction? Yes, vale la pena, except for the long rainy, gray drive with the Fiat. There was some disappointment that the meander design was sold on innumerable objects and knick-knacks. But she has the best souvenir of all.
Belis, Alexis. Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016.
Boschetti, Cristina. “Vitreous Materials in Early Mosaics in Italy: Faience, Egyptian Blue, and Glass.” Journal of Glass Studies, vol. 53, 2011, pp. 59–91.
Dresken-Weiland, Juttta. Mosaics of Ravenna: Image and Meaning. Translated by Franziska Dorr. Schnell & Steiner, 2016.
Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Jensen, Robin M., and Mark D. Ellison, editors. The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art. Routledge, 2018.
Poeschke, Joachim. Italian Mosaics 300-300. Translated by Russell Stockman. Abbeville Press Publishers, 2010.
Stephan, Annelisa. A Brief Introduction to Mosaics, 2016, J. Paul Getty Museum.