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23 meters Byzantine mosaic with tesserae made of marble and glass created by an unknown artist. It depicts the baby Jesus being presented to St. Simeon. This mosaic, which is not in a good state of repair, judging by the number of missing tesserae, is of unknown origin. However, despite the fact that roughly half of the tesserae are missing, there are many elements that makes one believe that the piece is from the 6th century, based on comparisons to similar mosaics. Like other mosaics, such as Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes from Scene from the Life of Christ in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Justinian at San Vitale, the figures are shown wearing Imperial purple and are crowned with nimbuses; they are surrounded by a border common in Byzantine art. We are left without some potential clues because of the lost tesserae. Though these are mostly pieces of around the border; much of the interior remains intact. Since the tiles have fallen away, we can see the glimpses of the painting underneath, which gives us proof that the subject matter and composition was planned and laid out before the tiles were set. The three figures in the composition, Mary, Jesus, and Simeon, are roughly centered and take up much of the space. Mary is shown holding the baby Jesus, who looks like a child-sized adult, to the saint, who reaches out to him. Jesus’ hands are partially raised, as if he were preparing to bless Simeon. The saint and the savior are facing each other, giving the viewer a profile view. Mary’s head is threequarters visible; she does not quite appear to be staring at St. Simeon as she presents her child. However, Simeon’s feet, which are pointed downward like those
of the figures in the mosaic of Justinian at San Vitale, cross out of the landscape setting and into the border. This gives the impression that he is closer to the viewer than Mary; it seems likely that she is, in fact, looking to him as she holds out Jesus. All three have halos of light around their head, though Simeon’s nimbus has since worn away; only the painted outline remains. Mary’s nimbus appears to be jewel encrusted, with a darker outline around the border. By contrast, Jesus’ halo contains a green border, which clearly separates it from the background, which is a similar color to the interior of the halo. Simeon’s halo likely had a similar darker edging, based on the markings set into the wall. All three figures in the mosaic wear robes. Mary’s is darker; it appears to be close to Imperial purple, which was a color saved for the members of the Imperial family and holy figures, or possibly the blue in which she is often shown. Simeon’s robe has both light and dark tiles, a shading contrast much more stark than the different shades in Mary’s robe. The color of Jesus’ robe is difficult to make out, perhaps because of age and wear, though it is also dark. Besides the border, there is little remaining background to give us an indication of the landscape. What little we see is in shades of green and brown, depicting the ground. However, the only markings behind the tiles show a division between the darker bottom of the piece and the lighter top; no details remain. The few tiles remaining in the mosaic background near Mary and Jesus appear to be a bronze or golden color, which is a sign of eternity and heaven. Because of the mosaic’s extreme wear, many of the tesserae have fallen away, making it more difficult to ascertain every element of the mosaic. The sinopia make it easier to figure out what the lost tesserae might have depicted. The sinopia, or underdrawings, are not detailed; in this composition, they mostly show blocks of
color. However, even those small hints are helpful when analyzing the meaning in the mosaic and comparing it to other early Byzantine mosaics. Like many 6th-century pieces, the mosaic is not symmetrical. Symmetria, rather than being treasured in the early Byzantine period, is not seen as the ideal. The imperfect symmetry of a figure gives it a more lifelike quality. Even the Beyazit Head was purposely left in a not-quite-symmetrical state in order to make it a more lifelike rendition. This is clearly seen in the mosaic when one takes a look at the three figures. None are looking straight out at the viewer; they are turned. It is not entirely a profile view of each person, particularly Mary, but the two sides of each figure’s face are uneven. The composition of the piece as a whole is also asymmetrical. Instead of having one figure in the middle and one on each side, or an even number of figures, Jesus and Mary are on one side of the piece and St. Simeon is on the other. However, even though Jesus is not centered in the middle of the composition, he is the central figure. This is another way to show his status. In the mosaic Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes from Scene from the Life of Christ in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, located in Ravenna, Italy, Jesus is again shown in the center of four figures. Though, as in The Presentation of Christ to St. Simeon, he is not positioned symmetrically, he is shown in the middle. The same is true of another mosaic at the Monastery of St. Catherine in Mount Sinai, the Transfiguration placed in the apse conch. There, Jesus is also depicted in the center of the composition, though again, it is not symmetrical. The size of various figures is a common way of showing who is the more important figure in early Byzantine art. One can see this in other mosaics from the early Byzantine period, including the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. There, Jesus’ feet are as low as those of his followers or almost as low, but he is shown as being taller than they are and is given extra height by the penumbra surrounding his head; he is bigger than the other figures in the mosaic. In The Presentation of Christ to St. Simeon, Jesus is the most important figure, but since the story is depicting a baby Jesus, he is small than the saint and the Virgin. Nevertheless, he is unusually large for a baby. In particular, his head, which is given volume from his mass of hair, is of a comparable size to Mary’s. The mosaic shows his importance by depicting him as larger than an average infant; this shows his importance within the image, even though he is still, because of his age, the smallest figure. It is difficult to compare the sizes of St. Simeon and the Virgin because of the state of disrepair. However, faint shading in the background, where the tesserae have fallen away, indicates that Mary’s robe extended all the way to the white border. Though St. Simeon’s feet extend slightly below the line and into the border design, Mary is shown as taller than he is. One can see that she is at least as tall as he is, which is a way of showing her importance. Tied to this custom of size indicating importance is height. Several other Byzantine mosaics show this style, including the previously mentioned Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Jesus is shown as taller than his compatriots, and his nimbus adds extra height, allowing him to fill the space between the upper and lower borders of the mosaic. The Presentation of Christ to St. Simeon also using height to signify importance. In particular, Mary is placed higher in the composition than St. Simeon. This indicated that she is more important than he is. Jesus is not as high as either of them; however, since he is still a child in his mother’s arms, this is not unexpected.
A third important element of composition is placement within the foreground. In 6th-century tradition, the closer a figure is to the viewer, the more important he or she is. Because of the style of Byzantine mosaics, the artists often showed that certain figures were in the foreground by having their feet or robes overlap those of other figures. A prime example is the mosaic of Justinian at San Vitale. The emperor’s robe and the paten he carries overlap the figures on either side of him; this, among many other traditional symbols, shows his dominance and importance. St. Simeon also shows signs of being in front of Mary and Jesus. A particular indication of this is the fact that his feet are so far down that they interrupt the border design, overlapping it. This is an indication that he is in front of the other figures, since no parts of their bodies do the same. While the tesserae depicting Mary’s feet are gone, the white line that divides the main image from the border remains unbroken where she stands, if only as a background paint. However, since the border is whole and the purple shade where her robes had been seems to stop before the border, one can draw the conclusion that her feet are not similarly low. This is one of the first discussed signs of St. Simeon’s importance, particularly since he is depicted as being shorter than Mary. This discrepancy likely means that he, too, is important in the mosaic, even though he might be less holy than the Virgin and Jesus. The halo, or nimbus, surrounding each figure’s head is yet another sign of importance; in fact, it is a symbol of their holiness. Many contemporary mosaics use the nimbus to show holiness as well. In The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes, Jesus is not only surrounded by a nimbus; it contains a jeweled cross, adding further importance and holiness. Jesus has a similar nimbus in the apse conch mosaic at St. Catherine’s, in addition to being situated in a mandorla. Even Justinian wears a
nimbus in his mosaic at San Vitale. Unlike the Christ figures, his does not have a cross; it is merely gold with a colored border. Figures in other San Vitale mosaics, such as Jeremiah, have similar halos; the image of Jesus is wearing a halo with a cross. In the Presentation mosaic, all three figures are wearing nimbuses; this is a sign that all three are holy figures. All three have a plain sphere with a colored outline, even Jesus. The discrepancy here might have to do with the fact that he is still human; he has not ascended to heaven. The Arians on the Italian peninsula made this distinction between the two sides of Jesus. This gives an indication that the mosaic might have originated in an Arian church rather than an Orthodox one. One feature many early Byzantine mosaics have in common is a gold background. This background indicates a paradise landscape; Jesus has brought salvation to mankind, and everyone will reside in paradise. Many mosaics depicting Jesus have this gold background, including The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes. Even the mosaic of Justinian, which does not depict Jesus but does show the emperor as a holy figure, has a gold background. The Presentation mosaic is no exception to
this rule. Though most of the background is gone, one can still see a few gold tesserae clinging on, particularly around the upper border and between the figures of Mary and Jesus. Just as in Loaves and Fishes, this mosaic had a gold upper background and a more natural landscape of a green and beige lower background. This mosaic, too, contains a symbol of a paradise landscape. If any other symbols common to 6th-century mosaics, such as peacocks or shells representing immortality, were once in this mosaic, all traces of them are now gone. Another common element in early Byzantine mosaics is the use of a border. Some mosaics have a plain border, such as the lines and semi-circles in the Loaves
and Fishes mosaic. The Justinian mosaic at Sane Vitale, on the other hand, has a colorful and complex border with several layers and a different design on every side. The Presentation border falls somewhere in between. It is only one layer, with a white line separating it from the central image. The design consists of two different types of flowers in a repeating pattern all the way around the mosaic. While the pattern itself is unique, its existence is not; borders, as noted above, are commonly used in mosaics during this period. The repeating flower pattern is actually quite similar to that in the apse conch mosaic at the Monastery of St. Catherine, though it works as an outer frame, with circular portraits of important religious figures provides an inner border. It is another indication that the Presentation mosaic is likely from the 6th century. A final important—and common—element in mosaics of this period is the use of Imperial purple to signify importance. Since purple was a rare color, it was reserved for the emperor, who was perceived as holy. Emperors are often depicted in purple garb; Justinian at San Vitale is one of many examples. Even the purple porphyry and proconnesian marble were reserved for the emperor’s use; they, too, were rare and precious. Because of the importance of the color purple, Jesus is often shown in purple robes; he, like the emperor, is holy and important. This can be seen not only in mosaics such as the Loaves and Fishes, but also in the Presentation mosaic. Both Mary and Jesus are clothed in purple robes, a symbol of their divinity. Because of the poor quality of the piece, some colors are difficult to make out; however, St. Simeon does not appear to be wearing purple, even in the shades of his white robe. This sets Jesus and Mary apart from him in addition to indicating their status.
Many important elements in the piece—the Imperial purple and the nimbuses, especially—indicate the importance of the figures in the mosaic. They also indicate that the mosaic was likely created in or near the 6th century. One can see this through the elements it has in common with contemporary mosaics; it is clear that the Presentation mosaic was influenced by similar, if not the same, mosaics discussed here. The Presentation of Christ to St. Simeon is clearly a 6thcentury mosaic depicting a Biblical event.
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