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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics in Istanbul

What is the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics?

The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics is a museum that's home to an astonishing series of mosaics, a very rare survival from the long destroyed imperial palace of the Emperors of Byzantium.

Museum of Great Palace Mosaics

Museum of Great Palace Mosaics History

The Great Palace of Constantinople was the home of the Emperors of Byzantium for 700 years, from Constantine in the 4th century right through to the 11th century. The palace was a private residence, the centre of government and a stage upon which the complex ceremonies of the imperial court were enacted. The Great Palace was a large, sprawling complex of buildings and gardens arranged around a series of courtyards and terraces on a hill above the Sea of Marmara.

The palace had fallen into complete disrepair by the time of the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, and the site of the palace and its mosaics remained unknown until archaeological investigations in the 20th century, which uncovered an incredible series of Late Antique mosaics. These would originally have paved a wide colonnaded corridor that ran around one of the terraces of the palace. It was vast: the pavement was between 7 and 10 metres wide and surrounded a court that was 55 by 66 metres. It has been estimated that the mosaic would have originally covered an area of 1,900 square metres, making it the largest surviving mosaic pavement from antiquity.

The mosaics mostly depict idyllic scenes of rural life and activities such as hunting, herding and farming. These bucolic scenes seem to have been popular with the elite across the Late Antique world, and would have recalled the pastoral scenes made famous by ancient poets like Theocritus and Virgil; they offered their owners a charming slice of rus in urbe (or ‘the country in the city’).

It’s worth thinking practically about how ancient viewers would have experienced such an extensive mosaic. In the museum, the mosaics are mostly hung on the wall for the convenience of the viewer or seen from a platform above them to offer a panoramic overview. However, it’s important to remember this was not how they were originally viewed. Floor mosaics are a tricky prospect for the art lover intent on appreciating them: you can only be as far from the image as you are tall and it’s impossible to get a bird’s-eye view of what you’re looking at. But the mosaicists were aware of the practical limits of the medium: the mosaic unfolds episodically rather than in a continuous narrative. The viewer strolling along the colonnade could consider each vignette as they stumbled upon it, quite literally. It has been suggested that such a large peristyle in front of a basilica may have served as a sort of waiting room for petitioners to the emperor, who could have contemplated these images while they waited to be seen. Academics have often seen metaphors for imperial power in the images of hunting and husbandry, so it seems appropriate that those seeking the emperor’s help could sit and observe these scenes and contemplate the way in which a good emperor should be a shepherd to his people.

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