Early Christianity meets Attila the Hun

The mosaic pavement of the Basilica of Aquileia

You may never have heard of Aquileia, a village at the very northern end of the Adriatic Sea. Even some Italians have never heard of Aquileia! It is at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe within sight of the Alps. That made it quite a desirable location. In fact, it was initially settled in about the 9th c. BC and it was invaded by Celts in 186-183 BC. It eventually became the fourth city of Rome on the Italian peninsula, but that didn’t stop the attacks. It was besieged by the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and 452 AD, after three years of siege, it was conquered and sacked by Attila the Hun. Later came Lombards, Franks, and Hungarians, but still Christianity persisted in Aquileia.

If fact, Christianity was practiced surreptitiously in Aquileia before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly. We hear a lot about pre-Constantinian Christianity in Rome and Milan, but less so elsewhere in Italy. There is a domus (house) under the basilica in Aquileia, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that it was a house church before Christianity was legitimized.

It is amazing how quickly Patriarch Theodore started building…between 313 and 320. So, what we are able to see in Aquileia is very early, which is one aspect that makes it so precious. I’ll take you on a short underground journey to explore what archeologist are finding about the earliest layers of home and church here. Check the video below.

This is where Christians were worshipping perhaps even before the religion was legitimized by Constantine in 313 AD.

The basilica was renovated and expanded after Attila’s raid to encompass a nave and two aisles with a mosaic floor. It was updated again in the ninth century and destroyed by an earthquake in 1348. The mosaic pavement was buried under a meter of detritus. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that archeologists began to unearth the magnificent mosaic floor, which was completed in 1915. This goes back to the time of Patriarch Theodore himself.

A dedication mosaic, recognizing Theodore and using the Chi-Rho symbol that Constantine had seen prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

I’ll show you with the video below what the mosaic pavement (the largest in the west) looks like. It contains one primary biblical story: Jonah, whom we see relaxing under an arbor with a ”bush” to provide shade. And then in the central part of the nave, we see Jonah being hurled overboard into the mouth of a very large fish. Why do you think those early Aquileian Christians would have seen that as the primary biblical image for their basilica?

The other symbol you’ll see here, in Ravenna, and in Florence is actually called a Solomon’s Knot. There is some assertion that it is Celtic in origin and that it forms the basis for other Celtic knotwork. At the basilica, they interpreted it as representing both creation and divinity. It’s definitely prechristian, and it also appears in Judaism.

Look for Jonah and those cool Solomon’s Knots!

You may notice the complete absence in the early mosaics of any pictures of Mary, Jesus, or the crucifixion. This is startling when you will later see how the cult of Mary came to dominate some religious art, as in Siena, and how the crucified body of Jesus has come to be the most recognizable symbol of Catholic Christianity. There are some good shepherd images, however. Clearly, these Christians hadn’t gone in for the enthroned Christ in glory imagery. Later Christians, however, did include a fresco of Mary (enthroned?) holding Jesus and surrounded by a mandorla (the almond-shaped ring around them emphasizes spiritual power and also indicates Byzantine influence). Imagery changes because theology changes. If you were going to put an image or design in the front of your church, what would you choose?