Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Hinton St Mary Mosaic


John 21.1-14,
Acts 9:1-6



Who is the person pictured in the Mosaic? He’s a youngish looking man with shoulder length, swept-back fair hair. Most people think he’s clean-shaven, but is there just a hint of designer stubble on his chin? He’s wearing ordinary clothes for the time, a tunic or long shirt and a woollen cloak. On either side of his face there are two pomegranates! 

And behind his head are two letters superimposed on top of one another. They look like the letters P and X, but in fact they’re from the Greek alphabet and they are the letters Chi and Rho, roughly speaking our ‘CH’ sound and our letter ‘R’. So together they make the sound “Chr”, the beginning of the name ‘Christ’, so the symbol tells us that this is probably meant to be the face of Jesus staring out at us from the mosaic.


But there’s a problem, isn’t there? He doesn’t look like Jesus! We’re used to seeing Jesus with a beard and longer, usually brown hair. This picture doesn’t look like a Jewish man from Palestine. So where does it come from?

It was found in a village called Hinton St Mary in what - thanks to a comment on the blog - I now know to be the county of Dorset, where it had been buried under the ground for 1,500 years. It was made for the floor of a large Roman building, probably a villa, sometime around the year 350 after the birth of Jesus. It might have been part of a private chapel for the owners of the villa, or even a house church for the local villagers to use.

It’s the only example anywhere in the world of a Roman floor mosaic showing the face of Jesus, because 100 years later the emperor banned people from making floor mosaics depicting Jesus. He felt it was wrong that people should walk on the image of Jesus and perhaps even spill things on it, so all the existing floor mosaics of Jesus were taken up or destroyed. But by this time Hinton St Mary was no longer inside the Roman Empire so the mosaic survived, even when the walls of the chapel were demolished. Then it remained, covered over by soil and grass, until some builders found it again in the last century.

When the owner of the villa asked the artist to make a mosaic showing the face of Jesus the artist was stuck for ideas. There had never been any pictures of Jesus before. The Bible doesn’t tell us what he looked like. So where to begin?

Around the same time that the mosaic was made, the emperor struck a coin that showed the chi-rho symbol on one side and the emperor’s head and shoulders on the other. His name was Magnentius and he looked remarkably like Jesus in the mosaic. He had the same swept-back shoulder-length hair, and the same cleft in his chin. Because he’d put the symbol of Jesus’ name on the back of his coins ordinary Christians began to make a hole in them, thread a leather thong or a chain through the hole, and wear the coins as a necklace or medallion. One has been found in a cemetery near the villa. So perhaps that’s where the artist got the idea for his picture of Jesus. The only change he would have needed to make is to dress Jesus in ordinary clothes instead of the emperor’s imperial cloak and solder’s breastplate.

But why did the artist make Jesus look so Roman and British, when everyone knew he was a Jewish person from Palestine? I think the reason is because this isn’t the Jesus of history, the Jesus who taught people and healed the sick. This is the Risen Jesus, the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who comes to be with each one of us when we name him in our prayers or share bread and wine together. And we know this because of the pomegranates.

Pomegranates were part of the Easter story for Roman Christians, just as new-born lambs, bunny rabbits and eggs are part of our Easter story. They reminded people of an ancient myth about the springtime, when the harvest goddess Demeter rescued her daughter Persephone from the world of the dead. She was allowed to bring Persephone back to life, but only until the Autumn, when Persephone had to return to the world of the dead again until next Spring. 

Persephone’s story is about dying and rising, and she’s often shown in pictures holding a pomegranate because the deal which Demeter made with the ruler of the dead was that Persephone could come back to life for ever, but only if she had not eaten anything in the world of the dead. Unfortunately, she had got rather thirsty and had sucked seven pomegranate seeds, which is why she was only ever allowed to come back for half of the year.

Of course, it’s only a story, but the pomegranates in the picture are a way of telling us that we are looking at the risen Jesus, because pomegranates - like Easter eggs - are linked with new life and resurrection. On the same mosaic was another mythical picture, of a hero called Bellerophon fighting a three-headed monster called the Chimera. Christians used this story to remind themselves that on the Cross Jesus had defeated death, sin and the devil.So that’s another way we know this is an Easter picture.

Our Gospel story is what’s called a ‘floating’ story, which means it doesn’t belong in a particular place in the life of Jesus. It crops up in different places in each of the Gospels and in John’s Gospel it has been put in an alternative ending which John added after the original version of the Gospel was finished.

The followers of Jesus have gone back to their jobs as fishermen. They don’t know yet that Jesus is alive and following him seems to have been a waste of their time, but now fishing proves equally fruitless. They work all night but catch nothing. Then they see a man on the shore cooking breakfast, and he tells them to cast their net one last time. 

When the net fills up with fish Jesus’ favourite disciple recognises him. Peter is so excited that he throws on some clothes and jumps into the water so that he can be the first to greet Jesus. But no one - not even Peter and the favourite disciple - dare ask him who he is. They know it must be Jesus but he just looks like a man cooking fish on a barbecue.

When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus he didn’t even look like a person. Saul just saw a blinding light and heard a loud voice saying, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are being so cruel to.’ But that encounter changed Saul’s life.

Some people think the artist who made the mosaic at Hinton St Mary wasn’t very good at his job. Uncertain how to make a picture of Jesus he borrowed an image from a coin, or perhaps made Jesus look like himself or one of his friends.

But I think the artist had understood something very important about the risen Jesus. When he meets us he meets us in unexpected people and unexpected places. And when he meets us he may not look just like he did in Palestine. He may look like one of us, like the people we see on the bus or in the street! Like the surprising image of jesus on the mosaic, and like the surprise the fishermen got when they met him by the lake and Saul got when he met Jesus on the way to Damascus, the risen Jesus will suddenly be with us in surprising ways and when we least expect him.
But he also meets us, as he met his disciples that first Easter, whenever we share food together in his name.