Saint NamePriskos, soldier martyr : S00389
Priskos and Nikolaos, martyrs venerated in Blachernae : S00391
Priscus, martyr in Tomis : S00390
Priskos, Malchos and Alexandros, martyrs in Caesarea Maritima, ob. 253/260 : S00240
Saint Name in SourceΠρίσκος
Type of EvidenceImages and objects - Wall paintings and mosaics
Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Evidence not before380
Evidence not after600
Activity not before380
Activity not after600
Place of Evidence - RegionBalkans including Greece
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcThessalonike
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Thessalonike
Cult activities - Festivals
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Use of Images
- Public display of an image
SourceThe circular building known as the Rotunda of Saint George was built in the early 4th century as a part of the palatial complex of Thessalonike, probably under the emperor Galerius (Caesar to Diocletian 293-305, Augustus 305-311). Originally built as an imperial mausoleum or pagan temple, the building was later consecrated as a Christian church and functioned as such continuously until the 16th century, when it was converted into a mosque. As a church (the dedication of which is unknown), the Rotunda probably preserved a special association with the palace which was functional at least until the 7th century.
The conversion of the building into a church was accompanied by the decoration of its dome with sumptuous mosaics which survive in a very fragmentary state. Various chronologies have been suggested, ranging from the late 4th to the 6th centuries, the likeliest period probably being 450-550. This is based on iconographic evidence (hairstyle and costume of the figures) and on the results of chemical analysis of the mortars of the mosaic (see the discussion by Fourlas 2012, 177 ff.). The mosaics present no signs of secondary phases or repairs. Their extensive damage seems to be due to natural causes.
The mosaics consisted of a visionary scene (theophany) in three concentric registers. The figure of Christ in glory is depicted in a mandorla in the centre (now mostly lost), carried by four angels. This is followed by a register of saints (apostles, prophets, martyrs, or angels) in procession on a green ground – perhaps depicted according to the apocalyptic theme of the 24 Elders. Only the feet of some of these figures can be seen, and their precise number is unknown.
The only part of the mosaic surviving in good condition is the third and lowest register, which is divided into eight panels (seven of which are preserved) with figures of praying martyrs (19 or 20 in number, of whom 16 are preserved). They are depicted standing with their hands raised in prayer, in front of sumptuous architectural façades, and are accompanied by inscriptions indicating their name, often their profession, and the month of their festival.
The figures of the martyrs are depicted in official late antique dress, by which they are distinguished as soldiers (wearing the military cloak, the chlamys) and civilians (wearing the civilian cloak known as a paenula). Their dress also distinguishes these martyrs from the figures of the upper register, which were depicted wearing tunic and pallium/himation (the philosopher’s habit). Thus a sense of hierarchy is created, which was also accentuated by the greater size of the lost figures of the upper register.
The mosaics depict the physiognomic characteristics of the martyrs with realism and precision, expressing differences in age and social status. Laymen and soldiers are depicted wearing their hair in the mop style, fashionable in the late 5th and 6th centuries, and with their faces clean shaven or with stubble beard. By contrast, Christian clerics and scholars (the two physicians) have short hair and longer beards.
Although some scholars have proposed interpretations of the figures of the lower register as portraits of non-saintly persons, perhaps of donors, most of them can safely or tentatively be identified with martyrs known from the hagiographical sources. None of them seems to be a local saint of the city of Thessalonike, but they represent various parts of the East Roman Empire, including Anatolia, the Balkans, the Levant, and Egypt. No saints from the West can be identified. The 10th century Synaxarium of the Church of Constantinople suggests that many of the saints shown were honoured with chapels and feasts in the capital. The reasons and criteria for the selection of these particular saints in the dome of the Rotunda are unknown. Their placement does not follow any apparent logic. It is possible that the church possessed relics of these martyrs (see Kleinbauer 1972, 55), or that these figures were particularly revered by aristocratic families related to the palace of Thessalonike and its church. According to Ernst Weigand, the mosaic cycle of the Rotunda represents a selective calendar of saints from around the Christian world and the ecclesiastical year (Weigand 1939).
The accompanying inscriptions are of major interest, since they emulate the formulation known from the earliest hagiographic calendars (martyrologia) (on them, see Feissel 1983). These inscriptions very probably echo the calendar observed in the church of Thessalonike, and possibly in the whole of Illyricum, of which Thessalonike was the ecclesiastical capital.
DiscussionThe identification of Priskos is problematic. The Martyrologium Hieronymianum mentions a martyr of that name being celebrated at Tomis (Constanţa, Romania) on 1 October (together with the martyrs Evagrius and Criscentius or Ianuarius). He can tentatively be identified with the figure of our mosaic, although we have no information as to whether the martyr of Tomis was a soldier.
Priscus of Tomis and/or the Priskos of our mosaic could be identical with the martyr Priskos who was venerated at a coastal church outside the walls of the Blachernae in Constantinople. A building of Justinian, the church of Priskos and Nikolaos is mentioned by Procopius who notes that these martyrs had been recently introduced to the city, implying that they were not local (Procopius, Buildings 1.6.4; E04387). The 10th century Synaxarium of Constantinople reports that the festival of this church was on 22 September: it contains two brief entries on Priskos (one mentioning also his companions Martinos and Nikolaos) which describe briefly his tortures and martyrdom by beheading, without specifying his provenance or profession (Acta Sanctorum Novembris, Propylaeum, p. 66, 70).
The figure, however, could also correspond to the martyr Priskos, executed in Caesarea Maritima under Valerian. His martyrdom is mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea (see E00279), without specifying his profession or date of martyrdom.
On the inscription, see: Feissel 1983, 108.
BibliographyBakirtzis, C., “Rotunda,” in: C. Bakirtzis (ed.), Mosaics of Thessaloniki : 4th to 14th Century (Athens: Kapon, 2012), 51-117 (with the most recent and best pictures).
Feissel, D., Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de Macédoine du IIIe au VIe siècle (Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément; Athènes, Paris: Ecole française d'Athènes, De Boccard, 1983), 103-110 (for the inscriptions).
Fourlas, B., Die Mosaiken der Acheiropoietos-Basilika in Thessaloniki : eine vergleichende Analyse dekorativer Mosaiken des 5. und 6. Jahrhunderts (Millennium-Studien; Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 156-195 (with a full survey of bibliography).
Kleinbauer, W.E., “The Iconography and the Date of the Mosaics of the Rotunda of Hagios Georgios, Thessaloniki,” Viator 3 (1972), 27-107 (extensive discussion of the hagiographic questions).
Spieser, J.M., Thessalonique et ses monuments du IVe au VIe siècle : contribution a l'étude d'une ville paléochrétienne (Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome; Paris: Boccard, 1984), 125-164.
Torp, H., La rotonde palatine à Thessalonique : architecture et mosaïques, 2 vols., Athènes: Kapon, 2018.
(with the most recent and best pictures)
Weigand, E., “Der Kalenderfries von Hagios Georgios in Thessalonike. Datierung, Ideen- und kunstgeschichtliche Stellung,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 39 (1939), 116-145.