From Paganism to Christianity

Around the middle of the 4th century some remarkable changes took place that distinguish Lullingstone from many of the other villas known in Roman Britain.

The villa in its final 4th-century phase, after an apsidal dining room has been added to the heart of the building

The villa in its final 4th-century phase, after an apsidal dining room has been added to the heart of the building
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

Europa Mosaics

First, the central core of the house was radically altered when an apsidal dining room or triclinium was built across the line of the western corridor, splitting it in two. This dining room, with its attached audience chamber, and the mosaics within the rooms, demonstrates the increasing prosperity of the villa.

Within the triclinium, which has been claimed as a caenaculum, where diners would have reclined on a single crescent-shaped couch, the mosaic tells the mythical story of the Rape of Europa, who was abducted by the god Jupiter disguised as a bull. One of the accompanying cupids attempts to intervene by holding on to the bull’s tail.

The main mosaic panel in the audience chamber tells the story of Bellerophon, Prince of Corinth, on the winged-horse Pegasus, killing the Chimæra, a fire-breathing she-monster.[1]

The scene is surrounded by four roundels containing representations of the seasons (one of which is largely destroyed) – a common feature in Romano-British mosaics. Between the two figured mosaics is a panel based on a simple grid incorporating a variety of motifs.

The dining room of the villa was decorated in the 4th century with a mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa by Jupiter in the guise of a bull

The dining room of the villa was decorated in the 4th century with a mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa by Jupiter in the guise of a bull

Literary Allusions

A Latin couplet above the Europa image reads:

INVIDA SI TA[URI] VIDISSET IUNO NATATUS
IUSTIUS AEOLIAS ISSET AD USQUE DOMOS

which translates as ‘If jealous Juno [Jupiter’s wife] had seen the swimming of the bull she would with greater justice have gone to the halls of Aeolus.’

The passage alludes to an episode in the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Jupiter’s wife, Juno, demands that Aeolus, the god of the winds, drowns Aeneas and his fleet at sea; but here it is transferred ironically to Jupiter’s abduction of the princess Europa, famously described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Ovid’s great poem is written in elegiac couplets, as is the Lullingstone inscription: the allusion to Ovid and Virgil could be a simple play on both poets, perhaps written by the villa owner to display his learning, or it could be taken from the work of a now unknown author.

The Creation of a House-church

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, were the changes above the deep room involving the creation of a house-church. While the dining room, mosaic floors and wall paintings are exactly the sort of embellishments to be expected in an elite residence such as Lullingstone, the wall-paintings in the house-church set the villa apart, as they are the only known paintings in Roman Britain that contain clear Christian symbolism.

The material was found collapsed into the cult room from the room above. The excavators found many thousands of fragments of painted wall plaster which, when painstakingly pieced together, revealed the images that once adorned the walls.

Although the surviving elements of the scenes depicted are fragmentary, enough remains to suggest that a large Chi-Rho – an early Christian symbol formed by the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, chi (χ) and rho (ρ) – was painted on the south wall.

Six near-life size standing figures with their hands raised in the attitude of early Christian prayer – the orantes position, still used by priests when saying mass and by modern evangelical Christians – were represented on the west wall. A further Chi-Rho appeared on the east wall, and on the north wall there were more figures, as well as pictures of buildings.

Room for the Unbaptised

The house-church had a narthex, or ante-chamber, which was possibly used by those who had not yet been formally admitted to the Church through baptism and who could not take part in the Mass. This occupied the area of the westernmost heated room of the 3rd-century building, with the former kitchen serving as a vestibule.

The painted wall plaster from the ante-chamber provided clear links to the church: it included a Chi-Rho and an alpha (α) and omega (ω), echoing the description of God in the Bible: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22:13).[2]

If access to the house-church was only via the former north range and therefore from an external door, it may have been catering to worshippers from outside the family.

Footnotes 

1. The latest consideration of the mosaics is ‘Lullingstone Mosaics 361.1 and 361.2’, in DS Neal and SR Cosh, Roman Mosaics of Britain, Volume III, South-East Britain Part 2 (London, 2009), pp 379–86. For the inscription see also SS Frere and RSO Tomlin (eds), The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume II: Instrumentum Domesticum. Wooden Barrels, etc, 86, no. 2448.6 (Oxford, 1992). P Witts, Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone (Stroud, 2005), pp 29–31 and 163–4, also discusses the iconography of the mosaics.
2. KS Painter, ‘The Lullingstone wall-plaster: an aspect of Christianity in Roman Britain’, British Museum Quarterly, 33 (1968–9), 131–50; N Davey and R Ling, Wall-Paintings in Roman Britain, Britannia Monograph 3 (London, 1981), pp 136–45; GW Meates, The Lullingstone Roman Villa, Volume II: The Wall Paintings and Finds, Monograph Series of the Kent Archaeological Society, 1 (Maidstone, 1987), pp 11–46.

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