The mosaic technique originated in Greece and spread and was perfected by the Romans, who denominated it opus musivum, a name derived from “muse”; Pliny the Elder designated it lithostrota in allusion to the fragments of stone that were used, which were called tesserae or tessellae, a name derived from the Greek, meaning “having four sides.” Mosaics have been principally employed in flooring, but also to decorate walls, both in interiors and exteriors. In some cases, the use of mosaic contemplates the resolution of a small motif or representation.
Until the 3rd century of our era, mosaic was used to reproduce famous Greek paintings and also to decorate niches and fountains, especially in villas. When the Christian religion was recognized by the emperor Constantine in the year 313, the art of mosaic took on new life and was employed to decorate churches, used on the walls of the naves and apses. The Byzantine empire inherited this technique, enriching it with contributions like cast glass tesserae and gold backgrounds which highlighted colors and the incidence of light, elements which did not exist in Greek or Roman mosaics.
The use of mosaic spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and was adapted to different needs with diverse forms of representation, from decorative abstract forms that were remarkable for their rich materials to grand scenes.
Our work, which can be dated from around the end of the 5th century of our era, represents a scene that is curiously laid out like a large frieze, where a man drives two mules that transport a litter or reliquary that flaunts a curtain with embroidered flowers, finished off in a semicircle enclosed by grillwork. The man is dressed in a long-sleeved jerkin with decorated cuffs, cinched around the waist with a belt and extending in a short skirt adorned with squares; he wears high top boots with laces. With the help of a whip and taking the reins, he commands the first mule, which appears to be agitated. In the section to the right, the scene is completed with several animals: behind the second mule, a donkey is being attacked by a lion while at the edge a large dog runs away frightened. The scene takes place in a field spotted by small flowering plants and others that emerge in groups. Above and to the right, there is a flowering plant and other shrubs, with a duck walking among them that seems to indicate an uneven terrain. Toward the center of the scene, there are other ducks flying and a pheasant appears on the ground. The upper and lower edges of the composition are marked by a border with a triangular motif.