The Basket

A Glimmer of the Mosaic of Pula’s Basilica of St Maria Formosa

Two fragments of original mosaic pavement were identified in the course of archaeological excavation in 2016 of the eastern section of the southern aisle of the Basilica of St Maria Formosa in Pula (the larger in the nave panel: a stylised depiction of grapevine leaves, and the smaller: a depiction of a basket between two marsh birds). The newly discovered figural depiction with basket stands out among the other known simple decorations (geometric and stylised vegetal motifs) of the mosaic pavement of this basilica.

Along with the basilica of the bishop Euphrasius in Poreč, the Basilica of St Maria Formosa is the most significant monument for our knowledge of sacral art in Croatia from the period of the Justinian reconquest. The biographer Agnellus (1st half of the 9th century) notes that Maximianus, a native of present day Veštar near Rovinj, ruled wisely as archbishop in Ravenna (546–556). Justinian’s protégé Maximianus completed stunning edifices in Ravenna (San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe) while in Pula, where he served as the junior deacon, he commissioned the stunning Basilica of St Maria.

The three-nave Basilica of St Maria Formosa had a polygonal apsides on the east side, with two lateral, internally circular, sacristies and abutting mausoleums of cruciform floor plan. Presently only the southern cruciform chapel is preserved to the roof, from which we have a fragment of a Traditio legis wall mosaic. The basilica, following the usual practice, was lavishly decorated with marble, ornamental plasterwork, wall mosaics and mosaic pavements.


The Find of a Mosaic with a Depiction of a Basket

A number of fragments of multi-coloured mosaic pavement have already been documented at the northern aisle and the nave of St Maria Formosa in 1902 and in 1924, and in the northern sacristy in 2004. All of these surfaces, adorned with stylised vegetal and geometric motifs, and the figural depiction with basket, are from the same workshop. All of the decorations of these pavement surfaces are stylistically uniform with or similar to examples from areas under the particular influence of Ravennese sacral art.

The fragment with a depiction of a basket and two marsh birds is from a broad decorative pavement band of the southern intercolumniation and was evidently regularly spaced at the centre point between two columns (the width of the band is likely consistent with the width of the bases of the columns). This fragment is key in determining the basilica’s original walking surface, as it is stably laid directly on the foundation wall (unlike the others, which have gradually subsided).

It is possible that the motif mirrored a similar decoration in the band of the arch between columns – at the Euphrasian basilica in Poreč we have an example of preserved ornamental plasterwork with similar depictions (pairs of birds, baskets, cornu copiae). It appears that the basket of fruits is gradually displaced in the Late Antiquity by the horn of plenty derived from the pagan myth of Jupiter’s youth. Also, in parallel, the Antiquity period motif of a pair of birds with a kantharos is evidently complemented with the early Christian motif of birds with a basket (e.g. the Lin mosaic at Lake Ohrid in Albania, the sarcophagus at San Francesco in Ravenna). The depiction can also be interpreted through the Gospels: just as a source of water (life) is a symbolic source of faith, so too are fruits the food of heavenly birds (Matthew 6:26, 31-33), i.e. symbolic spiritual food for the faithful.

 position of the mosaic

The Basket and the New Testament

The presence of a baskets is common in early Christian art in depictions of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (John 15:1-8; Matthew 20:1-16), such as the figural scenes on sarcophagi done in relief (e.g. the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the Via Appia or in Arles). The basket is also prominent in the account of Jesus feeding the multitude at the Lake of Gennesaret (John 6:1-15; Matthew 14:3-21). It is at this biblical lake in Israel (i.e. at the monastery at Tabgha) that we find a mosaic pavement with the best-known depiction of a basket between two fishes. We see this theme reflected in depictions of the Christ and the basket on early Christian sarcophagi (e.g. the Lateran Basilica in Rome, at Saint Felix in Girona) or on wall frescoes of the earliest Christian crypt burials in Rome (e.g. the cubiculo S. Cecilia or SS. Marcellino e Pietro in combination with a pair of birds).

Examples with depictions of birds and baskets in a vineyard are frequent in mosaic pavements in Israel (e.g. St Polyeuctus in Jerusalem, at Beit She’an, at Caesarea), in Jordan (St Stephen’s near Madaba); or of a basket with a pair of birds (the Kursi monastery at the Golan Heights). Notably, the particularly emphasised fruits of the promised land are grapes and pomegranate (Moses 14:23-24). The most lavish depiction of a basket with peacocks is from Antiochia (fragment presently at the Worcester Art Museum, USA).

Taken from: Garucci P. R. 1873, T. 51.

The Basket as a Capital

In terms of its form the basket is similar to a column’s capital – some legends have it as having inspired the Corinthian style in Antiquity architecture. The Greek sculptor Callimachus (about 400 BCE) was allegedly inspired by the form of a basket overgrown by acanthus leaves that he saw at the grave of a girl in Corinth. A capital of Proconnesian marble, carved in two zones (a depiction of a basket below, four birds at the corners above) is documented in the late 18th century at the cathedral in Pula. We know of numerous similar examples in the Mediterranean (e.g. in Egypt: Antinoöpolis; in Italy: San Clemente in Rome, San Salvatore in Giurdignano, Santa Maria in Poggiardo). The capital from Pula appears to be the work of the imperial sculptor’s workshop of Constantinople. Given its dimensions, it was likely part of the ciborium.

Preserved in the southern mausoleum of the Basilica of St Maria Formosa are sections of the original stucco decoration. On the cornice of the apse there is a depiction of a series of facing birds (peacocks) with a cross, and at the cupola a vaulting laurel moulding. Each of the four arms of the vaulting cornice spring from baskets bearing fruits of the earth (like capitals). We know of similar motifs with baskets and laurel garlands in Italy (S. Maria Capua Vetere: S. Prisco - Saccelo di S. Matrona, Ravenna: Santa Croce – the mausoleum of Galla Placidia). In Ravenna there is the basket with birds motif executed in a number of techniques: stucco (the Baptistery of Neon), wall mosaic (San Vitale), wall painting (Sant’Apollinare in Classe).

The Perimeter Band of the Mosaic Pavement

The mosaic pavement in the southern aisle of the Basilica of St Maria Formosa is decorated with a depiction of stylised grapevine leaves and was divided from the basket motif by a broad perimeter band. A long “S” tendril in the multi-coloured band forms two facing series of stylised three-petal floral patterns. This perimeter type is very frequent, primarily on mosaic pavements, in basilicas of the Justinian period from the Middle East through North Africa. The trail of this perimeter motif follows the movement of the Justinian campaign of reconquest under the military led by Belisarius, passing from Tunisia to Sicily and entering victorious into Rome and Ravenna.

We find matching motifs in sacral edifices in Israel (e.g. Qir Yat Gat, Hirbet Madras, Negev – Hura, the Kursi monastery on the Golan Heights), Libya (Sabratha), Tunisia (Carthage), and in Italy (e.g. Fermo, Ravenna - San Michele in Africisco, Trento - San Vigilio, Grado - Sant’Eufemia). There is an identical terminal decoration in Pula on the mosaic pavement of the cathedral’s presbytery (sanctuary) and, of course, this is the manner in which the perimeter bands of the pavement panels in both aisles and in the northern sacristy of the Basilica of St Maria Formosa are decorated.

The depiction (spiritual message) of symbols of the Christ between a pair of God’s creatures is customary in early Christian art. To the sides are depictions of birds (often peacocks as birds of paradise), lambs, fish and doe/deer. The Christogram is frequently found in the middle (Constantine’s sign of victory and the laurel garland), a cross, and also a kantharos or basket. The fragment of the basket motif is literally part of a broader mosaic – that is to say: a piece of the lavish entirety of the gleaming Basilica of St Maria Formosa. This dignified image completes the wealth of the well thought out concept (along with the edifice’s architecture) of the artistic decoration of the interior, as executed by exceedingly eminent master craftsmen. This one-off and integral investment was, of course, made possible by the sagacity and power of the archbishop Maximianus, the most prominent figure in Justinian’s policy in the northern Adriatic.




1. A multi-coloured mosaic pavement (S-16040; 168 by 132.5 cm fragment) depicting a basket and showing the lowest, middle and uppermost hoops. The lower woven section is depicted with vertical, and the upper section with crossed slanting lines. There are nine round fruits near the top of the basket (possibly pomegranates). To both sides of the top of the basket there is a tuft of leaves from which a ribbon descends with a cordiform leaf. The motif is completed with a pair of facing marsh birds. Both have long legs and necks – the bird to the left is better preserved and has a red crown (possibly a crane). To the upper left is a preserved section of the perimeter band of the pavement in the southern aisle. Two facing series of three-petal stylised flowers form an “S” tendril. Tesserae (marble, limestone, brick): several nuances of green and white, grey, black, ochre, red, pink-red. Pula – Basilica of St Maria Formosa – southern intercolumniation – 6th century


2. A capital (S-145; 30.5 by 43 cm) of Proconnesian marble decorated in two zones. In the lower section is a basket sculpted in openwork (a woven network of diagonal triple-stranded bands), with four birds emerging above at the corners. The base (28 cm) consists of two toruses carved as ropes, while the abacus is decorated with a series of stylised tendrils. Pula – Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – baptistery (?) – 6th century



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Carrarina ul. 4, Pula  

Window to the Past 

21.09. - 21.11.2017.

Exhibition, text and photography by:  Željko Ujčić

Organizer and publisher:  Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board: Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design:  Vjeran Juhas

Conservation-restoration works (the mosaic): Croatian Conservation Institute

Toni Šaina, Matko Kezele, Tea Trumbić, Ivan Valušek, Andrea Knežević

Technical set up of the exhibition:  Đeni Gobić-Bravar, Andrea Sardoz, Zoran Grbin, Admir Dizdarević, Milan Stanić

Translation in Italian:  Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

Proofs: Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović, Adriana Gri Štorga, Đeni Gobić-Bravar 

 Printer: MPS Pula

Print run: 700

Pula, 2017.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.