Today, Aquileia is a small town with a population of just over 3,000 people but it was not always so. In the 2nd century AD it was a thriving city of nearly 100,000 souls but eventually it was sacked and destroyed by Atilla the Hun in 452. It was rebuilt but destroyed again by the Lombards in 590 so remains are sparse and mainly underground. However, there are early 4th century mosaics that give us a fascinating insight into early Christianity.
In 313 AD The Edict of Milan meant that Christians were free to practise their religion and so it is from this time we can start to trace the growth of the religion through the monuments they leave behind, and this is what we can see in these mosaics. At this time, Christianity was a minority Jewish sect that was growing in popularity but lacked leadership and a visual and artistic language of its own. Unsurprisingly then, it borrowed from its Jewish roots and you will not see representations of the Crucifiction nor of the Virgin Mary – these came later. But what you can see are Christ as The Good Shepherd and as the Lamb of God, sacrificed as in the story of Abraham and Isaac. What you can also see is the story of Jonah who spent three days in the belly of a large fish before being freed by God in the same way that Christ spent three days in the tomb before rising again.
Not all the images are easily decipherable as some of the stories that they are meant to represent have long since passed from the Christian canon but nevertheless it is a fascinating glimpse into the early days of one of the world’s great religions.