Located just 7 kilometers from the city of Tarragona in Catalonia, stands the majestic Villa-mausoleum of Centcelles, an exceptional Roman monument that houses the oldest mosaics of early Christian art in the Iberian Peninsula, dating back to the 4th century AD, as well as the oldest Roman dome with preserved mosaics.

For centuries during the Middle Ages, the mausoleum was used as a church, unaware of the secret held by its plastered dome. Until in 1877, pieces of plaster began to fall off, revealing a masterpiece of late Roman art.

Situated in the municipality of Constantí, the origins of Centcelles date back to the 1st century BC when there was a rustic villa dedicated to agricultural production.

Reconstructed and expanded during the 4th century, it transformed into a luxurious Roman villa, even boasting private baths.

It consists of several residential rooms and a large circular hall topped by an astonishing and enormous dome 14 meters high, which displays an elaborate iconographic program made in mosaic that has sparked the admiration of scholars for generations.

The mosaic on the dome contains three overlapping registers. The lower register depicts a deer hunting scene, known as venatio, where we can see a large group of hunters, servants, and dogs skillfully capturing deer. This scene has been interpreted as a metaphor for war and salvation.

The middle register contains scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with notable representations of the Good Shepherd, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, the resurrection of Lazarus, the story of Jonah, and the Three Youths in the fiery furnace of Babylon.

The iconic image of the Good Shepherd is placed right in the center of the composition, emphasizing its importance as the focal point.

Finally, in the upper register, there are personifications of the four seasons alongside mysterious enthroned figures.

These have been identified by some experts as bishops performing liturgical rituals, reflecting the funerary character of the enclosure.

The mosaic technique employed is truly exceptional, with vivid colors and even the use of gold tesserae to enhance particularly symbolic scenes like the Good Shepherd.

Also notable is the use of chiaroscuro on the Ionic columns framing each scene, giving them a striking sense of depth.

As for the building’s function, it was Helmut Schlunk, a German archaeologist and historian who was the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Madrid, who suggested that it was a mausoleum or cenotaph (empty commemorative tomb) of an important figure, probably Emperor Constantius, who had been assassinated by supporters of the usurper Magnentius in 350 AD.

In 2013, Josep Antón Remolá and Meritxell Pérez suggested a new interpretation based on documentary sources. The villa would have been the praetorium (military camp) of the Roman general Asterius, who was sent in 419 as the comes Hispaniarum in command of a large army to recover the territories occupied by the Vandals in Gallaecia (Galicia).

It is known that Asterius was in Tarraco in the year 420 AD, where he had established his praetorium and concentrated his troops before starting the campaign.

The hall with the dome and mosaics would be the Christianized sacellum, the sanctuary that housed the standards and emblems of the troops.

Currently, the Villa de Centcelles is part of the archaeological ensemble of Tarraco declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, allowing visitors to enjoy a fascinating journey into the past that combines Roman and medieval remains.

And in that historical amalgam, shines with its own light the hall of the dome with its valuable mosaic, a true gem of early Christian art that continues to inspire admiration after almost two millennia of existence.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 1, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La villa-mausoleo de Centcelles, en Tarragona, alberga la cúpula más antigua con mosaicos de época romana


Javier Arce, Centcelles: el monumento tardorromano : iconografı́a y arquitectura | José María Blázquez, Historia económica de la Hispania romana | Nadia Chafei, Volviendo a discutir sobre Centcelles | Villa Romana de Centcelles (Patrimoni Cultural Generalitat de Catalunya) | Conjunto Monumental de Centcelles (Museu Nacional Arquelògic de Tarragona) | Wikipedia

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