Roman mosaics in Sens

Two impressive rooms showcase Roman mosaics in the Musee de Sens.

  1. The large archaeological room
  2. The underground room

The large archaeological room

The Phaeton Mosaic, discovered in 1910 in the rue du Général Dubois in Sens, is presented in several pieces :

  • The centerpiece describing the fall of Phaeton
  • A large rosace medallion
  • Other smaller parts of the same mosaic

When it was discovered the mosaic was in poor condition. It had been seriously damaged by fiery fire in several places, and lifted up in other places by subterranean moisture.

The full Phaeton Roman mosaic before its installation in the Musee de Sens
Drawing of the Phaeton mosaic when discovered


The whole floor measured 11.10 m x 9.05 m (36 x 30′). It was framed by a border of ivy, interspersed with colorful flowers laid against a white marble background. Wide bands divided the total area into thirty-five square medallions. Because it was too big and too damaged, it was decided to only display its most impressive parts :

  • Phaeton medallion
  • One very well preserved geometric medallion
  • Parts of the beautiful Ivy and geometric borders

Difficult choices have to be made by Museums, the most flamboyant parts of mosaics are generally displayed, while other parts, which would be quite interesting to study, are buried in vaults and only open to professionals on special request, or simply forgotten.

The Phaeton Medallion

The center of the mosaic is a large medallion, measuring 1,69 m (67″) in diameter. It was also damaged by the fire, but we can recognize four horses accompanied by a rider.

Center piece of the big Phaeton roman mosaic in the Sens Museum
The Phaeton mosaic centerpiece
The Myth behind the mosaic :

Phaëton, son of Clymene and the solar god Helios one day went to his Father’s palace to borrow his chariot. His Father tried to dissuade him, but despite his warnings the boy got on the chariot and took the reins. It was a disaster: unable to control the horses, Phaeton drove the chariot too close to the earth and burned it, then stepping too far away, froze it. Finally, to end the catastrophe, Zeus struck Phaethon with one of his lightning bolts, killing him instantly and Helios stopped the mad race of the horses. (It is this part of the myth that is depicted on the mosaic)

Phaeton's crazy horses almost destroyed the world
Phaeton’s Crazy Horses
The Seasons

As in many other mosaics, the heads of the Seasons are placed at the four corners around Phaeton’s medallion. They stand out against a white rounded background. While Spring is missing, Summer is crowned with golden ears of wheat and bay leaves.

personification of Summer on the roman mosaic of Phaeton, Sens

Fall, dressed in a tunic wears a crown of grapes and vine, symbols of late harvests.

Personification of Fall - Autumn

On the left appears Winter looking miserably cold, dressed in a white hooded cloak, his head hidden under a veil which hardly protects him from the snow !

personification of Winter on the Phaeton mosaic in Sens


The delicacy and variety of materials used by the mosaicist are worthy of attention. The minute tesserae of marble or glass, carefully cut and adjusted, are close to the best opus vermiculatum found in the House of the Faun of Pompeii.

The decorative medallions

Only one of the decorative medallions was left intact by the fire. It is located to the lower left of the centerpiece and is now displayed on the wall close to the staircase leading to the balcony of the room.

sole intact medallion left from the Phaeton mosaic in the Musee de Sens
The only intact medallion

Other parts of the mosaic are on display on the floor of the great archaeological room.

The great archaeological room of the Musee de Sens (Yonne), France
The great archaeological room

You can admire some borders from a balcony above the room. One of them features some very elegant Ivy leaves spirals

detail of a bicolor Ivy leaf

The underground room of the Musee de Sens

You will walk through many beautiful subterranean hallways and rooms of the Musee de Sens labyrinthine sub-floor and admire there many surprising Roman remains before you enter the big underground room

Two mosaics are displayed in this impressive room :

  • Mosaic of the Deer
  • Mosaic of Cours Tarbe
The Deer mosaic

This is by far the more important of the two pieces. Discovered in 1876, at a depth of 1.60 m, the piece displayed on the floor is 6.75 x 5.45 m, but the original mosaic was bigger and its actual size remains unknown. The mosaicists used of marbles, limestone and terracotta tesserae. Its theme of deer facing each other on either side of a vase is early Christian and it is dated late 5th, early 6th century.

Drawing of the Deer mosaic

In the center of the mosaic a vase containing two leafy branches sits on a column. On either side two deer, facing each other come to eat the leaves. Behind each deer stands a tree. Due to the significant missing parts, we can’t say whether the central panel was originally in the middle of the composition and whether the borders and field framed it in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. Therefore the original dimensions of this mosaic are unknown.

A Christian theme

The theme of deer facing each other on either side of a vase is Christian. God being both the water which quenches and the food which strengthens…

The left deer of the deer mosaic at the Musee de Sens
The Left deer

… The deer represent the soul thirsty for God, of the faithful aspiring to Baptism.

Center of the Roman mosaic of the deer in the Musee de Sens

Such symbolism frequent in the 5th and 6th century was particularly suitable for the decoration of a baptistery. However, because we don’t know anything about the context of this mosaic, we are unable to assume the function (religious or not?) of the building it belonged to.

The Mosaic of Cours Tarbe

During works carried out in 1976, imposing remains of buildings were found testifying to the reconstruction of the city in the 3rd century. Many walls delimited rooms with more or less well preserved floors. Four rooms were decorated with black and white geometric mosaics.

fragment of mosaic discovered on Cours Tarbe now displayed on a wall of the Musee de Sens
Cours Tarbe mosaic.

This fragment is exhibited on a wall of the great underground room.

Directions to Sens:

Sens is a commune in the Yonne department in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté 120 km from Paris. You can drive there in less than 2 hours or ride the train from Paris Bercy in an hour.

Sens in modern Northern France


Agendicum in Gallia Lugdunensis


The Musee de Sens is located downtown at 135 rue des Déportés et de la Résistance, 89100 Sens. Tél. 03 86 64 46 22. Website : Musees de Sens

Like most but not all French Museum it is closed on Tuesdays.

In October 2021 I took a 2 weeks mosaic trip in Central and Southern France. I outline this trip in my article October mosaic trip, I will keep posting about the individual sites and mosaics I visited.


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Discovery History & Archeology Trips & Visits
135 rue des Déportés et de la Résistance, 89100, Sens, France Map
cerf, cheaux, deer, greek mythology, Helios, horse, mosaique, musee, museum, Paeton, romaine, roman, Sens, soleil, sun, Yonne, zeus
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