If it’s coming to a museum near you – pay a visit! A Roman mosaic from 300 AD found in 1996 in Israel was finally exhibited last year. Having been displayed in Paris and Berlin and toured the U.S. while its home is being constructed, the Lod Mosaic made its first appearance at Waddesdon Manor in June this year, and I managed to hitch a car ride there to see it last Friday, in the final week of the exhibition. Here is what I thought of it!
What is amazing about this mosaic:
- Imprints of hands, feet, and sandals have been preserved in the mortar.
- There are no human figures represented, real or mythological.
- It features a giraffe and a rhinoceros, rare subjects in mosaics.
- It survived despite being situated just 1 m below the ground, near a highway.
I think that within the predator and prey theme is order in the panel with hexagonal tableaux vs. disorder in the sea life panel. In between them is the central panel, possibly representing the values of the household.
The sea life panel is ominous. The ketos is associated with punishment, and it may be no coincidence that while below a larger fish is swallowing a smaller fish, above them is a ship sailing in the direction of a whale. That ship is the larger of two, and its size might suggest that it is menacing. Meanwhile the smaller ship is sailing out of the panel, as shown by the direction of the bow and the sails. Is a pirate ship heading into danger while a merchant’s ship sails safely past, or is larger cargo ship getting its comeuppance and the panel a warning against excessive luxury and hubris?
The central panel seems to depict the larder and activities of a aristocrat: spectating at the games, hunting, drinking, stocking the larder with a wide variety of prey. The large beasts in the central octagon would have been paraded in amphitheatres. The hare eating grapes and panthers gripping the side of a krater (mixing bowl for wine) is Dionysiac. Dionysos was the god of wine, and is often shown accompanied by panthers. The hare had erotic connotations, and in in Euripides’ tragedy, the Bacchae, there is the phrase “without wine there is no love” – depicted here, it seems to show that the master and mistress of the house really knew how to enjoy themselves. In fact, Dionysos’ power is so great that he is also associated with rebirth, and hares depicted in funerary art are shown eating grapes. And it is not only wine that is associated with salvation. Dolphins saved Arion, and the god Apollo, disguised as a dolphin, thwarted the ill intent of Cretan pirates only to make them priests in his temple. Dolphins frame the dodecagon. Perhaps they act as a sort of good-luck charm?
- Why does the rhinoceros look unrealistic while other animals in the octagonal panel look realistic?
- Why are baby animals depicted (that’s rare, right)?
- Why are their sailing ships (indications of human activity) but no human(-like) figures?
- Why is a hound stalking a hare eating grapes, and why is it so small?
Check the mosaic out, before it returns to its resting place in Israel. Learn more at http://www.lodmosaic.org/home.html.