One of my favourite classes of archaeological artefacts are mosaics, particularly Greek and Roman mosaics. Many years ago I saw my first mosaics on the Greek island of Delos, and have been taken with them ever since. Some are just so striking in their simplicity, whereas others are so extremely detailed that I have to remind myself of the technique used to create the image. Namely, the use of tesserae (small pieces of coloured glass, stone, or other materials) to create an image.
One of the great surprises during my visit earlier this year to the Art Institute of Chicago then was their collection of Middle Eastern Byzantine mosaics. Mosaic traditions in the Middle East begin in late Antiquity, and one of the largest and best preserved Roman mosaics is the now well travelled Lod Mosaic found not that long ago in Israel. The mosaics in the Art Institutes collection are thought to come from Syria and Lebanon, and date to the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
From the fifth century on, from Syria to Egypt mosaics were used to decorate both religious and secular, public buildings. The tradition comes to an end in the eighth century, after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in 750: churches fell into disrepair and were later destroyed. The only surviving examples are those that have been found in archaeological excavations. Some of which have found their way into various museum collections around the World.
This striking image of a grazing camel wearing a bell, has its body shape cleverly picked out with the use of different coloured tesserae, from black, brown, brick red, to olive green. The patterns above and below the camel’s neck are stylised flowers.
Mosaics depicting hunting scenes or animals on the prowl, such as the striding leopard above, were popular themes for civic buildings. Scholars think that interest in this theme was initially influenced by imagery found in the art of the nearby Persian Empire to the east.
This fragment with the leopard and the one below depicting a stag, ostrich and rooster are thought to have come from Homs in Syria. Mosaic floors uncovered during the excavations of a church north of Homs depict a hunt scene in the south aisle and a scene in which Adam is said to be naming the animals in the nave. The bringing together of tame (the rooster) and wild animals (the stag), in a religious context, is thought to symbolise heavenly paradise.
On the right of the pair above is a representation of a dog wagging its tail. More than likely, given the remnants of what appears to be a border around the dog, this fragment was set within a much larger geometric mosaic floor that included many such simple figural compositions.
These beautiful Byzantine mosaic fragments are themselves just a tiny part of the Art Institute’s Ancient collection, which numbers over 5,000 artefacts. Only a small proportion of this collection is, however, on display – in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art. Although these galleries are arranged chronologically, there is an overall theme, “Gods and Glamour”, that brings the many and diverse Ancient objects together. Through out the exhibition are a number of electronic information stands that have multimedia programmes about the objects. One aspect of the exhibition that struck me immediately, and I hope it comes across in at least the first photograph above, is not only how well displayed the various pieces are, but particularly how well lit they all are. The dark walls and focussed lighting really does create a wonderful atmosphere.