Curator Christopher Lightfoot brings to life the colorful animals of air, land, and sea that populate a large floor mosaic from the ancient Roman Empire that was discovered accidentally in 1996 during road construction in Israel.
Christopher Lightfoot: Hello, I’m Christopher Lightfoot. I’m a curator of Greek and Roman art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I’m here today to talk to you about the Roman mosaic from Lod, Israel, which is on loan at the Museum from the Israel Antiquities Authority. The exhibition runs from September 28, 2010, through to April 3, 2011.
This large floor mosaic depicts a variety of different animals in lively and very colorful scenes. These include fish, birds, and land animals. It’s so well preserved that some people might be deceived into thinking that it’s actually made yesterday rather than some seventeen hundred years ago.
The mosaic was only part of a much larger floor that measured some fifty feet long by twenty-seven feet wide. What we have on display is the decorated area, consisting of three panels: a central panel, which is thirteen feet square, and two end panels, which are about five-and-a-half feet wide and, again, thirteen feet long. Although it’s a figural mosaic, as many Roman mosaics are, there are only animals and no human figures. That’s very strange because a lot of Roman mosaics show either mythical scenes or scenes from Greek or Roman theater or scenes of daily life. This one, however, has only animals, and when one looks at them, one realizes that all these creatures are really engaging in activities where they are displayed or represented either as predators or as prey.
This is so even with the one end panel, which has a marine scene as one single panel. Here we have a variety of different fish, and also seashells, but one can see that one of the fish is about to swallow a smaller fish, so even the fish are preying on each another. In fact, this particular panel is interesting because, as well as the fish, it also shows us two Roman ships. They’re quite clearly merchant ships, not warships or fishing boats. One of them has its sails billowing, so it’s clearly sailing along in this fishy sea.
The other two panels are divided up into segments, with smaller scenes. The far end panel has a number of hexagons depicting various animals, birds, and fish, including one basket full of fish. So there we have some sort of human connection, as with the ships. Humans are not represented, but human activity is represented on this mosaic.
Some of the other animals on this panel are shown catching and bringing down prey. So there is a tiger attacking a deer or a gazelle. And there are other representations of these large hunting cats preying on other animals. Most significantly, however, on the central octagonal panel on the central mosaic, we can see other animals, which are not chasing each other or preying on each other, but rather just standing around in natural surroundings. These are represented by the two mountains at the back of the scene, on which sit a lion and a lioness. In the foreground, we see several other animals. There is a tiger and a bull, probably a wild bull, and also a large elephant with large ears—so, probably meant to represent an African elephant—and also a giraffe and a rhinoceros. Well, these, of course, are exotic animals that are not native to the Roman world. And it seems that they are represented here specifically to indicate the sorts of animals that the Romans caught and brought to Rome in order to display in the games in the amphitheater—in the Colosseum or in the Circus Maximus—as part of the day’s entertainment, which concluded in the afternoon with the gladiators fighting to the death.
The Roman mosaic at Lod was found in 1996 by accident during road construction. Lod is a small town just off the coast near Tel Aviv in central Israel. And it was decided, because it was such a large and clearly well-preserved mosaic, that they would rebury it and wait until the circumstances were right to lift and exhibit this mosaic. In early 2009, representatives from the Israel Antiquities Authority came to the Metropolitan Museum and asked us if we would be interested in displaying parts of this very large mosaic. We of course were very attracted to the idea and so, in the summer of 2009, the mosaic was re-excavated and then lifted and taken to mosaic conservation laboratories in Jerusalem for consolidation and preparation for its journey to New York. And this is the first venue at which this mosaic is being exhibited to the general public.
The discovery raised many questions, both for the local Israeli archaeologists and for scholars studying Roman art generally. As I’ve mentioned, there are no human figures on the mosaic, but it has been debated as to whether the images symbolize specific—particularly religious—elements. So some scholars have argued that it represents a Jewish iconography—that is, the peaceable world of the animal kingdom as described in the Book of Isaiah, for example, in the Old Testament. Or whether it depicts scenes that could be interpreted as proto- or crypto-Christian, particularly with the ship, and the whale, which may be a reference to Noah, and the whale, and there’s also a peacock, which was used as a Christian symbol, and other animals—particularly the fish, of course, is a Christian symbol.
However, the likelihood is that this mosaic represents purely Roman—and, that is, pagan—motifs. And it’s perhaps surprising to find such a mosaic in this part of the Roman Empire. But it does suggest that the owner, the patron who had the mosaic made, whether he was a pagan, a Jew, or a Christian, wanted to decorate the building with a mosaic floor, a splendid mosaic floor, that typified Roman taste and Roman art of the time. So that we have displayed the mosaic here at the Metropolitan Museum in the gallery displaying our permanent collections of later Roman art so that one can compare and contrast the scenes on the mosaic with those that one can see on other works of art in our collections on silverware, on glass, on sarcophagi and other decorative arts of the Roman period, particularly, that is, of the third century A.D.
The mosaic will eventually return to Israel and be put on permanent display in a specially built museum in Lod, which will be called the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Center.
The exhibition here at the Metropolitan Museum is made possible by Diane Carol Brandt in memory of Ruth and Benjamin Brandt.
Additional support is provided by Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman and the David Berg Foundation.