A new Roman mosaic on view at the Metropolitan might have been used for an entertaining parlor, but its imagery is anything but peaceful. Excavated in Lod, Israel, the 300 A.D. mosaic is thought to be from the home of a wealthy Roman, installed in a room that would have been used for hosting guests. The Lod mosaic is also unique in that it’s incredibly well-preserved; the colors of the tiles pop like nothing that’s 1700 years old should. What really pops, though, is the mosaic’s imagery. Composed of hunting scenes that focus heavily on animals eating each other, it’s a pretty strange sight.
Installed behind the Met’s relatively new Greek and Roman sculpture court with its beautiful natural light, the Roman mosaic lays flat, cordoned off by a low wire. Sadly, this makes viewing parts of the mosaic difficult with the glare from nearby windows bouncing off the now well-protected tile. Parts of the mosaic, split into a central square section and two rectangular areas on either end, aren’t visible when standing at an opposite corner. Still, leaning up close to the work’s surface, I was a little shocked to see a sinuously twisting fish-serpent (the Met interprets it as a whale) with a yawning angler-like jaw swirling in one corner, one fish preying on a smaller one, and a lion attacking an antelope in another section. Though the creatures are abstracted by the chunky mosaic tiles, they’re frightening in a children’s book illustration kind of way: unfamiliar, viscerally sinister. This freaky stuff on the floor of an area used to welcome guests?
All over the mosaic are symbols of power: strong, dangerous animals, ships setting sail in monster-infested waters, a basket of fresh-caught fish. These are signifiers of authority, stability, fruitfulness. The lush bestiary the mosaic presents makes a statement that its owner is on top of the food chain, both in the social hierarchy sense and in the animal sense. What the vignette of an eel being swallowed by a serpent-fish communicates to me is that the commissioner of the mosaic could do the same to those beneath him. I wouldn’t want to be the eel in that audience chamber. Besides the animals, there are other signifiers of wealth in the mosaic as well: a Met article by Christopher S. Lightfoot, a curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art, notes that a metal krater (mixing bowl) with two panthers as side handles would be associated with the god Dionysus, and with prosperity and well-being.
Think of the Lod mosaic as the ultimate bling, an artistic trophy in the vein of a prize Pollock or Rothko hanging on a patron’s wall today. Now, if only those modern masters could give collectors a chance to strut their physical might as well as economic prowess, then they could compete with the Romans artisans.
Excavated in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, the central sections of the full mosaic are currently on loan to the Metropolitan and will be on display through April 3, 2011. The museum is pushing into the multimedia world for the mosaic exhibition as well, with an excellent exhibition website that includes a feature essay as well as an explorable high-res image of the mosaic itself. Cool stuff!
Also check out this Youtube video produced by the Met documenting the mosaic’s excavation and preservation:
The Roman Lod Mosaic is on view at the Metropolitan museum (1000 5th avenue) through April 3, 2011