In Focus: The Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel
by Gail S. Myhre
Mosaic Floor (detail)
The Lod Mosaic is a large, complete and well-preserved floor mosaic first found in 1996 during construction close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway in Lod (formerly Lydda), Israel. The mosaic was displayed briefly in situ before its removal from the site in 2009. It is being displayed now for the first time to the general public at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although mosaics have been found in public buildings such as Roman baths and marketplaces, and in later antiquity in houses of worship and synagogues, the majority of mosaic floors decorated private homes. This particular example has been dated to about 300 A.D., and probably belonged to the richly appointed home of a wealthy Roman citizen. Its size and complexity tends to indicate that the room in which it was laid was intended for use as an audience or reception hall in which to welcome visitors, and the themes and subjects of the mosaic suggest as well that the floor was designed to impress upon visitors the great wealth of the owner.
The mosaic consists of three separate panels. The large central panel includes inhabited scroll scenes containing predominantly North African animals including elephant, giraffe, antelope and rhinoceros, but also birds and at the corners, notably, fish with a trident motif, perhaps a reference to the god Neptune. Although these animals were rare not only in Lod but throughout Rome, contemporary audiences would have been familiar with them through their presence in the Roman games.
Roman, ca. A.D. 300
Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel
Central panel, 13 ft. x 13 ft. (4 m x 4 m);
side panel with boats and fish, 13 ft. x 5 ft. 3 in. (4 m x 1.6 m);
side panel with hexagonal medallions, 13 ft. x 5 ft. 3 in. (4 x 1.6 m)
Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center
Image: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
One large panel below the central octagon includes a kantharos with female panthers surmounting it, acting as its handles. This particular scene would also have been familiar to any contemporary viewer, since both the drinking vessel and the panthers were considered sacred to the god Dionysus, god of abundance and plenty, and a fine example of a similar monumentally sized kantharos with panther handles executed in marble was uncovered in the city of Petra.
The rectangular panel at the top of the mosaic, which is farthest from a viewer, contains further inhabited scroll motifs, notably several panels depicting wildlife including fish and birds (most notably what appears to be an Indian peacock), and large predatory cats and their prey – quite possibly another Dionysian reference. A basket of fish in the corner of this panel is also an established and recognizable symbol of plenty, and perhaps an indicator of the source of the mosaic owner's wealth – sea trade.
The rectangular panel at the bottom of the mosaic is particularly unusual, considering its place of excavation and given its theme of ships and fish. In fact the abundance of marine life in this mosaic has excited some comment, as it was discovered in a town far from the sea, but Lydda was traditionally a city of Jewish merchants, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Romans upon annexation of the town would have continued this profitable tradition. Its inclusion here would seem to reinforce the idea that the owner of the mosaic gained his wealth in this way.
Although mosaic floors are one of the best-preserved (and therefore most widely found) examples of Roman art, this particular piece is remarkable for its size, its diversity of subjects, its brilliant color and naturalism, and its particularly excellent state of preservation.
From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre, Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in Roman art and history who also appreciates a wide variety of Modernist movements. You may read all of her Special Exhibition Reviews here.