Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Alexis Belis, Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016. Pp. 82. ISBN 9781606064979. $20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Anna Kouremenos (anna.kouremenos@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Open-access full text

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California contains several mosaics of the Roman period originating in various regions of the Roman Empire and dating from the second to the sixth century AD. Most of the mosaics in the Getty's collection covered floors (as opposed to walls and ceilings) and come from domestic and civic contexts. The placement of mosaics can suggest the function of the spaces they once decorated, and many mosaic themes invite the visitor to interact with the works in ways that seem specifically intended. Furthermore, because people did not take mosaic floors with them when they moved elsewhere, these pavements are one of the few immovable artefacts in domestic and civic contexts, with the potential to reveal the cultural trends of an era.

This catalogue contains all the examples of Roman mosaic art in the Getty's collection. It is illustrated beautifully throughout with images of the mosaics, plans and maps, and is arranged geographically by region from west to east. Each catalogue entry situates a mosaic within a broad stylistic and typological framework and illuminates the context of its discovery. The Introduction by Christine Kondoleon outlines the spread of mosaic art in the Roman world and emphasizes regional differences but also common themes—hunts, wild beasts, vegetal and mythological motifs—that prevailed throughout the centuries in many parts of the empire. The shift to more religious motifs in the eastern provinces during the later centuries of Roman rule suggests that the boundaries between secular and religious imagery were quite permeable in the new Christian Empire.

The first region under consideration, Italy, is represented here by two mosaics. The catalogue traces the historical background and stylistic evolution of the mosaics in this region, and highlights the various types of mosaics: black and white, polychrome, geometric, and figural. The first example is a mosaic floor with the head of Medusa decorating the center set against concentric bands of alternating black and white triangles arranged in a spiral design. This was an extremely popular motif throughout the empire: the closest parallels cited by the author come from Greece, one from Kissamos in Crete and another from Corinth in the Peloponnese. The second mosaic floor from Italy in the Getty's collection is a mosaic with a bear hunt dated to the fourth century AD. The provenience of the mosaic is unknown, but comparanda suggest that its original location may have been a city in Tunisia. The mosaic is divided into multiple sections depicting a bear hunt, a popular theme in late Roman mosaic art. The author mentions several parallels of hunting scenes but omits an example from a house at Kissamos in Crete which, like the Getty example, is divided into multiple sections, depicts a hunting scene, and is dated to the same time period.1

The second region highlighted in the catalogue is Gaul, represented by two mosaics. The earliest examples of mosaics in Gaul date to the first century BC, but the two Gallo-Roman mosaics in the Getty's collection both date to the second century AD. The first example, from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, is a mosaic floor with a central emblema depicting Orpheus surrounded by other emblemata depicting animals, arranged in a honeycomb pattern. The second example, from Villelaure, is a mosaic floor featuring a central panel that depicts a boxing match between Dares and Entellus. The author notes that although this theme was not popular in other parts of the empire, at least four mosaics from southern Gaul depict this particular scene. This section on Gaul also includes a short history of the Villelaure excavations.

Although the North African provinces possess a greater number of preserved Roman mosaics than any other area of the empire, the region is represented at the Getty by only one example, a second-century AD panel from Hadrumetum in Tunisia that depicts a lion attacking an onager. Although the original context of the mosaic is unknown, it is likely that it was an emblema in a much larger composition.

The majority of the Roman mosaics in the Getty's collection come from Syria, with most of the examples originating in Antioch. The city was a well-known center for mosaic production, and Antiochene mosaicists travelled extensively in other parts of the Roman empire to create mosaics for domestic and civic spaces. Of the several examples in the museum's collection, eleven are single panels thought to be from an early Christian church in Emesa. The earliest dated Syrian mosaic in the museum, possibly from Antioch, shows a scene with Achilles and Briseis. Comparanda indicate that the scene has parallels in two further mosaics from Antioch and in one from Sparta. Another Syrian mosaic in the collection comes from a vestibule leading to the so-called Bath of Apolausis near Toprak-en-Nardidja, dated to the fifth century AD. This mosaic contains three figural panels with a rabbit and two birds, flanked at left and right by end panels containing lozenges. Comparanda indicate that the theme was popular in public baths as well as private settings. Another panel, possibly from Emesa and dated from AD 400-600, depicts a griffin with a Nemesis wheel. The author notes that this mosaic may have decorated a church floor; but its closest parallel can be found in the peristyle mosaic of the Great Palace at Constantinople.

The next section of the catalogue presents eleven panels with animals that may have come from a church in Emesa and are dated from AD 400-600. These fragmentary mosaics represent various animals—bulls, a lion, a horse, a rabbit, a donkey, a stag, an eagle, peacocks, and other birds. The author notes that animals set among landscapes and vegetal motifs were typical of church mosaics in the region, citing comparanda found in the collections of various museums, such as the Chazen Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art. The final mosaic from Syria (or possibly Jordan) in the Getty's collection is a panel with the head of a season, also dated to AD 400-600. A female bust crowned by a wreath of leaves, fruit, and flowers, perhaps a personification of autumn, covers a large part of the panel. Comparanda suggest that similar female busts of the seasons usually decorated the floors of churches and appear in various late antique sites in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The section on the Syrian mosaics also includes a history of the excavations of Antioch and the Bath of Apolausis.

This catalogue is well-written, well-illustrated, and free from typographical errors. It is geared toward both a professional and a lay audience. It is especially useful that the proveniences of the mosaics, as well as the histories of their acquisition by the museum, are explained in detail. Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum is a very welcome addition to the expanding corpus of mosaic scholarship in the Roman Empire.


1.   This mosaic may have been from a reception room in the "House of the Hours and Seasons". See S. Markoulaki, "Mosaïques romaines de Crète", Dossiers d'Archéologie (July/August 2011), 54-59; S. Markoulaki, "Διονυσιακό ψηφιδωτό στο Μουσείο Κισάμου (Κίσαμος, oικόπεδο Αντ. Σκουνάκη 1985)," in Πεπραγμένα Ι΄ Διεθνούς Κρητολογικού Συνεδρίου, Χανιά 1-8 Οκτωβρίου 2006, τ. Α5 (Chania, 2011), 383-410; A. Kouremenos, Houses and Identity in Roman Knossos and Kissamos, Crete: a study in emulative acculturation (PhD Thesis, University of Oxford, 2013), 164-66.

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