The contemporary and ancient mosaics in Chicago are varied, brilliant and inspiring. Ranging from Roman and Byzantine mosaics at the Art Institute of Chicago to public art by Marc Chagall and Jim Bachor’s iconic pot holes, it’s the place to go if you love the art form.
Mosaics in Chicago – Part 1. Ancient and Byzantine Mosaics at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most astonishing. Perhaps at first glance your eye wouldn’t linger on this small, unassuming mosaic at the Art Institute of Chicago. But take another look. It is 1,800 years old and it is a mosaic of a cake on a stand. A 1,800-year-old cake stand mosaic. That means that someone, somewhere 1,800 years ago thought: ‘Hey, I’d really like a mosaic of a cake stand’ and someone else sat down and thought about design and colours and borders and made a (slightly wobbly) cake stand mosaic and now, 1,800 years later it’s the only ancient mosaic of a cake stand in the world. It is also, as it happens, a perfect example of why the mosaics in Chicago are so bloody marvellous.
I was in Chicago thanks to funding from the Creative Scotland Open Project to attend a five day course on making large scale mosaics with Gary Drostle at the Chicago Mosaic School. Fresh off the plane and with two days to spare, I was determined to squeeze out every little last drop of mosaic juice from the trip. So Day One found me bright and early at the Art Institute of Chicago’s ticket booth:
Ticket lady: That will be $25 please.
Me: Errrr, excuse me?
Ticket lady: Are you over 65?
Me: (Spluttering) No.
I know one never looks one’s best after intercontinental flights, but that was taking things a bit far. Twenty five dollars poorer, a decade older than I thought I was, and feeling distinctly despondent, I headed to the Art Institute’s Ancient and Byzantine collection.
And there it was – my cake stand. I have had a serious crush on this cake stand for years. I have known about its checkered past – from being removed along with seven other small panels from its original site outside Rome in the early 19th century by two English aristocrats, to spending decades embedded in the floor of Woburn Abbey in England.* From there, somehow, it and its companions ended up being on display at the Edinburgh National Gallery. Last I knew, they’d been sold at Sothebys to a private collector and had undergone major restoration. And then the trail ran cold.
All thought of my advancing age and declining budget evaporated. I had assumed the mosaics were ensconced in some high-rise, high security penthouse somewhere; mounted discreetly, tastefully adapting to their new incarnation as 21st century interior design but here they were. I could have hugged that cake.
Look at the fluted edges, the concave middle, the careful shading on the sides. I could swear that long ago my cake stand was made of glass and those are almonds scattered on the top. There is tenderness in its making, vulnerability in its design (at any moment it’s poised to topple sideways) and poignancy in its subject matter – it is so very ordinary, so devoid of pretension, so utterly itself.
Alongside the cake there are five other still lives: a trussed hen, a brazier with a lighted fire, a money bag (although the caption suggests it could also be a bag of flour), a fish on a plate and what could either be a loaf of bread (surely) or an empty plate (surely not). I am not a classical historian or even an authority on ancient mosaics, but I know that the Romans often combined domestic and commercial uses in one premises and I would hazard a guess that these mosaics were embedded into the floor of a wealthy businessman – a merchant, a shop or hostel keeper – who prided himself on his produce like Mr. Garum Sauce in Pompeii.
In addition, there are two mosaic heads which are thought to be personifications of the spring and autumn. The still lives are not the only wonderful thing about these panels: take another look at the three dimensional cleverness of their settings. In each case the mosaic is placed as if at the bottom of a shallow, white-rimmed box. We know that the mosaics were set into a meandering border pattern that encircled the main mosaic which was thought to have measured approximately nine by eight metres. That’s it. Of what happened to the rest of the mosaic we know nothing.
If this was the border, my friends, we can only guess at the exquisiteness of the overall mosaic. As a rule, borders were not the part of the mosaic which justified using the most skilled craftsmen or expending energy on the design. There are exceptions. Some mosaics – think of the Zeus and Ganymede Mosaic (above) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Judgement of Paris mosaic in the Louvre – have borders which are fully as detailed and intricate as the central image but by and large the borders of Roman mosaics are formulaic and predictable. But these eight finely executed miniatures do not even hint at what they once framed. All they can do is speak across the centuries of careful observation and the poetry of detail – from Autumn’s softly closed lips to the floppy, fully solid money bag and the oh-so slightly off kilter cake stand.(1)
But there are other goodies in the the Art Institute of Chicago. The camel, above, with its bell and this 3rd century marine scene from Antioch in Turkey:
A 5th century camel driver and his camel from the Eastern Mediterranean deserves special attention because of its rare (but not unique) depiction of an African man in ancient mosaics:
And a Syrian dog, alert, attentive, dating from the 5th to 6th century:
There are others too, not so wonderful, which you can go see for yourself. I cant bear to post them alongside my beloved cake stand. Let it stand alone.
Coming soon: Mosaics in Chicago: Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons Mosaic.
- Read more on the Lost Mosaics of the Ancient World: https://helenmilesmosaics.org/ancient-mosaics-general/lost-mosaics/