The Lod Roman mosaic – on tour
The Lod Roman Mosaic is on display at Waddesdon Manor until November 2, 2014.
Sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do and if it involves driving half way across England to see a Roman mosaic, then so be it. The Lod Roman mosaic is currently exhibiting at Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury and since it usually lives near Tel Aviv, in Israel, and my chances of going to see it there are virtually zero, then desperate measures had to be taken. I was staying with a friend in Bristol who more than kindly, recklessly perhaps, offered to drive me over to see the mosaic and we set off on a clear blue summer day on what was meant to be a jolly jaunt with maybe a pub lunch and a leisurely stroll in the gardens thrown in.
Two years ago my husband and I drove a car full of boys, aged 9, 13 and 15, from Greece all the way through Turkey to its south eastern border with Syria to see the mosaics of Gaziantep so this was surely going to be a piece of cake. Ah, not so! There seemed to be road works around every corner. Add music festivals, town centre driving and a GPS with its own little penchant for narrow country lanes into the equation and our jolly jaunt became a massive expedition. But it gave us plenty of time to discuss life’s dilemmas, the agonies of love, children, plans, ambitions and a whole lot more before we arrived several hours later, bedraggled, hungry and hot.
But arrive we did, and there, in its own wing of the manor’s converted stables, was the Lod Roman mosaic, discovered in 1997 by road workers in Lod (formerly Palestinian Lydda) before being covered back up to protect it and then removed in 2009. It dates from the 3rd century AD and is thought to have come from a reception room of a rich Roman household. Now there are many of you (well, perhaps a few) who will be wondering why it is that I have to make such gargantuan efforts to see mosaics when there are perfectly good photographs to be seen on Google. All I can say is that they are entirely different in the flesh.
The Lod Roman mosaic – up close and personal
The Lod Roman mosaic is no exception. The part which is on tour consists of the 13 square foot central section of the mosaic containing the famous panel of wild beasts and a mythical sea creature. At either end of it are two smaller rectangular panels, one of a jam packed marine scene and the other with more depictions of animals, some now extinct or nearly so, as well as a basket of fish. Other parts of the mosaic, including a beautiful panel of birds, stayed behind in Israel.
Let’s take the marine scene first with its Roman galleons in sail and teaming waters scattered with random shells. If you are a Roman mosaic lover, I bet you will know the monster fish with its mouth agape and twirly tail, but perhaps the astonishing variety and precision of the other fish, listed as tuna, bream, swordfish, snapper and others, will have escaped you:
They make me want to sit down and start my life again. To abandon boys and meals and car ferrying and do nothing for the rest of my life but make these lovely coloured fish with their spotty bodies and stern expressions.
The Lod Roman Mosaic – central panel
Then there is the central panel, renowned for its depiction of African animals, including a giraffe and rhinoceros, animals so rarely seen in that place and time that they would have seemed as far fetched and (literally) incredible as the mythical sea beast, the ketos, splashing in the water between them. Roman mosaics are often simply pattern book copies of designs which recur over and over again across the empire. But these mosaics are unusual. Where would the villa owner have come across such exotic animals, and how were the mosaic craftsmen able to portray them so realistically? The same panel also contains the weirdly wonderful mosaic of two leopards perched precariously on either side of an urn looking faintly perplexed at their own foolishness:
There is also one of a chubby hare gorging on grapes while it can before being leapt upon by a hunting dog:
But while these mosaics were familiar to me and a delight to see like greeting old friends, the ones of moorhens and pigeons, beautiful in their pared down simplicity, were new:
The mosaic also contains the obligatory hunting scenes, corner designs of dolphins on either side of a trident as well as another rather odd one of a fish grappling with a python. Not a juxtaposition one normally comes across. Is this symbolic, if so, of what?
My favourites, however, are the rock partridge and family of chicks (above) and this peacock, it’s legs akimbo and it’s colours still glorious after 1700 years under ground:
And it is this, this tiny bird (below the swordfish) resting in the bow of a galleon, while an identical bird looks out from the other ship, which is why mosaics are worth seeing in detail. When I wrote about little birds in mosaics, I received a comment that it was thought that a bird mosaic at Fishbourne Roman villa was used as a signature. Could these then be the signatures of two Roman craftsmen whose names have been obliterated by time but whose work remains so decidedly alive?
And, yes, we managed to fit in a sandwich and even a wander around the grounds in the sweltering English heat where we couldn’t escape mosaics, this time made of flowers, before setting back on the long journey home: