BMA Voices: The mysteries of ancient mosaics

Sea Thiasos. Syria (present day Turkey). 2nd century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1937.123

Sea Thiasos. Syria (present day Turkey). 2nd century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1937.123

Angie Elliott, Associate Objects Conservator

Although my knowledge of centaurs isn’t extensive, I admit that I had never heard of an ichthyocentaur before seeing this mosaic. A human torso, horse legs, and fish fins make for an interesting creature. This is just one of the mythical creatures depicted in the Sea Thiasos mosaic. Erotes (cupids) mix with nereids (sea nymphs) that ride on long, curling centaur fish tails. It’s a spectacular scene that once graced the floor of a colonnade between a pool and dining room in a villa near the ancient city of Antioch in Turkey.

When I look at our ancient mosaics as a conservator, I often get caught up in the details of how they got from the floors of ancient villas to the walls of our museum. Can you imagine moving an entire floor across the world? The process included lifting, cleaning, and supporting the mosaics with new backings of iron rebar and concrete. They were then crated and padded out with mattresses to help cushion the journey across the ocean to the port of Baltimore. Once they arrived at the museum, they were transformed from floors to art objects displayed on walls for all to admire.

We see our mosaics in all of their glory directly in front of our eyes without having to walk on them or crouch down on the floor for a better look. How different must that experience be to the original context in which the mosaics were seen? The other mosaics that surrounded them are no longer by their sides and many of the less detailed geometric borders and backgrounds were left behind in the ground.

The Sea Thiasos went through many changes after it was no longer in use. It lived quietly just below the ground surviving events as large as earthquakes and as everyday as farming. It’s easy to imagine farmers finding mosaic tiles for years never knowing what was below them. Once archaeologists finally uncovered the mosaic many pieces were missing, including the entire Eros figure on the right and parts of the centaur in the center. Baltimore artists painstakingly recreated these missing figures in 1938 when the mosaics were installed. The missing parts are likely based on what was left of the mosaic and knowledge of similar scenes in antiquity – while never fully knowing if what they were doing was accurate.

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Mosaics being restored in another campaign in the late 1950s.

I find myself wondering if these modern artistic restorations belong on these ancient mosaics. It’s hard to imagine recreating an entire figure on a painting or even a classical vase. As these restorations age and discolor, should they be removed or painted once again? How would you feel if the imagined Eros was suddenly missing?

Sea Thiasos. Syria (present day Turkey). 2nd century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1937.123

Sea Thiasos. Syria (present day Turkey). 2nd century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1937.123

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

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