Roman, the Levant, late Imperial Period, ca. 3rd to 4th century CE. A spectacular mosaic comprised of square stone tesserae depicting the faces of two theater masks looking toward one another and set in square frames that are surrounded by decorative borders, with a blossoming plant in the panel between them. All is skillfully rendered in a vibrant color scheme of sienna, beige, gold, seafoam green, peach, wine red, black, grey, russet, yellow ochre, and white. Each visage presents naturalistically features, and both are finely delineated so as to provide a sense of three dimensionality. Leafy wreaths crown their mesmerizing visages. Surrounding the entire composition is a marvelous decorative egg and dart border that provides not only additional color but also a sense of depth to the piece. There is also a lower border of pink and yellow cubes with white edges seen in perspective on a red ground. Size: 41.25" W x 19.25" H (104.8 cm x 48.9 cm) including the matrix
Mosaics (opus tesellatum) are some of our most enduring images from the Roman world, exciting not only for their aesthetic beauty, but also because they reveal what Romans chose to depict and see every day decorating their private and public spaces. As in Greece, masks played an important role in Roman theatre. An actor's entire head and hair would be covered by a large mask of simple design, made from linen or cork, with holes for the mouth and eyes. These masks allowed audience members seated in all areas of the theatre to understand what was happening, while also amplifying the actor's voice. The Pompeiian mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet (now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum) shows several examples of these masks including one actor wearing an example pushed up on his head.
In the Roman province of Syria, which encompassed most of the ancient Near East/Levant, mosaics developed as a common art form relatively late, with most finds coming from the 3rd century CE or later. Syria was one of Rome's wealthiest provinces, but it was also far removed from Rome itself and Roman culture was overlaid on enduring cultural traditions from Hellenistic Greece and the great civilizations that came before it. Antioch-on-the-Orontes (modern day Antakya, Turkey), was the capital of northern Roman Syria, and its excavations in the 1930s revealed more than three hundred mosaic pavements - of which many embellished public baths. Popular mosaic themes from this region were often mythological or religious scenes, depicting gods and goddesses; however, sometimes mosaics were created to fit the theme of a building or room. This example may have been intended for a theatre. Romans appreciated all forms of entertainment and there were hundreds of playwrights in ancient Rome. Plays were performed to honor the gods during religious ceremonies, and since Rome had over 200 religious days of commemoration each year, plays were performed many days of the year.
Cf. a border from Room 2 in the House of the Mysteries of Isis at Antioch, now in Hartford, illustrated in Doro Levi, "Antioch Mosaic Pavements" (Princeton, 1947), pls. 33 c & 102 f-g, and a border from Room 8 in the House of the Boat of Psyches at Antioch, now in Baltimore, also illustrated in Doro Levi, pl. 42 a.
Provenance: private East Coast, USA collection; ex William Froelich Collection, New York, New York, USA, 1970s
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This mosaic is in remarkable condition. There are some chips/fissures to tesserae, normal areas of encrustation, but very few losses. Set in modern matrix with metal frame.