It’s old, it’s big, and it depicts a Middle Eastern bestiary of Late Roman times – but what makes the Lod Mosaic transcend an art exhibit and become a life experience is the elegant interpretive spin that the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University has given to the mosaic’s display.
A 1,700-year-old Roman mosaic from the Eastern Roman Empire in what is now Israel, the Lod Mosaic has made nine previous stops (including the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia). Its Miami sojourn at the Frost began on February 10, 2016, and it will remain on display through May 15.
Each venue mounted its own unique display. The Frost placed the mosaic in the museum’s lofty “cathedral gallery,” where you can view it unencumbered by walls or columns. It rests inside a maroon-colored wooden skirt on which several short interpretive texts in gold type help to explain its subject matter: predators and prey.
The color scheme extends to wall-hung tapestries, several of which provide additional interpretation. Of particular interest is a floor plan of the archaeological site, believed to have been the home of a wealthy Roman merchant, where the mosaic was found in 1996 when workers began digging to widen a road.
Floor plan details
As this floor plan demonstrates, the Frost display includes only a small part of the total mosaic. What you will see encompasses 32 square meters (344.4 square feet). The entire mosaic, extending across 650 square meters (6,996.5 square feet), is the world’s largest known and best preserved ancient Roman mosaic.
The portion on display includes two rectangular end panels surrounding a large square central medallion. Featured are indigenous animals coexisting with ferocious wild creatures such as lions and tigers, an elephant, a giraffe, an Asian water buffalo, plus marine life, a mythological sea monster, and merchant ships. The species are identifiable – including some that are now extinct. Remarkably, the mosaic contains no images of human beings or deities.
Just inside the entrance is a separate section of the mosaic, a vine scroll frieze that has never before traveled outside of Israel. It is 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) long, says Eng. Jacques Neguer, a conservator who heads the art conservation section of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). He traveled to Miami to help mount the Frost display.
Adjoining the vine scroll frieze are mounted mortar footprints left by workmen who installed the mosaic, and a mortar fragment with an underpainting, a red pigment laid on as a template for the mosaic. Viewing these artisanal artifacts, you feel an eerie connection to inhabitants of a civilization centuries in the past and wonder how (or if) denizens of the 38th century will connect with your own 21st century life’s work.
Videos worth watching
The rear portion of the gallery is set up as a theater, with a large screen on which three short videos are shown. If you’re among those people who attend an art exhibit to see the art and religiously ignore accompanying videos, make an exception here for 11 minutes and 23 seconds.
One video describes the discovery and conservation of the Lod mosaic. For relative ease of handling and study, it was divided into 30 “fragments” which were removed from their mortar substrate and rolled up like large carpet panels. The other videos, from the Art Institute of Chicago, deal with the small tiles called tesserae from which mosaics are created, and the techniques a mosaicist uses to “paint” a design with these tesserae.
The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum is at 10975 S.W. 17th Street on the university’s Maidique Campus. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. Admission is free.
This is likely to be your last chance to see the Lod Mosaic anywhere outside of Israel. After its visit to Miami, the traveling fragments will become part of a museum now in the planning and permitting stage in the City of Lod, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. That museum “will expose the entire mosaic within its archaeological site,” Neguer says.