Orpheus - A Roman mosaic from Africa
Highlighted Works of Art - 2006 Spring

Die So-geliebte, dass aus einer Leier
mehr Klage kam als je aus Klagefrauen;
dass eine Welt aus Klage ward, in der
alles noch einmal da war: Wald und Tal
und Weg und Ortschaft, Feld und Fluss und Tier;
und dass um diese Klage-Welt, ganz so
wie um die andre Erde, eine Sonne
und ein gestrinter stiller Himmel ging,
ein Klage-Himmel mit entstellten Sternen-:
Diese So-geliebte.

(R.M. Rilke, Orpheus. Euridike.Hermes)

The first and only antique mosaic piece of the Collection of Antiquities was found in Tunisia, in the 1940's. Its owner moved to France towards the middle of the century, and it was from here that the item got into the stream of international art trade and thence recently to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The central region of North Africa, the province Africa, was one of the richest parts of the Roman empire. The agricultural production of its huge estates played an essential role in the provision of the empire. The intellectual elite of the region took an active part in the cultural life of the empire - M. Cornelius Fronto, the tutor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) hailed from North Africa, likewise the still popular second century writer, Apuleius, and such great minds of the then emerging Christianity as Tertullian (2nd-3rd century) or Saint Augustine (354-430). Up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the art of the region was inseparable from the Graeco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean: Africa constituted an organic part of the Hellenized artistic koine, nevertheless, it did preserve its characteristical features going back mainly to the Phoenician-Punic tradition, whose influence did not cease to exist after the destruction of Carthage (146 B.C.). Hence the appearance of the figure of Orpheus, one of the best known heroes of Greek mythology, in the African mosaics of the third and the fourth centuries.

Mosaic work most probably appeared in several parts of the Mediterranean not later than in the Classical period of the Greek culture - one of these parts was North Africa. Mosaic work was a complex and varied craft of many branches (depending on whether mosaics were used on floors, vaults or walls) and techniques: e.g. the pebble mosaic invented in the Classical period, opus tesselatum made use of tesserae of regular shapes (see the Budapest item); opus vermiculatum employed millimetre-size tesserae, rendering almost perceptible even the brushwork of the painter; opus sectile used irregular marble chips and was characteristical of the art of the late antiquity. The different regions of the vaste Roman empire produced different stylistic variants - Italian mosaic work was predominantly black and white, whereas the works of art from Africa and Syria were characterized by polychromy. The pattern was often traced on a bed consisting of layers of increasingly fine grain - in the Budapest piece the white tesserae of the background follow the contours of the figures closely, whereas in other places they are arranged in regular rows. Most of the mosaics made in the Imperial period were designed for the floors of villas, and the ornamental motifs often hinted at the function of the room (one of the best known pieces of the antiquity was a mosaic showing the floor of a dinign-hall after a feast, full of discarded scraps of food).
The arched hexagonal mosaic in modern bronze frame shows Orpheus as an exotically dressed, handsome young man, sitting on a rock. The songster-heros wears two tunics, a long-sleeved one (yellow) and a short-sleeved one (green), a cape, thrown across his left shoulder and covering his left leg, clasped with a fibula at his right shoulder, also form-fitting hose and shoes. There is a Phrygian cap on his head, on his wrists he wears bracelets inlayed with turquoise and emerald coloured stones. With his left hand he is plucking at a four-string kithara kept close to his body, in his right hand there is a yellow plectrum. There is a laurel-like tree beside him with a songbird of coloured plumage in it. The borders of the picture are decorated with broken meander designs. The tesserae are complemented by several glass pieces.

This mosaic illustrates comprehensively the stylistic polyphony of the art of the Imperial period. It follows the unbroken tradition going back to the Hellenistic period, which, defying the elementary characteristics of mosaic work, tries to produce an unbroken surface out of the millimetre-size tesserae fitted together with slight gaps, and, competing with the art of painting, aims to create a painting-like image. The same need appears clearly in the representation of depth in the picture (Orpheus's right arm is more forward, so the right sleeve of his tunic is light yellow, whereas the left sleeve is coloured ochre), and the fine gradations of colour in the delicate shades of the face, eyes or the fingers plucking at the lyre. The dark brown streaks in Orpheus's hair, however, are reminiscent of the contrastive light and shade effect that came into predominance in Roman sculpture at the end of the 2nd century; the shaping of the face with its sweeping planes also belongs to the artistic idiom of the late antiquity.

Orpheus, the son of Apollon and the Muse Calliope, is the par excellence poet of Greek mythology. Orpheus accompanied the Argonauts in their quest, and was capable of reconciling the stormy seas with his song. He was most renowned for descending to Hades to reclaim his dead wife, Eurydice. With the magical power of his song he obtained the release of his wife from the gods of the underworld, still, he did not succeed in taking her back into the human world. His head reputedly gave prophecies even after his death. His music charmed the beasts of the wild - this scene is often depicted in Roman mosaic work, with Orpheus in the middle, surrounded by animals listening to his song. This composition must have appeared in the Budapest mosaic, too.

The figure of Orpheus turned into a popular motif in mosaic work, especially from the beginning of the third century, the era of the late antiquity, when, following the death of Marcus Aurelius (180), the crisis of the empire and the classical Graeco-Roman culture became manifest. By this time the figure of the hero got enriched by some additional features - not all based on Greek mythology. In the first place, it happened so because from the Archaic period on, Orpheus's name had been inseparably entwined with the Greek spiritual movement, which tried to ensure the otherwordly happiness of the soul - the idea was identified as one of Orpheus's teachings.
When catching sight of the mosaic in its original place, presumably on the floor of one of the halls of a big villa, the onlooker of the antiquity - just like us - surely had to face all the possible variants of an interpretation, all based on the image of this handsome youth, who descended to the underworld in search of his love and lived to come back, the one who controlled the forces of nature with the magic of his music, the one who knew the secrets of the kosmos and came to be a role model for people. This is indicated by the fact that Orpheus's figure was taken over by the art of early Christianity as one of the feasible ways of representing Christ.
The significance of Orpheus did not wane when the Greek and Roman world came to an end - his figure became a source of inspiration in Monteverdi's opera, Liszt's symphonic poem (Orpheus), Rilke's poem (Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes) and Kosztolányi's short story (Hrussz Krisztina csodálatos látogatása), to mention only a few of the great works of art composed on this theme.

Árpád M. Nagy