Orpheus Mosaic from Miletus
This mosaic floor is called the Orpheus Mosaic and was formerly part of a dining room of a Roman private house in Miletus, in Asia Minor. Orpheus mosaics are found throughout the Roman Empire, generally in large Roman villas. Orpheus was a popular subject in classical art and was also used in Early Christian art as a symbol for Christ. Titles such as Orpheus Charming or Taming the Beasts is used to describe these mosaics. Usually, the scene occupies the same space, but sometimes as in this example, Orpheus and the animals are each in compartments separated by borders with geometrical decoration.
This mosaic depicts Orpheus seated on a rock and playing a lyre or cithara, wearing a Phrygian cap, in a natural setting, with a raven and fox drawn and pacified by mythical Orpheus’ playing the lyre. The fox is considered Orpheus’s special animal and was placed beside him. Other animals, soothed by the magical effect of the music, are represented in square and rectangular fields grouped around the image of Orpheus. In this large example, animal mosaics surround him on the top half of the floor, and the main square is surrounded and decorated in simple geometrical patterns. In contrast with this state of peace, the bottom half of the mosaic depicts hunting scenes, in which winged cupids armed with spears pursue wild animals which in turn chase their own prey.
This example exemplifies the standard depiction in Roman mosaic scenes from the Roman town of Miletus. An example of the usual Orpheus composition with animals in the 6th-century Gaza synagogue is identified as David by an inscription in Hebrew. Another adaptation is a Christian mosaic of Adam giving names to the animals in a church of around 500 in Apamea, Syria. Some of the mosaics seem to relate to the somewhat elusive philosophical or religious doctrines of Orphism.
In Byzantine mosaic large scenes with animals tend to be hunting scenes. These were drawn from the favourite hunting displays in the amphitheatres, where a variety of exotic beasts were released to fight and be killed. This Pergamon Museum mosaic from a house in Miletus combines both the hunting scene and an Orpheus with animals in its two parts.
In Roman Britain, Orpheus depictions seem to be a unique feature with the animals arranged parading in a circle around him, feet facing out, so that some are the right way up, whatever angle the floor is seen from. There are two other circular Orpheus mosaics, in Volubilis in present-day Morocco, and Mérida in Spain, but the compositions are different.
Orpheus is a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth. The major stories about him are centred on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music. As an archetype of the inspired singer, Orpheus is one of the most significant figures in the reception of classical mythology in Western culture, portrayed or alluded to in countless forms of art and popular culture including poetry, film, opera, music, and painting.
For the Greeks, Orpheus was a founder and prophet of the so-called “Orphic” mysteries. He was credited with the composition of the Orphic Hymns and the Orphic Argonautica. Shrines containing purported relics of Orpheus were regarded as oracles.
- How many of us wish we could charm and pacify animals?
Orpheus Mosaic from Miletus
- Name: Orpheus Mosaic from Miletus
- Date: Late 2nd century AD
- Location: Miletus, Turkey
- Type: Mosaic
- Material: Stone and glass
- Dimensions: w6.3 x h7.8 cm
- Museum: Pergamon Museum
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- Ishtar Gate
- The Market Gate of Miletus
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- Orpheus Mosaic from Miletus
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“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history
is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”
– Aldous Huxley
Photo Credit: 1) JOM Sources: Museum material and Wikipedia