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Roman Holiday

BMA Exhibit Brings Life in the Empire Back Alive

"Mosaic With Peacocks," from sixth-century Antioch

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/26/2001

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City

Baltimore Museum of Art through Dec. 30

Just as the small marble, limestone, and glass chips of a mosaic visually come together to form a unified picture, looking at the mosaics and other artwork in Antioch: The Lost Ancient City enables you to piece together what life was like in this major city in the Roman Empire.

Located in the eastern part of what is now Turkey, Antioch was a cosmopolitan place whose cultural mix included Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Near Eastern, Jewish, and eventually Christian communities. Its residents enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle from the 2nd to the 6th centuries. They had lovely mosaics on the floors and walls of their homes, state-of-the-art baths where they could escape from the worries of the day, nice glassware for serving wine, board games to prevent boredom, and gladiatorial contests in which they could watch people being gored.

Although this swell corner of the Roman empire suffered its own decline and fall thanks to a gods-must-be-angry combination of earthquakes, plagues, famines, and invaders, its disappearance beneath the dirt wasn't complete. A group of museums--the Baltimore Museum of Art, Worcester Art Museum, Musées Nationaux de France (Louvre), and Princeton University--conducted excavations in the 1930s.

Not only were the dug-up remains of the ancient city divvied up among the participating institutions, but Baltimoreans have had an especially keen awareness of Antioch ever since then, thanks to the 34 Antioch mosaics permanently installed on the walls of the BMA's Schaefer Court and outside the Cone Wing. Most of these mosaics remain on the BMA walls, but a few were taken off the walls for inclusion in this Worcester Art Museum-organized traveling exhibit.

Seeing them in the company of additional mosaics and other Antioch art gives you a better sense of the big picture in that city. On an installation note, it's eye-opening to realize that murals ordinarily installed on the walls of the BMA were in many cases designed as floor mosaics, and are installed that way in the exhibit. If you really want to understand Antioch, you often should look down, not up. Look down at the flora, fauna, and human figures cavorting in the many floor mosaics. Or stare straight ahead at statues immortalizing the appearance of Antioch's citizens. Admire a bronze helmet as imposing as anything Russell Crowe wore in Gladiator. Smile at the lead "curse tablets" in which bettors wrote curses against particular race horses. These are among the cultural pieces that give you an idea of the whole society.

Among the most resonant objects is a bronze sculptural portrait of a bearded man. His curly hair is so detailed that the sculptor's attentiveness suggests a subject who took his appearance seriously; indeed, the man's intent expression makes him seem very real and not just some generic ancient type.

Such individuality also is characteristic of marble grave reliefs in which carved images of reclining diners are accompanied by memorializing statements such as "Claudius, free of care, hail and farewell." It's charming that Antioch's pleasure-loving citizens thought of the afterlife as a feast. Death doesn't seem so bad if you think of it as eternal reclining banquet with a never-ending supply of wine. In that same happy spirit, a limestone funerary relief depicts men playing a backgammonlike board game.

Playfulness evidently abounded in the daily lives and afterlife of these people. Further examples include the charming mosaic image of a dolphin-riding, winged Eros figure casting a fishing line into a sea full of crabs, scallops, and eels; a mosaic showing how the wine god, Dionysos, has no trouble winning a wine-drinking contest against the otherwise formidable Herakles; and a purple-hued glass bottle shaped like a cluster of grapes.

The feast of life and the pantheistic acceptance of all manner of cults make the residents of Antioch seem like the happiest of hedonists. Leave it to the monotheistic Christians to introduce at least a semblance of devotional restraint. The exhibited silver chalice, silver processional cross, biblical-story-engraved marble reliefs, and other evidence of early Christianity serve as reminders that Byzantine society was birthed in this neck of the Near East. One of the later mosaics in the exhibit features a grapevine decorative motif alluding not so much to Dionysos as to the Christ who said "I am the true vine." By the 6th century, an increasing number of Antioch's citizens drank to that.

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