Since the beginning of art, animals were one of the favorite subjects. We know that the oldest representations of beasts were created about 38 millennia BC, but the fascination humans have had with fauna never waned. Civilizational development brought progress to the world of art, and representations of the animal kingdom started to diversify and gain different meanings.
Although the oldest mosaics found in Mesopotamia are mainly abstract, figurative imagery snuck into the mosaic pretty quickly and with it – animal forms. Developing the technique of tesserae to perfection since the 5th century BC, ancient Greeks, and especially Romans later, enjoyed portraying both domestic and wild animals on their mosaic floors, while the selection of both decorative and eschatological scenes ranged from pictures of hunt and mythology to landscapes and encyclopedia-like bestiaries. Animal mosaics became a common theme throughout the Mediterranean, and we can find them in virtually every archaeological site in this area, including the European part of the region, the islands, and Northern Africa as well. Moreover, one of the museums with an impressive collection of Roman-era mosaics depicting many animals is Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.
Despite many of the ancient mosaic floors having a purely decorative role, it’s a known fact that ancient art was mainly mythological. Being set in nature, spectacles showing Dionysos, Neptune, Orpheus, Apollo usually involved groups of animals, many of which were fantastic creatures. Still, the inspiration for all of these hybrid beings can be found in everyday life and events such as hunting, farming, and fishing. Gladiator games were a great setting for depictions of wild animals, usually big cats such as lions, leopards, and tigers, while ocean-related scenes often displayed a range of interesting sea beings. While some of these beasts had an active role in the fable (such as Nemean Lion, for example), many were there to fill the empty space and demonstrate the talent of the unknown mosaic artist.
Fascination with animals did not decline with the increasing dominance of Christian art, despite the complete change in iconography. On the contrary, many views of the Garden of Eden, as well as the prefigurations of Christ as a lamb and animals mentioned in the Bible were an ideal “excuse” to depict another member of the animal kingdom, usually in a characteristic style of the early medieval art. Because of the complicated technique, expensive materials and considerable skill that was required to create a mosaic, it was considered an “imperial” technique. So, the most extraordinary examples of the early Christian mosaics usually do have an imperial patron – namely, Emperor Justinian the Great and they are made in the tradition of the Byzantine art.
Providing crucial information about the culture and the way of life, ancient art is more than just an impressively crafted group of artifacts. It’s a valuable historical source that teaches us how people that lived several thousand years ago looked at life, and how they saw both flora and fauna. Knowing that they depicted animals often, especially in their precious mosaics, is important because it shows us what animals they saw as interesting, useful, or impressive. Ancient mosaics are generally dominated by birds, lions, and other mighty felines, and marine creatures, also showing what the actual fauna of the ancient Mediterranean world looked like. Many of these species are still identifiable today, and the absolute majority is crafted with an outstanding ability. However, as is the case in art, the quality of ancient animal mosaics greatly depended on the generosity of the patron and the region in which it was created.
The Most Famous Ancient Mosaics Depicting Animals
Mosaics of Pompeii
Houses in the developed and prosperous Roman city of Pompeii were often decorated with floor mosaics. Animal scenes were common in these opulent dwellings and one of the most famous (or just best preserved) Pompeian villas is The House of Faun. The villa was decorated with many tesserae arrangements depicting animals, in both aquatic or dry environment.
The Battle of Issus
Found in the House of Faun in Pompeii, “The Alexander Mosaic” a.k.a. “The Battle of Issus” is one of the most famous ancient mosaic battle scenes in the world. It’s dated to about 100 BC, and the original is kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
Albeit the focus is put on the fight between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia, this great episode is one of the earliest ones that show galloping horses in battle. If we look at the anatomy of animals and the masterfully executed foreshortening, it’s clear that this work is a mosaic masterpiece. Focusing on the noble animals alone, we can read their distress caused by the conflict, and see the power and beauty they symbolize.
The Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel
Accidentally discovered in 1996 on the site of ancient Lydda, the Roman Mosaic of Lod is dated to about 300 AD. This beautifully preserved mosaic is of the highest artistic and artisanal quality and it consists of several elaborate panels showing different animals in separate triangular, square or hexagonal fields. The panels portray a range of domestic and exotic fauna, revealing the ancient fascination with the animal kingdom and the roles these creatures played in life – utilitarian to entertaining alike.
The Birds Mosaic of Cesarea
Dated to late 6th or early 7th century, the famous “Birds Mosaic” of ancient Caesarea (today’s Israel) once decorated the central courtyard of a lavish Roman palace. It provides an encyclopedic insight into the avian fauna of the area, and it is also decorated with a frame showing trees, fruits, and mammals. While the birds are mostly static, the surrounding beasts are shown in movement, and we can identify lions, bears, leopards, wild goats, dogs, elephants, gazelle, oxen, boars, and horses.
Christian Mosaics and Animal Imagery
Having adopted and assimilated many customs from the pagan world, early Christianity brought a completely different approach to the art. Everything was inspired by the Old and the New Testament and animals were only shown to enrich the religious scenes.
Floor Mosaics of Aquileia Cathedral
Dated to the 4th century AD, tile floor of the Aquileia Cathedral is a masterpiece of Paleochristian art. Images of people, animals, and plants fill its square and octagonal fields, separated by an elaborate abstract interlacing design. Culturally, this immense work of mosaic art is interesting because it includes pagan motifs along with clear Christian symbolism.
The Great Palace of Constantinople
Christian era did bring a brief peak in mosaic art, especially during the rule of Justinian I in Constantinople. The floor of Great Palace of Constantinople was covered in wonderful mosaics and only fragments of this vast work of art remain to date. Pictures shown on this tile piece are mainly secular in nature, corresponding to the building they decorated. By the very few remains, we can only imagine the range of fauna and flora shown throughout the palace in domestic, hunting, bucolic, or oceanic scenes.
Animals in Ravenna Mosaics
Finally, it would be unfair not to mention Ravenna as a city where some of the most brilliant early Christian mosaics were preserved. The iconography of its monuments is generally biblical, but there are animals that played an important role in the context. Although floral and abstract decoration dominates, there are many images of the Lamb of God, one of the most common prefigurations of Christ. One of the most elaborate heavenly scenes is the Crux Gemmata from Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, showing a flock of sheep gathering around a jeweled cross.