A large, ancient mosaic depicting a menagerie of common animals and exotic beasts appropriately is the central item in a new show of antiquities that opened Saturday at the Legion of Honor.
The Roman floor mosaic, about 1,700 years old, was found accidentally in 1996 during a road-construction project in Lod, Israel. Called Lydda in the Bible, the town is on the Jerusalem-Tel Avivb highway.
The site is believed to be the remnants of a large villa belonging to a wealthy Roman in the land called Palestine by the Emperor Hadrian, but also known as Israel in the distant past, as it is now.
The primary piece in “Marvelous Menagerie: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel” will be on view in four museums in the U.S. before it returns to Lod to become a permanent centerpiece of the Lod Mosaic Center.
“Other Roman mosaics have been found in Israel, but this one is exceptional in its lively imagery and its excellent state of preservation,” exhibition curator Renée Dreyfus says. “We are thrilled to be able to display such an amazing work of art in our museum and think about what a great city Lod must have been in Roman times. Each excavated work in the Holy Land reveals so much about the history and people who lived in this remarkable land.”
Located in Gallery 1 of the Legion of Honor, the 300-square-foot mosaic was designed as two rectangular end panels flanking a large square medallion. The medallion and one of the panels contain pictures of animals, and the remaining rectangular panel portrays a marine scene filled with fish, dolphins, shells and two Roman merchant ships.
“The installation makes us stop to think how sophisticated and creative Roman artists were,” Dreyfus says. “There is a distinct sense of space and volume of the figures all produced by the painstaking placement of natural-colored stone cubes juxtaposed one against the other.
“The fineness of the geometric patterns, animals, fish and ships on the panel were produced in an astonishingly complex and subtle way. The mosaic reveals that this modern Israeli city was once a wealthy Roman town. Following that, it became an important Byzantine Christian center until the Arabs captured it in AD 636. Not surprisingly, Lod is filled with rich archaeological treasures. The mosaic from Lod is an indication of how dazzling this city must have been in antiquity.”
In a complementary display, Gallery 2 features works from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent antiquities collection, including a Roman marble sarcophagus, glass vessels and two mosaic panels.
Coins of the era with images of animals and ships borrowed from the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society also are on view. A short film and interactive workstation located in the gallery add context and orientation.
Presentation of the Lod mosaic is part of an ongoing series with the Israel Antiquities Authority that began more than 30 years ago with the exhibition “Crossroads of the Ancient World: Israel’s Archaeological Heritage” (1982) and continued with “The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls” (1994), “Ancient Glass from the Holy Land” (1997) and “Highlights from the Israel Antiquities Authority: The Dead Sea Scrolls and 5,000 Years of Treasures” (2008).
The Fine Arts Museums’ collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority is designed to enhance international cultural cooperation. This accord was the first such agreement between the authority and another cultural institution.
IF YOU GO
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes July 24
Tickets: $6 to $10
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.org