Roman, the Levant, late Imperial Period, ca. 3rd to 5th century CE. Composed of tiny stone tiles (tesserae/tessellae), including marble, slate, and mica, this mosaic panel shows a scene of two women interacting at a bathhouse. Both wear bracelets and necklaces; one is draped with a cloth that falls around her bare buttocks, while the other stands nude, with a cloth falling behind her. The nude woman has her visible arm raised, as if gesticulating in conversation. The small remaining fragment of the other woman's face reveals that it is turned back, as if listening. The colors of the women's bodies are warm, mostly pinks and darker reds with some white stones to highlight shadow and light. Mounted on frame with honeycomb backing. Size: 29" W x 44.25" H (73.7 cm x 112.4 cm); size on frame: 30.8" W x 46.5" H (78.2 cm x 118.1 cm)
The women are in a room with clean, pale yellow walls, standing on a glossy grey floor, dappled with sparing areas of pale brown that make it appear to be glistening with water. The women's clothing is red, grey, and pale yellow, outlined in black to give the impression of folds. One area that shows particularly skillful artistic execution is where the partially clothed woman's knee bends, catching the fabric and bunching it.
Mosaics (opus tesellatum) are some of our enduring images from the Roman world. They reveal everyday life, social interactions, and even things like clothing styles, personal ornament, and the interior of buildings in ways other styles of Roman art generally do not. A scene like this would have taken place in a bathhouse, an informal public space where women could mingle and speak with one another in a close social setting. This mosaic may have graced the wall or floor of a bathhouse, and was probably originally set into a large, ornate border, as many of the mosaics from the Roman Levant are.
In the Roman province of Syria, which encompassed most of the ancient Near East/Levant, mosaics seem to have developed as a common art form relatively late, with most finds coming from the 3rd century CE or later. Syria was one of Rome's wealthiest provinces, but it was also far removed from Rome itself and Roman culture was overlaid on enduring cultural traditions from Hellenistic Greece and the great civilizations that came before it. Antioch-on-the-Orontes (modern day Antakya, Turkey), was the capital of northern Roman Syria, and its excavations in the 1930s revealed more than three hundred mosaic pavements - of which many embellished public baths. Often the known mosaics from this region are mythological or religious scenes, but sometimes we see one like this, showing a touchingly human scene from upper class life.
We cannot find a perfectly comparable example with this type of subject matter and size. To give you an idea of what is available, see for example this larger mosaic with mythological subject matter: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/a-roman-marble-mosaic-panel-circa-3rd-5321865-details.aspx that sold for $30000 in 2010; this pair of smaller panels with less sophisticated subject matter: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/a-late-roman-mosaic-panel-circa-4th-5th-2034792-details.aspx that sold in 2001 for roughly $6000, and this similar-sized but more colorful example: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/a-late-roman-mosaic-panel-circa-4th-5th-5509263-details.aspx that sold for $25000 in 2011.
Provenance: Ex-Private New York City Collection
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