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Muses Mosaics

Muses mosaics were appreciated by Roman patricians

In Greek mythology the Muses were the goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science, and arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these ancient cultures. Later adopted by the Romans as a part of their pantheon, they were often represented in paintings, sculptures and mosaics.
Greek vase painting of a muse holding a Cithara

Muse playing a Cithara. Greek Vase, 4th cent. BC

Muses Sarcophagus, 2nd century AD, Rome

Sarcophagus, Louvre Museum, 2nd cent.

The Muses, personifications of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and music, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified). Although the account and description made by Hesiod in his Theogony was generally followed by the writers of antiquity, it was not until Roman times that specific functions were assigned to them.  Even then there were some variations in both their names and attributes.
Muse
Domain
Attribute
Calliope Epic Poetry Writing tablet, Stylus, Lyre
Clio History Scrolls, Books, Cornet, Laurel wreath
Euterpe Music, Song, Ellegiac Poetry Aulos (Double flute), panpipes, laurel wreath.
Aerato Lyric Poetry Cithara (an ancient Greek musical instrument
in the lyre family)
Melpomene Tragedy Tragic mask, Sword (or any kind of blade), Club, Kothornos (high soles sandals)
Polyhymnia Hymns Veil, Grapes (referring to her as an agricultural
goddess)
Terpsichore Dance Lyre, Plectrum
Thalia Comedy Comic mask, Shepherd’s crook, Ivy wreath
Urania Astronomy Globe and compass

 

The Muses were sometimes represented individually as in the well known portrait of the roman poet Virgil at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
Roman mosaic of the poet Virgil with the muses Clio and Melpomene

Virgil & his muses, 3rd century, Bardo Museum

They were also often grouped together in squares or medallions. But because such mosaics usually occupied a huge surface only a few of those mosaics came complete to us.
I have listed below a few of these remarkable pieces and their location so you can actually go see them. All these muses mosaics are displayed in superb museums where you’ll enjoy many more mosaics and splendid art.

Complete muses mosaics of the Roman Empire

Location of several complete muses mosaics of the Roman Empire

Location of complete Roman muses mosaics.

Eastern Empire

Turkey

A gorgeous and brightly colored piece was discovered in Zeugma, Turkey in 2014. The muses are arranged in a circle around Calliope. They are identified by their names written in Greek letters inside each individual medallions. This mosaic can be seen, with many other splendid pieces, at the Zeugma mosaic museum. Built in glass tesserae in the 2nd century BC, this is the oldest of the mosaics listed here.

Glass Muses mosaic from Zeugma, Turkey, 2nd century BC

Zeugma, Turkey, 2nd century BC

Greece

An other superb piece is displayed at Kos in the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The muses here are not identified by their names but by their specific characteristic object as described in the above table.
Roman muses mosaic from Kos, Island of Rhodes, Greece.

Kos, Rhodes Island, Greece, 2nd century

Western Empire

Luxembourg

Far away to the North in the Empire a beautiful floor featuring the muses in full (not just their faces) was unearthed in the Village of Vichten close to Luxembourg. Calliope and the poet Homer sit at the center. They are surrounded by the other eight ones. Each muse is inscribed inside an octagon bordered by very elaborate geometric patterns. They are identified by their names here written in Latin characters. They can be seen at the Musée national d’histoire et d’art in Luxembourg

9 muses roman mosaic, VIchtern, Luxembourg

Vichten, Luxembourg, mid 3rd century AD

 

Germany

60 km East of Luxembourg, in Trier (the ancient Augusta Treverorum) the 9 sisters are represented arranged on a square grid. Here like in Vichten the individual portraits are bordered by very elaborate geometric patterns, but the strict, regular square pattern contrasts contrasts with the usually lighter atmosphere surrounding the goddesses of music, arts and poetry !  This piece can be seen at the Archaeological museum of Trier, Germany.

muses mosaic, Trier, Germany

Trier, Germany, 2nd century AD

 

Portugal

At the Roman Villa of Torre de Palma in Portugal, contrary to the usual way of grouping them in a circle or square, the muses were represented in a line. This is the latest piece we have of the muses represented together. You can see it at the National Archaeological Museum of Lisbon

muses mosaic from the Villa Romana de Torre de Palma, POrtugal, displayed in Lisbon

Torre de Palma, Portugal, 4th century AD

 

Tunisia

An other beautiful muses mosaic is displayed at the El Djem museum in Tunisia. Like in Vichten, the muses are identified by their characteristic object. The decoration around them is realized in a different style which making use of no straight line seems to flow effortlessly.

Muses mosaic , 4 of the 9 muses, El Djem, Tunisia

El DJem, Tunisia, 4 of the 9 muses.

 

Notes :

About visiting museums. I have learned the hard way that it is always a good idea to double-check ahead of your visit their days of openings. Check their websites…

All French museums for example are supposed to be closed on Tuesdays. Except when they are not… The Musee Gallo-Romain of St Romain en Gal for example is closed on Mondays and I am still to visit it. Also, consider national holidays. When I arrived from Trier to Luxembourg from 2 years ago I was greeted by huge gun salute (quite impressive I must say), but could only see the gates of the museum, because June 23 was the official birthday of the Great Duke.  And after my visit of Conimbriga 4 years ago when I was in Lisbon on January 2 and 3 no museum were opened. (Wine, food and people were nevertheless splendid)… Call, check the websites…

An etymological note : The words “Muse”, “Mosaic” and “Music” share the same etymology. Medieval Latin “musaicum” literally meant “of the muses” and was used to designate what we later called “mosaic”.

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