Mosaics represent one of the most widespread and well-preserved art forms in the ancient world. Many of the most elaborate and exceptional examples originate from the Levant, an area stretching from south-western Turkey to Egypt. This particularly elegant example from the eastern empire is composed of polychrome stone tesserae depicting two acanthus tendrils springing from a central stalk, surmounted by the head of one of the Four Seasons in the guise of a young woman. Its fine technique and freedom of style betray the expertise of the mosaicist.
Mosaics adorned public spaces across the empire, but the majority are found in private villas. The extremely time-consuming and, therefore, expensive aspect of installing this art form meant that great attention was paid to creating attractive designs, appropriate both to the owner and to the setting. Along with mythological subjects and scenes from everyday life, the depiction of abstract elements important in Roman society was popular, for example, fertility, abundance, power, and security.
The choice of the Four Seasons alludes to good fortune, plentiful harvests, and prosperity, and to the cyclical nature of time, and was particularly relevant in this agricultural society that depended on the cultivation of wheat, barley, wine and olive oil. The personification of the Four Seasons - Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter - belongs to a rich iconographical tradition, stemming from as early as the fourth century BC. By the Late Roman Period, they were most frequently imagined as isolated busts of young women, each distinguishable by different attributes, usually different elements of agricultural produce. The richly coloured, exuberant flora in this composition point to an association with Autumn.
Our mosaic would have formed part of the border to a larger, figural or geometric mosaic, most likely from a dining room or other reception room. It demonstrates that no less care was invested in the peripheral decoration as in the main composition, since this single element of the border is an exceptionally beautiful work of art in its own right. The nature of the mosaic’s positioning on the floor, as opposed to other forms of flat art, provided the artist with much scope for creating different viewpoints and perspectives; guests would be able to walk around and across the mosaic to look at different scenes orientated at different angles. Artists also experimented with trompe l’oeil to give the impression of a third dimension on a two dimensional surface. The present mosaic, for example, makes use of vivid colours on a dark background to striking visual effect.
Highly characteristic of the Roman world, mosaics offer an important insight into the favoured iconography of the entire empire. The prevalence of mythological subject matter and allegorical motifs, like the Four Seasons, across a broad geographical area attests to the ultimate reach of Rome and to a shared understanding and universality of meaning between the different peoples of the empire.
With Asfar & Sarkis, 1960s.
Private Collection, Belgium, 1975-1994.
Acquired in 1994.
Exhibited: BVLGARI & ROME: Eternal Inspiration dinner, James B. Duke House, NY, October 14, 2015.