Unique Medusa mosaic revealed before restoration

The unique mosaic of Medusa in the Odeon theater of Kibyra, an ancient Hellenistic city in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province, has been revealed for the first time since it was discovered in 2009. In order to preserve it, the vast marble mosaic was covered in five layers of sand and gravel. Those layers have now been removed to allow restorers to assess its condition and devise a detailed restoration plan for next year. Once restoration is complete, the mosaic will be covered with glass to protect it while still making its special beauty accessible to visitors.

What makes this piece so unique is a combination of size, design, location, materials and subject. So yeah, basically everything about it. The mosaic is 11 meters (36 feet) wide and fills in the entire orchestra area in front of the stage. In the center is a circular face of Medusa with a nimbus of wavy hair and serpents. From the central panel radiate geometric plates paired in contrasting colors that look like large feathers stretching all the way to the edge or the orchestra semi-circle. Marble plaques, some as slender as a single a millimeter thick, in red, white, green, brown, blue, red, grey and veined combinations of each form the design, a mosaic style called opus sectile which uses larger, irregularly shaped pieces rather than the small square tesserae used in the opus tessellatum style. It was created in the mid-third century A.D.

This is the only opus sectile Medusa known in the world. It’s the largest mosaic in Anatolia. It’s one of the best preserved of its size with 95% of the original material extant. It’s also the only Medusa mosaic found in the orchestra section of a Roman theater.

The most exceptional elements, as far as I’m concerned, are the color combinations and the details of Medusa’s face. I think it looks incredibly contemporary. The eyes, nose, mouth and hair could have been drawn by Lucien Freud or Edvard Munch. I love opus sectile — the 4th century Tigress Attacking a Calf from the Basilica of Junius Bassus, now in the Capitoline Museums, has been a favorite of mine since childhood — but it usually has fairly distinct colored sections that are almost paint by numbers in their sharp outlines. Look at the rings the make up the irises and pupils, the crimson in the corner of the eyes and lips, the grain in the marble of the hair. This Medusa has a completely different feel than the tiger because of its remarkably organic composition.

If you think that this post was essentially an excuse to post this picture, you are correct. Such a spectacular piece of art, and a striking figure to border a performance stage. Odeons were small theaters built for musical shows — concerts, contests, poetry recitals — that often had roofs for acoustic purposes. The Kibyra odeon had seating for 3,600 and was used not just as a theater, but as a legal court and legislative chamber during winter when the roof made it the most comfortable building for public use.

EDIT: I initially described the Odeon as an amphitheater. Many thanks to Oliver Gilkes for his correction in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Unique Medusa mosaic revealed before restoration

  1. Great post and agree this is a stunning image. Thanks for putting it up. But can I be a pedant for a moment? The Odeon is not an amphitheater, it is a small theatre.

    Amphitheaters are fully eliptical structures and specifically Roman buildings for gladiatorial displays and rather typify the bloody nature of Roman society. While some theaters were indeed converted to be used for gladiators too, calling theaters big and small ‘amphitheaters’ is just wrong and gives a very false impression of what happened in them. Anyway, niggling over, keep up the great posts!

  2. I have to be honest. I was a little askared to look at the pictures I knew this blog post would have in it. 😮 I was afraid I would be turned to stone and be dead, or worse in that weird dead-not-dead state one is interred when ensconced by looking at Medusa’s visage. :skull:

    But that last pictures just slays me. I will always and forever be your enabler as long as we get big beautiful pictures of ancient things to ogle like that.


  3. All I can say is wow. I studied ancient architecture and the layout of ancient cities in college, and as I look at these photos, I can almost imagine what it must have been like to sit in that theatre. I can almost see figures emerging from the doors onto the stage. At the same time I’m awed by the placement of the theatre within the landscape, with the views overlooking the valley below. Stunning. Then the Medusa. Jaw-dropping. I wonder what the effect was on her contemporary viewers? We call it the orchestra, of course, out of our own convention. What was its meaning and purpose in its own time? Clearly I should never have changed my major.

  4. As as marble restoration and cleaning professional here in Massachusetts, I find this find exiting, such detail work and use of colors. I know from from experience, that marble is not easy to work with even with today’s tools. I wish I could have been there to see how these artisans cut and sculpt the stone so thin and which tools they use.

  5. It certainly seems to have been designed to be easily visible from all the way up in the nosebleed sections, bold clear shapes and bright colors. It does look remarkably modern and thank the gods it was saved! Something for archaeologists to bend their brains around!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.