Archive for March 4th, 2008

6th c. Jewish-Roman-Tunisian mosaics

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

There’s an exhibit of them at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art right now, and it looks amazing.

Around the year 500 A.D., an unknown artisan pressed red, white and gray ceramic tiles into drying mortar to form the image of a menorah in a mosaic.

Commissioned by a woman named Juliana at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the design was for a Jewish synagogue in coastal Tunisia.

Over the centuries dry earth covered the ruined synagogue until, more than 1,300 years later, French Army Captain Ernest De Prudhomme dug up his yard in 1883 to make a garden.

Setting aside for the moment the painful cultural pillage which took them from 19th c. Tunisia to 21st c. Brooklyn Museum, 21 of these mosaics on loan now in Boston along with statues, coins, even textiles from various periods in the Roman empire.

I don’t know where else you’d be able to see the mosaic floor of an ancient Roman synagogue, nevermind one from a century after the fall of the Western Empire.

The fall of Rome is a tricky thing, of course. The traditional date for the fall is 476, when Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, but that’s more of a convenient marker than a dividing line between Empire and non. In North Africa, the decline of Roman economic systems was slow and steady from 400 AD to 700 AD.

As far as Juliana was concered, Rome was still going strong.

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