The eccentric charioteer

I’ve never been to Hull before. It’s a bit of a schlep from London so it does require an actual effort to get there but it’s just one of those places that I’ve never had any particular reason to visit. However, I had been wanting to see the museum’s collection of Roman mosaics so, as I’m a lady of leisure at the moment, now seemed as good a time as any to make the effort.

The museum is fairly compact but is home to a pretty impressive collection of not only mosaics but also other Roman material, prehistoric, iron-age, anglo-saxon and medieval artefacts and an amazing, and very large, iron-age log boat. The mosaics in this collection were discovered at villa sites around the Humber region and there are fifteen villas are known in the area, with villa-building reaching its height in the fourth-century. Before visiting I had a quick look on the go-to place for information on Romano-British mosaics, ASPROM (The Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics), where the Hull mosaics are described as “rather eccentrically interpreted” local versions of Mediterranean models. Here’s a few of the mosaics.

The Horkstow Mosaic. At the villa site at Horkstow an enormous 15m x 6m mosaic was found, the second largest Roman mosaic found in Britain. It’s fragmentary and has been displayed in pieces around a recreation of a Roman atrium house. Because it has been displayed in this way, it’s not that easy to really get an idea of how it would have looked when complete but, still, there are some decent sections to see.

It was divided into three panels. In the top panel (on the floor in the image above) sat Orpheus, with his lyre, surrounded by the wild beasts charmed by his song. Only about a third of it survives but it’s possible to see that it was laid out as a wheel with images of the animals surrounding the central Orpheus.

The central panel has been called ‘the Painted Ceiling’ or the ‘Medallions Panel’, and contains scenes from mythology. They aren’t that easy to make out.

The panel at the bottom of the mosaic shows a chariot race in a circus, complete with a spina, the central island, and the metae, or turning posts.

The various sets of horses and charioteers represent the action at the races with these horses stumbling dangerously.

On the left the team is storming ahead but, on the right, the chariot loses its wheel and the rider is leaning dangerously, about to fall.

And here, the rider, with his lasso, is coming out to recapture horses that have run wild.

From Brantingham, along with some very nice Geometric Mosaics, is this Tyche mosaic.

The figure at the centre, unfortunately displayed upside down and halfway under a sofa (!), has been identified as Tyche, the deity of a city, on account of her crown, which represents the city walls.

Also known as Fortuna in Latin, she watches over the city, protects it, brings it prosperity and good fortune. The flipside of Fortuna is the bad luck and disasters that can befall a city if they do not carry out the necessary rites and rituals of worship.

The panel on the wall, from the same mosaic, has been identified as one of the muses, wearing a coronet and with her head surrounded by a halo.

The mosaic border also includes these lovely reclining water nymphs.

From Rudston is this fantastic Venus mosaic.

A typically nude Venus holds a golden apple, the symbol of her victory in the tale of the Judgement of Paris. By her side is her mirror, symbolizing her beauty and vanity.

Although the mosaic depicts a very typically classical subject matter, the image itself is not very typically classical, particularly Venus’ body-shape. She is pretty low-slung and broad in the beam, and look at that jelly belly!

Nevertheless, it’s a fun, lively mosaic, with Venus herself looking quite wild and free, especially her hair! I think that this is definitely one of those “rather eccentrically interpreted” mosaics.

Next to Venus is this, frankly, weird looking Triton, or merman, holding a flaming torch. He reminds me the Creature from the Black Lagoon (from the 1954 film).

Other panels in this mosaic contain wild beasts like a lion, a bull and a leopard; a figure identified as Mercury by the inclusion of the caduceus, and other lively figures. The leopard, in particular, looks like it was created by a workman who only had a vague idea of what a leopard looked like.

And finally, here is that eccentric charioteer; the  Victorious Charioteer mosaic from Rudston.

The central image is of the winner of a chariot race, with the victorious charioteer riding a ‘quadriga’, or four-horse chariot.

In his left hand is the winner’s wreath and in his right is the palm frond, these symbols indicating his win.

In the corners of the mosaic are the Four Seasons and the border panes have some rather odd looking birds.

 

Well, it was definitely worth the trip up to Hull to see this collection. It’s true that some of these aren’t the most finely worked mosaics and some of the images are pretty squiffy but they do have  plenty of life and personality, and must have really enhanced the homes of the Roman villa  owners in this area.

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