Two weeks ago I returned to Madrid to visit the new Archaeological Museum. Spain’s National Archaeological Museum reopened to the public six months ago after a massive six-year revamp that aimed at offering a state-of-the-art space for its collection of ancient artefacts. A total of 13,000 objects are on display in 40 rooms in a neoclassical building in the heart of Madrid.
The museum spans the history of humans on the Iberian peninsula. The periods covered range from prehistory to the nineteenth century and include Iberian pieces such as the famous Lady of Elche and Lady of Baza sculptures, Roman and Greek works, Egyptian mummies and Moorish objects. The displays also include exquisite mosaics gathered from excavated Roman villas across Spain.
This 3rd century AD mosaic, made of limestone, was found in 1917 in Lliria (Roman Edeta) near Valencia. The central panel shows Hercules, dressed in women’s clothing and holding a ball of wool, beside the Lydian queen Omphale wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion and carrying Heracles’ olive-wood club. Around the central panel are vignettes depicting the twelve labours of Hercules.
A splendid 2nd century AD mosaic from Palencia depicts the Gorgon Medusa and the four seasons. The Medusa mask and the images of the four seasons are surrounded by birds, sea lions and sea horses. They symbolize fertility and the harmonious evolution of the year.
Medusa was a popular image in many Roman homes as it was thought her ability to turn people to stone would ward off evil and wrong doers.
In Tudela, excavations have unearthed exquisite mosaics that adorned one of the largest Roman villas to be found in the northern peninsula. The mosaic below depicts a dolphin surrounded by plant motifs with intertwined garlands and branches with flowers and fruits. They symbolise the abundance and fertility of nature.
Another mosaic from Hispania depicts the Genius of the Year. It holds its attributes, a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and snake. The Genius of the Year favoured the passing of seasons and harvests. Genii were viewed as protective spirits, they protected the house and its inhabitants.
The concept of time has always held a great interest for humanity and under the Roman empire it took a very particular meaning. The Empire was likened to the universe and the Emperor likened to the master who regulated the universe. The passage of time and the succession of days, months and seasons illustrate the eternal renewal of the universe, and thus, the Roman empire (Source: Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa, Aïcha Abed, 2006 Getty Conservation Institute). The mosaic below depicts a calendar with illustrations of the months and the seasons set amid bucolic and mythological scenes.
Each month is represented by a sign of the zodiac and a tutelary deity or a deity whose birth is associated with that month. There are also allusions to religious festivals. The mosaic celebrates the renewal of the cycle of nature which, aided by the gods, would provide the villa’s owner with sustenance and wealth.
The following mosaic, found in Fernán Núñez in the province of Córdoba, depicts the moment when Europa, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, is being abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull.
Such mythological images and stories accompanied the owners’ dinner parties and their guests. They decorated the floors or walls of their triclinia (dining rooms). A typical mosaic for a Roman triclinium had a small pictorial section (emblema) at its centre which the guests could admire during the meal. Zeus and his amorous conquests made a fine conversation piece.
Although most of the mosaic collection is from Spain, the National Archaeological Museum of Spain has acquired several smaller mosaics from Italy. The following mosaic, discovered in Rome in the mid-seventeenth century, depicts a Nilotic scene. Nilotic landscapes on mosaics and paintings portrayed life on the Nile river in Egypt and were abundant in the Roman world.
In this mosaic, a crocodile is trying to devour a man. Made of small, closely set tesserae called opus vermiculatum, it demonstrates the Roman fascination with Egyptian exoticism.
The museum also exhibits a pair of gladiator mosaics that were found on the Via Appia in Rome. Dating from the 3rd century AD, the first mosaic depicts the fight of two equites who can be identified by their small round shield. The lower scene depicts Habilis and Maternus, flanked by two lanistae (referees). In the upper scene, Maternus lies in a pool of blood, about to be dispatched by his opponent. The crossed-out O beside Maternus’ name symbolises death.
The other mosaic depicts a lanista officiating a gladiatorial contest. He is clearly identifiable in a white tunic holding his staff and gesturing to the gladiators. The secutor Astyanax and the retiarius Kalendio are engaged in a fight to the death. The lanista cheers them on. The outcome is shown above and confirmed by the inscriptions; the word VICIT appears beside Astyanax meaning he is the victor. Beside Kalendio’s name is a crossed-out O, an abbreviation for Obiit meaning “he died”.
The most popular sport in Rome was chariot racing, even more popular than gladiatorial combats. Men went to the races and bet on which horses would win. The museum houses three small mosaics depicting scenes of chariot races. The first one below depicts a quadriga of the factio prassina (four-horse chariot of the green faction). The green team is victorious as the charioteer is holding a palm leaf.
The driver’s clothing was color-coded in accordance with his faction, which would help distant spectators to keep track of the race’s progress. The second mosaic below depicts a quadriga of the factio veneta (four-horse chariot of the blue faction) whilst the third one depicts a quadriga of the factio russata (four-horse chariot of the red faction). Both teams are shown as the winner of the race.
While the mosaics are the most impressive exhibits of its Roman section, the National Archaeological Museum also has an excellent collection of Roman portraits (including one of Hadrian), jewelry, weapons, ceramics, and inscribed bronze tablets that served as official announcements of new laws (Lex Salpensana, Lex Coloniae Genitiuae Iuliae).
Opening hours: Tue-Sat, 9.30 am – 8 pm / Sundays and public holidays, 9.30 am – 3 pm Closed: Mondays / 1 and 6 January, 1 and 15 May, and 24, 25 and 31 December
Address: C/ Serrano, 13 28001 Madrid