Starting this year, the Saturday night migration from Toad’s to “late night” is not the only Dionysian procession Yale students can enjoy.
The Yale University Art Gallery has acquired and will display five fragments of a Roman floor mosaic from Gerasa (now Jerash), a site in present-day Jordan that Yale excavated in association with the British in the 1920s and ’30s.
Christine Kondoleon, curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and an expert in the field, said Yale’s involvement in the mosaic’s history made the purchase that much more important.
“It’s an important acquisition for Yale especially because they were involved with the excavations at Jerash,” Kondoleon said. “Short of going back to Jordan, it’s a nice story of bringing it back to an institution that was involved in its discovery.”
The mosaic depicts the God Dionysus and the mortal Ariadne in a procession, pulled by centaurs. The main scene is surrounded by a decorative border of muses and historians. The god Pan, a boy riding a panther, satyrs, maenads and other figures from mythology also appear in the procession.
Susan Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art, said although the mosaic’s association with Yale was a important factor in its purchase, the mosaic is also noteworthy in its own right.
“It’s the first significant piece of classical mosaic that we have,” Matheson said. “The other pieces we have from the site are early Byzantine in origin, and the other pieces are from churches, whereas this is from a house. It’s a very important acquisition for us. [Our older material and the new acquisition] are perfect complements to each other.”
Kondoleon said the University was lucky to have found such a high-quality piece from a reputable source.
“The mosaic offers an unusual insight into the culture of the Greek-speaking Roman world,” Kondoleon said. “It’s very unusual to get something of this stature of this size. Since it was removed in the 1920s, it’s legal, it’s not going to be contested and it’s good to have it. It’s good for Yale and good for teaching.”
Matheson said the purchase of the piece reflected the museum’s long-term educational goals.
“We’re interested in expanding our range of different media from roman art and showing different styles and subject matters,” Matheson said. “This helps us understand more of the full range of the art of the Roman city.”
The gallery purchased the approximately 2-foot-square fragments at an auction in December with money from the Ruth Elizabeth White Fund. An antiquities collector from Southbury, Conn., White left $4 million to the museum when she died in 1988. Her fund pays for acquisition of Greek, Roman and Estruscan art and publications in those and related fields.
A large portion of the mosaic resides at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan and Wheaton College also own small fragments. Some of the pieces still reside in a private collection in New York.
Elaine Gazda, curator of Hellenistic and Roman Antiquities at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and an art history professor at the University of Michigan, praised the quality of Yale’s newest acquisition.
“I wish our museum were in a position to afford such nice mosaics,” Gazda said. “They’re always great in art museums so you can have examples of the different art forms that you’re teaching about. This mosaic complements and builds upon what Yale already has.”
Matheson said the Yale Art Gallery will remain on the lookout for new material.
“It’s not likely that anything new will come out from the site,” Matheson said. “But we continue to acquire ancient art that conforms to good provenance.”
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