Mosaic Fragment with Man Leading a Giraffe
The Mosaic Fragment with Man Leading a Giraffe is a mosaic from the 5th century CE is now held in the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece is Byzantine and originated in northern Syria or Lebanon. Mosaics of this type were commonly used to decorate wealthy family villas.
Mosaics have a long history throughout the Mediterranean and later elsewhere. The Mosaic Fragment with Man Leading a Giraffe at the Art Institute of Chicago originated in either Syria or Lebanon. This region is rich with mosaics, an art form which uses small pieces of glass, stone, or any other hard colored material, referred to as “tesserae,” to create larger images made up of these pieces created with stone in mortar. Rather than being created by a single artist, mosaic compositions were often designed by a patron and executed by multiple artisans from a single “workshop.”:8
The earliest known mosaics are from Mesopotamia and date to the 3rd millennium BCE, consisting of pieces of colored stones, shells, and ivory, and further examples of “paved” paths with stone and shells existed throughout Africa. Mosaics overall are most commonly found in places of wealth, such as the aforementioned palaces and temples. Later, during the Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 BCE), the popularity of mosaics surged and they were found throughout personal villas from Africa to Britain. Many of the most famous mosaics are located in northern Africa and Syria, two of the richest provinces of the Roman Empire. Most of these date from the 2nd to the 7th century CE, into which the piece at the Art Institute of Chicago fits well from the 5th century.
Mosaics are found in the Levant after Roman tradition brought the style along with their control. They were most commonly used to decorate floors due to their durability, and most mosaics discovered today are found in relatively intact condition, including the primary example here. Of course, these floors would have been durable without the presence of mosaic decoration, but the desire to enhance the appearance of spaces was paramount.:10 Other pieces within the Roman provinces of the Levant which resemble the Art Institute mosaic are in an African style, such as that in Cilicia, Turkey from the 3rd c. AD.:58 Both of these styles resemble the Man Leading a Giraffe mosaic, alluding to a connection in location, influence, or both. Scenes of animals in mosaics throughout the Levant were common in the Roman period.