Magic Giraffe Mosaic Artwork

This is a work in progress but I love how it gets in shape and wanted to share it:)


Giraffe mosaic in ancient artworks


Mosaic of giraffe (camel-shaped), part of the 6th century floor in aisle of the Byzantine church in Petra, Jordan. 6th century AD. Photo Credit: Jane Taylor / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

Images of giraffes were rare in classical antiquity, mainly because giraffes were a rare sight indeed. Found in sub-Saharan East Africa, giraffes were first seen in the Mediterranean world in the 3rd century B.C. when they were exhibited in Alexandria, Egypt. Ancient historians and travelers described the giraffe as a “cameleopard” because, with a head and hooves like a camel, and a bespeckled coat like a leopard, it had the unique features of both.



Andrea Andreani (Italian, 1558/59-1629), Triumph of Caesar, 1599. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in black and light, medium and dark greenish gray on off-white laid paper; 380 x 378 mm (sheet); composite approx. 385 x 3420 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the Print and Drawing Club, 1926.452.6.

In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar returned from campaigns in Africa. To celebrate his triumph he hosted a multiday festival in Rome. This festival included games, temple dedications, and even a mock naval battle on land. The last day of Caesar’s triumphal spectacle included a parade of elephants (pictured in this print) and allegedly the first giraffe ever to be seen in Rome. Like the elephant, the giraffe was a symbol of exotic locales.


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Aureus (Coin) Showing the Emperor Commodus, A.D. 180. Roman. Gold; Diam. 2 cm; 7.14 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4879.

Giraffes were among the rarest of animals to be seen in the Roman world. From Africa, they could only be brought to Rome when very young, and only a few survived. Because of the expense of bringing them to the capital, they were never killed in animal combat, as other exotic animals often were. The exception to this was the fatal blow delivered to a giraffe by the emperor Commodus (r. A.D. 161­–92) infamous for his brutal combats in the arena.


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Giraffe Mother and Baby. ©

The immense financial and physical cost in bringing giraffes to Rome was so prohibitive that typically only the emperor had the financial backing to undertake such an endeavor. A recent excavation in Pompeii, south of Rome, revealed a baby giraffe bone. It is possible that the giraffe was passing through this port city on its way to Rome, but like so many giraffes, it died in transit.



Roman, detail of floor mosaic, around A.D. 567, from the Monastery of the Lady Mary, Beth Shean, Israel. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Because giraffes were brought to Rome as calves and required specialized care, they would have arrived from Africa with their own handler. Considering the size of the giraffe in this mosaic compared to the man, it is likely a baby giraffe. Its handler is depicted with dark skin and a bare chest; his costume would have indicated that he was from Nubia (southern Egypt) for a Roman viewer.



Detail: Mosaic Fragment with a Man Leading a Giraffe, Byzantine, northern Syria or Lebanon, 5th century A.D. Stone in mortar; Height: 170.8 cm (67 1/4 in.); Width: 167 cm (65 3/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Mayer 1993.345.

After the capital of the empire shifted to Constantinople in the 4th century A.D., giraffes were no longer exhibited in Rome. During the following centuries, royal menageries were established in Constantinople. In the 11th century, Emperor Constantinus IX (r. 1042–55) received an elephant and giraffe from the caliph of Egypt. Subsequently giraffes were among the types of exotic animals bestowed upon to Byzantine emperors as diplomatic gifts.



Man leading a giraffe mosaic


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.


Mosaic Fragment with Man Leading a Giraffe, Byzantine, northern Syria or Lebanon
Year 5th century A.D.
Dimensions 170.8 x 167 x 6.35 cm (67 1/4 x 65 3/4 x 2 1/2 in.)
Location Art Institute of Chicago
Accession 1993.345


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.”[1]: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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[1]: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.[1]: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.[4]

Syria and Lebanon