Roman Mosaic with Tethys, the Sea Goddess
Roman · 3rd - 4th century A.D.
H: 107.9 cm (3.5 ft)
The over-life scale of the woman’s figure represented in this mosaic suggests that the panel was part of a large figural composition covering the floor in a Roman villa, public bath, or fountain complex (a nymphaeum). The Roman villae of the Imperial period presented a series of rooms of different sizes, where mosaics covered the floors entirely. Some were designed as a combination of geometric and floral patterns; others presented mythological scenes framed by a broad ornamental border.
Part of the original ornamental framing is preserved on the left side behind the back of the goddess, which was composed of twisted elements (chain or guilloche). The sea goddess floating among the waves is dressed in a long himation wrapped around her waist, leaving her torso naked. The straight strands of long wet hair cover her shoulders and two little wings that, like dolphins, complete her attire. Such an iconography confirms the representation of the sea goddess Tethys (the Greek label naming Tethys appears beside the head of a sea goddess, with wings sprouting from her forehead, on a Roman mosaic from Antioch; formerly at Dumbarton Oaks and displayed today in the Harvard Business School).
The left arm of Tethys is raised in a surprising or greeting gesture, while her large blue eyes are turned up toward a figural group. Of this, only two hooves are preserved on the panel; these could be the front legs of a sea centaur or a sea horse (hippocampus) carrying a nereid, or rather, the bull carrying Europa. Zeus, disguised as a tame white bull, abducted the princess Europa and swam across the sea toward Crete, where she became the first queen of the island. The light color of the animal’s leg in this mosaic could indicate that it is the white bull/Zeus. Following the design of Roman mosaics, a similar figure watching the scene from another side could be represented to the right of Tethys, in this case, her brother/consort, the god Oceanus; they are paired as the rulers of the water realm.
Reinforced and set in the modern frame; cracked areas are consolidated with modern fill.
Art market, prior to 1967;
Spink & Son, London, 1967;
Ex- James and Marilynn Alsdorf collection, acquired in 1967.
Octagon, Spink & Son, London, Spring 1967, p. 15.