Return from the Underworld: The Orpheus Mosaic back at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

By Culture24 Reporter | 01 August 2013

Bristol’s oldest and biggest jigsaw, the Orpheus Mosaic from the Roman underworld, will go on public display for only the second time in 150 years at the city’s Museum and Art Gallery from this weekend.

A photo of a fragmented Roman mosaic
The 16 square foot floor was found in a Roman villa at Newton St Loe during the construction of the Bristol to Bath section of the Great Western Railway in 1837.

Lifted and relaid at Keynsham Railway Station, it was gifted to the museum’s previous incarnation, the Bristol Institution, in 1851, but was ultimately left fragmented by a series of subsequent moves leaving many fearing it had been lost.

“Roman mosaic floor designs which show Orpheus within a circle of animals are rare and are only found in Britain,” said Gail Boyle, the Senior Collections Officer for archaeology, who expects the display to inspire visitors to return for the venue’s Roman Empire: People and Power exhibition in September.

“The sense of movement achieved in the animals and the elaborate colouring of the figure of Orpheus is unparalleled.

“I’m sure the mosaic will enthral visitors of all ages.”

Curators took on the complex task of piecing the mosaic together in July 2000, spending five months completing the puzzle in the front hall of the museum.

Their success has allowed the mosaic to play a valuable part in conservation and research projects, stored as one of only nine floors of its kind ever identified.

Sitting on a bench in a cap, belted tunic, cloak and high boots, Orpheus is seated on a bench playing a lyre as a fox leaps up at him and seven animals dash around the scene.

A lion, hind, bear, bull, feline – speculated as a panther – leopard, stag and trees can also be seen in the scene.

  • Return from the Underworld: The Orpheus Mosaic goes on display from August 3 2013. Roman Empire: Power and People opens on September 21.
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