Late Antique Glass Mosaics

Robert L. Scranton, 1967

Not long after the year A.D. 500, there arrived at Kenchreai, the eastern port of ancient Corinth, a shipment of mosaic panels for the decoration of a building. According to the current hypothesis, this building was part of the sanctuary of the Hellenistic-Oriental mystery cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, know to have flourished at Kenchreai. There were over one hundred of these panels, packed in wooden crates, two panels in each crate, face to face. The crates were unloaded and stacked leaning against the walls of an apsidal room, itself paved with more conventional mosaics, awaiting installation. Then something happened to interrupt the process—perhaps an earthquake, rendering the foundations of the proposed building irreparably unsafe. For some reason, the panels were abandoned; perhaps they were soon partially covered with debris; certainly many of them were extensively mutilated, though by no means all. About a hundred years later they were covered over with sand, gravel and debris to a depth of about three feet, and a church was built over them. Ultimately this too fell into ruins; the whole coastline sank, and the panels, still stacked on the floor of the apsidal room, came to rest about three feet below the surface of the sea.

During a series of archaeological investigations begun in 1963 by the University of Chicago and Indiana University the panels were discovered. Efforts were made to remove them, clean them, conserve them. The panels had been made of slabs of plaster, on which were laid pieces of thin glass of various colors and shapes. In working with them, it was necessary to first scrape off the plaster from the back of the film of glass, treat the glass with chemicals to consolidate it and render it sufficiently cohesive to handle. Before lifting the sheets of glass, photographs were made by Mme. T. Hassia, and direct tracings were executed by Mary Shaw and Elene Hadjantoni. Enlargements of some of the photographs and contact photo-copies of some of the drawings constitute the material of this exhibition.

The representations on the panels fall into several categories. The first includes those with purely formal patterns—geometric or floral. A second category is distinguished by a division into two horizontal bands, in each of which are flowers and birds of kinds characteristic of Egypt. A third category depicts panoramas of buildings facing the sea, with fish swimming in the sea, and fishermen trying to catch them. In the final category, of which only two panels have so far been cleaned, each panel depicts a man standing on a platform or a statue on a pedestal.

Efforts to explain the many problems of the panels can hardly really begin until all have been removed and cleaned. At this point, it is perhaps enough simply to put some of the more important questions:

  1. How was the glass made, and where, and where were the pictures designed and executed?
  2. What is the relation of the pictures, stylistically, to the art of Egypt, Greece, Rome, the early Christian and Byzantine movements?
  3. What is the subject matter—the theme—of the over-all program constituted by the panels in their totality, how were they composed on the walls, what kind of building did they adorn, and why?
  4. What can the answers to these questions tell us about the transformation of pagan cultures on the ancient Mediterranean world to the Christian culture of the Middle Ages?
  5. How can we find the money to pay for the tremendous task of studying and publishing these extraordinary monuments?

Robert L. Scranton Professor in the Department of Art and Classical Languages and Literature, and organizer of this exhibition

This text was originally published in the exhibition brochure. There is no photographic documentation of this exhibition.