The Rudston Venus mosaic

Detail from Venus mosaic

The Venus Mosaic came from the largest room in the first house built at a Roman villa near Rudston, East Yorkshire. The intact mosaic with its oblong side-panels would have measured 4.67m x 3.2m. It dates to the later 3rd century AD. Although the design is entirely Roman, the naive style with which it has been made suggests the craftsman, or men, were native Britons. Far from being a drawback though, it is the naivety that makes this particular mosaic so appealing.

Goddess of Beauty

The mosaic is named after the figure of Venus which can be seen in the central circle. She is naked and her long hair is flowing wildly. She wears bracelets on her arms and in her right hand holds the apple she won in a beauty contest - the Judgement of Paris. Venus is nearly always shown with a mirror - and the Rudston Venus seems to have just dropped hers. Her proportions are a little strange; her abdomen and hips are emphasised, while her legs taper to tiny feet.

Tritons and torches

She is accompanied by a Triton or merman; half-man, half fish. He holds a burning torch, probably a misrepresentation of the conch shell generally depicted with Tritons. Venus paired with a Triton recalls the birth of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess identified with Venus, from the foam of the sea.

Fierce Creatures

Four animals surround the central circle; a lion, a stag, a leopard and a bull. Unusually for British mosaics two are given Latin stage-names, a convention seen in Roman mosaics in North Africa. Interestingly the mosaicist doesn't seems to have been too good at spelling! The lion is described as (LEO) F(L)AMMEFER, 'the fiery lion'. He has been speared and blood is shown spurting from the wound. The bull is called TAURUS OMICISA which translates to something like 'the mankilling bull'. A staff with a crescent at the end hovers above him. This seems to be another link with North Africa, since the crescent staff was a symbol used by the Telegenii, one of the known teams of animal fighters in the African amphitheatres. Perhaps the mosaicist was copying the design from a North African pattern-book. The leopard, who looks directly at the viewer has a chequered disc above him. It has been suggested that this might be a device whirled to goad animals in the amphitheatre. Only the stag, who is shown wandering peacefully through a wood, seems not to be directly associated with the arena.

Gladiators or Hunters?

In the spaces between the animals and the central section are four naked hunters running in the same direction as the animals. The person holding the spear and looking at the stag seems to be female. The man opposite has a beard and holds a rope above his head. It is tempting to see the people as animal fighters from an amphitheatre. The four corners contain birds, perhaps a dove often associated with Venus, pecking at apples or pomegranates.

Mixing Myths

Only one of the flanking panels remains. The centre of the panel has a bust between vines; clusters of grapes grow from canthari (wine-cups) at either end. The bust wears a winged cap and is accompanied by a wand called a caduceus, the symbol of Mercury. However, there is no association between Mercury and vines, suggesting that the craftsman has misunderstood a design of the bust of Bacchus crowned with grapes and vine-leaves, and bearing a thrysus or wand. As well as his well-known association with wine, Bacchus was also linked with amphitheatres so may well have been the intended god here.