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Orpheus

William Blake Richmond1891/1904

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral

Opaque glass mosaic, designed by William Blake Richmond, executed by Messrs Powell of Whitefriars, completed by 1904



The two mosaics at the eastern end of the quire aisles pay tribute to ancient Roman mosaics, perhaps a reference to the foundation fo the City of London as Londinium in the first century AD. In these works Richmond and his mosaicists celebrate the ancient heritage of mosaics not only in terms of subject-matter, but also by taking close inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman ornament and compositions.



While the mosaic in the Dean’s Aisle depicts the goddess Demeter, this work shows Orpheus, a fabled musician, with his Lyre: today, arguably the best known myth concerning Orpheus is his attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from the Underworld. His descent and return were seen as a prefiguration of Christ’s descent into Limbo and Resurrection. This might explain why mosaics depicting Orpheus were found in spaces used as churches by early Christians; it is equally possibly that at least some of these early churches moved into existing villas and houses with such mosaics.



Orpheus among the beasts is the theme of several floor mosaics found in Roman villas around the Empire, including Woodchester Roman Villa (c. 325AD, near Stroud, Gloucestershire) and Newton St Loe (late 3rd, early 4th century AD, near Bristol). Both mosaics were known in the late 19th century, even though neither of them has a comparable composition and division in separate panels. This type of division is nonetheless typical for Roman floor mosaics: a larger circular central theme is surrounded by four smaller rectangular fields with supporting imagery.



Brief description: Orpheus depicted in an oval frame, playing the lyre, nestled in the roots of a tree which is curving around him, the central roundel set in a cross-shaped composition with four rectangles containing depictions of mystical beasts: the winged horse Pegasus and a winged lion in oval frames surrounded by doves; an outer frame of scrolling foliage in gold against a blue background surrounds the whole composition.



Related sources:

Ovid, Metamorphoses, X:86-97 (one of the most famous versions of the myth of Orpheus)



Literature and references: Zech 2015, pp. 24-25 ill.

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