Acanthus is a common element in the Colgate reliefs; many of the reliefs use acanthus to create spaces, which frame a variety of motifs. There was a close relationship between pagan and Christian sculpture in the late antique period, as illustrated by the decoration of both pagan and Christian buildings with reliefs representing plants, often in the form of vine scrolls that enclosed animals or other forms (Russmann 17). In North Africa, it was common to use laurel and acanthus wreaths and scrolls to create these compartments (Lavin 211-12). One commonly sees mosaic floors filled with vine or acanthus scrolls that form somewhat regular curves that contain animals, birds, and other motifs (Lavin 217), as seen in the pavement of the Chapel of the Priest John, Khirbet et-Mukhayyat in Jordan, and included in "The Byzantine Mosaics of Jordan in Context:  Remarks on Imagery, Donors and Mosaicists" by Hunt (fig. 1). Our relief 1982.62 clearly shows an acanthus wreath with symmetrical set leaves creating a compartment, similar to an architectural fragment from a small church in Herakleopolis Magna in Egypt (fig. 2). The acanthus scroll developed from the classical type with naturalistic leaves on one side of the stem to a symmetrical setting of two rows of triangular leaves on both sides typical of Coptic sites (Badawy 138). A mostly bare main stem with offshoots that have symmetrical leaves can be seen in some of our reliefs including 1982.47 and 1982.64. At Oxyrhynchus the two sided leaved acanthus scroll developed into this style (Badawy 138), which also can be seen in the drawing of a band of sculpture with scrolls from Le Musee Greco-Romain, 1925-1931 by Breccia (fig. 3). Reliefs 1982.59, 1966.1.883, 1982.53, and 1982.57 are comparable to the style weichzackiger Akanthus, translated as soft acanthus, which is one of several styles determined by German scholars who studied acanthus designs of late antique Egypt. It is seen on a capital from Dayr Anba Bisuy, a church near Suhag in Egypt (Severin, fig. 9). Other Colgate reliefs show more complexity and detail in the carving of the leaves, but could also possibly be soft acanthus. Acanthus became a common decorative motif on Greco-Roman architecture including Greek funerary architecture. It may have symbolized death’s conquest of the sufferings of life, represented by its spiky leaves and thorny stems (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Acanthus”).

Fig. 1. Pavement of the Chapel of the Priest John, Khirbet et-Mukhayyat, Jordan, sixth century C.E. Photograph by Deror Avi. Har Nevo P1090085.JPG. Wikimedia Commons. 26 January 2012. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Har_Nevo_P1090085.JPG.

Fig. 2. Limestone architectural fragment found in 1890 in a small church, Herakleopolis Magna (Ihnasya el-Medina), Egypt, mid-fourth or mid-fifth century C.E., from Josef Strzygowski, Koptische Kunst. Vienna: Impr. A. Holzhausen, 1904. Internet Archive. Web. 15 May 2012. http://archive.org/stream/koptischekunst00strz#page/48/mode/2up.

Fig. 3. Band of sculpture with scrolls enclosing animals, Oxyrhynchos, Egypt, N.d., from Evaristo Breccia, Le Musee Greco-Romain d’Alexandrie, 1925-1931. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1970; rpt. in Alexander Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: The Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978. Print.

Buds, Fruit, Flowers, and Other Plants

The reliefs 1982.47 and possibly 1982.63 are comparable to a pilaster capital from al-Bahnasa/Oxyrhynchos, currently in Alexandria’s Graeco-Roman Museum, which shows one variation of the acanthus motif with pomegranates (Severin, fig. 46). The imagery of buds and fruit shooting off the stem of acanthus was common since the second century C.E. This is described as Alexandrian in origin, and appears at Oxyrhynchos (Badawy 138). The pomegranate is a Christian symbol of resurrection and immortality, as well as chastity (Hall, “Pomegranate”).

Papyrus is possibly depicted in reliefs 1982.64 and 1982.53, a bell-like flower and bud, respectively. The papyrus plant was associated with Lower Egypt. Papyrus was used in ornamental designs, along with other plants, which included the lotus, associated with rebirth, the poppy, cornflower, mandrake, vine and grape, “as well as the ‘lily’ associated with Upper Egypt but unidentifiable with a real plant” (Strudwick, screen “subject-matter”).


Animals are also a common element in the Colgate reliefs; many of the reliefs show animals in profile. This was typical of the late antique period (Evans 26) and is also seen in an Antioch mosaic of the Striding Lion. Colgate relief 1982.62 is of the tradition in which the areas within the acanthus compartments are filled with the foreparts of animals, as is also seen in a floor mosaic from Piazza Armerina, in Sicily (fig. 4). This tradition was prevalent since the second century C.E., and was common to both the east and west Roman Empire. Half of an animal normally “emerges from a scroll, and together they form a unified relief level above the background” (Kruglov 5). Many of our reliefs, including 1982.57, 1982.47, 1982.48, and 1982.58, show spirited jumping animals in whole depictions rather than just the front halves. Reminiscent of some at Ahnas in the tradition of depicting foreparts emerging from acanthus compartments (fig. 5), a frieze in the Walters Art Gallery with a rinceau with triangular foliage (fig. 6) differs in that the animal is depicted in full (Badawy 170). In general, symbolic classification of an animal is often related to that of the four elements: aquatic and amphibious animals with water, reptiles with earth, birds with air, and mammals with fire, because they are warm blooded (Cirlot 10).

Fig. 4. Detail from floor mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, late third or early fourth century C.E. Photograph by Michael Wilson. Mosaic villaromanadelcastale.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. 30 May 2006. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaic_villaromanadelcastale.jpg.

Fig. 5. Friezes with foreparts of animals emerging from acanthus compartments, Ahnas, Egypt, N.d., from Josef Strzygowski, Koptische Kunst. Vienna: Impr. A. Holzhausen, 1904. Internet Archive. Web. 15 May 2012. http://archive.org/stream/koptischekunst00strz#page/54/mode/2up.

Fig. 6. Frieze with rinceau and animals, Sohag, Egypt, fifth century C.E. Photograph by Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Coptic-Scroll with Animals-Walters 261.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. 1 May 2012. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coptic_-_Scroll_with_Animals_-_Walters_261.jpg.


The lion motif is found on many of the Colgate reliefs, including possibly 1982.63, 1982.57, 1982.62, 1982.58, 1966.1.884, and 1982.59. In relief 1982.63 the symbol of the conquering lion, in which the lion is attacking another animal, is depicted. It began as an astronomical symbol based on the zodiac and the rising and setting of the constellations in the sky. The Lion is at the zenith when the Bull constellation sets and thus appears to conquer it. The same relationship exists between the Lion and the Deer constellation, which sets at the same time as the Bull (Hartner and Ettinghausen 163-4). This motif has a history of more than three thousand years. The conquering lion symbol evolved into a symbol of political or military power. The bull or deer is sometimes replaced with another animal, such as a gazelle, rabbit, or bird, in the fight with the lion (Hartner and Ettinghausen 167). A mosaic associated with a room and seat occupied by the ruler, from the Umayyad site of Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho, depicts a lion killing a gazelle (fig. 7). There are also examples where the lion is in combat and the location of the artwork makes it religious in meaning (Hartner and Ettinghausen 169). A contrasting meaning of a lion coexisting peacefully with a tame animal, which is said to be a representation of the Golden Age, or Paradise, is possibly seen in relief 1982.57 (Hartner and Ettinghausen 167). Lions can be emblems of divine solar power, ferocity, and death. Different Egyptian gods are represented as lions. In the Bible, the lion is a metaphor for courage, strength, and power. Jews and Christians linked them to resurrection (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Lion”). The lion appears commonly in early Christian iconography in North Africa, Abyssinia, and Egypt (Badawy 18).

Fig. 7. Apse mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, near Jericho, 724-743 C.E. Photograph by The Yorck Project. Arabischer Mosaizist um 735 001.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. 7 January 2012. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arabischer_Mosaizist_um_735_001.jpg.

Leopards and Dogs

The animals depicted in reliefs 1966.1.883 and 1982.56 could be either dogs or leopards. Like lions, leopards symbolized early female deities (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Leopard”). A hunting pavement in El-Djem, modern-day Tunisia, depicts a dog in the center of the mosaic in a similar posture to that of the animals in our reliefs (fig. 8). Many images of dogs are included in hunting scenes. Scenes of the hunt, symbolic of prosperity and well-being, were popular with Christians and non-Christians (Evans 26). Dorothea Arnold, the Metropolitan Museum’s Lila Acheson Wallace Curator of Egyptian Art said, “[Egyptians] also envied a dog’s profound sense of smell and a lion’s ability to hunt. Though such abilities were denied mankind, the Egyptians adopted them as attributes for their gods. It is perhaps this religious reverence for the animal world that inspired them to render creatures with such care” (qtd. in Schuster 69).

Fig. 8. Hunting Pavement, El-Djem, Tunisia, mid-third century C.E. Photograph by Pascal Radigue. Chasse courre El Jem.JPG. Wikimedia Commons. 12 March 2011. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chasse_courre_El_Jem.JPG?uselang=fr.

Horned Animals

The horned animals depicted in some of the Colgate reliefs, including 1966.1.882, 1982.47, and 1982.54, seem to be of three possibilities: gazelle, antelope, and ibex. In Egypt, worship of the gazelle appears to date from the Pre-dynastic period. The gazelle was sacred to Anukis, goddess of the Nile cataracts, and the war-god Reshep (Hall, “Gazelle”). During the era before Christianity, Egyptians believed in demonology; antelopes were believed to be demons because they were from the wilderness (Frankfurter 100). Therefore, a depiction of a lion attacking an antelope would make sense in Christian imagery. Real oryxes, representing the gods of chaos, were used in traditional Egyptian sacrifices from the Ptolemaic era into the sixth century. The ibex is of the goat family and is characterized by long, backward curving horns. It is destructive to vines and therefore was sacrificed to Dionysus/Bacchus in the Greco-Roman era (Hall, “Ibex”).

Birds and Fish

Birds are represented in several Colgate reliefs: 1982.49, 1982.50, 1982.51, 1982.53, and 1982.60. Their ability to fly led to birds being widely associated with gods (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Birds”). They are a widespread symbol of the soul, especially as it rises to heaven after death (Hall, “Bird”). Our relief 1982.53 is possibly a depiction of an ibis, as compared to an Egyptian coffin for an ibis (fig. 9). The ibis is a long-billed wading bird. It is a sign of the moon and is sacred to Thoth, god of writing, divine knowledge, and the moon (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Ibis”). Relief 1982.51 is possibly a depiction of a Chukar partridge, determined from conference with a professor at Colgate University who works with birds (fig. 10). The Chukar partridge is resident in Eurasia, including Egypt. It has sturdy legs like those of the bird depicted. The markings are similar to those on the relief around the eyes, throat, and wings. The tails are also similar. Partridges are game birds, so people would likely have been familiar with them as food.

Fig. 9. Coffin for an ibis, Egypt, 664-30 B.C.E. Wood. RISD Museum, Providence. Photograph by Professor Elizabeth Marlowe.

Fig. 10. Chukar partridge. Photograph by Karunakar Rayker. Chukar Partridge Leh.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. 15 June 2008. Web. 14 May 2012. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chukar_Partridge_Leh.jpg.

Our reliefs depict some animals that are associated with water, such as ducks and fish. These animals are connected with “the concept of the ‘primal waters.’ Consequently, they can stand as symbols of the origin of things and of the powers of rebirth” (Cirlot 10). Relief 1982.60 possibly depicts a duck, as believed by the Colgate professor consulted. He noted that ducks are also game birds, so people would likely have been familiar with them as food. Our relief 1982.55 depicts two fish. This motif is found on both pagan and Christian artifacts and monuments. Many ancient peoples including Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans used fish decoratively or symbolically and considered fish to bring luck and associated them with their gods and goddesses. In the antique world, fish were believed to have the power to ward off evil. They were also a life symbol (Schloessinger 85-6). In general, they were also a symbol of fertility and procreation originally associated with the Mother-Goddess. In Christian catacomb paintings, Christ is presented as a fish. Three fish symbolize the trinity (Hall, “Fish”); the broken edges of our relief leave the possibility that there might have been a third fish.

Baskets and Bread

Full baskets are depicted in reliefs 1966.1.882, 1982.56, and 1982.52. Baskets, as in a fragment of a frieze from Oxyrhynchos, were often used to carry offerings of fruit, bread, and grain (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Basket”). Sacrificial offerings were carried in baskets and therefore the basket represented salvation. Possibly because of continuing the Jewish tradition of carrying sacrifices in baskets, the bread of the Eucharist, which is the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, is nearly always shown in the traditionally shaped wicker calathos in early Christian art (Hall, “Basket”). The wicker calathos basket is similar to the shape and representation of material of the baskets in our reliefs. Bread is usually represented as small, round, or oval loaves. In Christianity, it is a symbol of Christ’s body and symbolizes spiritual refreshment. Ancient Egyptian priests made bread sacred by blessing it. In Egypt, bread was offered to the gods, in particular to funerary deities (Hall, “Bread”). As explained in The Book of the Dead, “it was considered the stuff of life,” and was often left as grave goods in tombs (Shepherd and Shepherd, “Bread”).


Frances Kahan is an Art and Art History Major at Colgate University, in the class of 2014.