Curation and Criticism
The town of Sepphoris was first excavated in 1931 by L. Waterman from the University of Michigan. In 1983, J. F. Strange carried out a survey of the buildings in Sepphoris leading to the discovery of the ‘Mona Lisa’ mosaic in 1987 in the banquet hall of the Dionysus House.
Whilst there is ongoing excavation at Sepphoris, the site has been made into an archaeological park by Israel’s National Parks Authority. The Dionysus House has been reconstructed and functions as a museum for the mosaics discovered there including the ‘Mona Lisa’. As visitors enter the museum, there is an illuminated drawing on the opposite wall which intends to show the ancient use of the room and therefore put the mosaic in context. It illustrates a banquet with several people lounging and enjoying an abundance of food. Peskowitz and Levitt (Judaism Since Gender, 2014) argue that the drawing is historically inaccurate as the banqueters are all female. They doubt that this would have been the original use of the room. They conclude that the museum is trying to amend the usual absence of the female perspective in history.
One of the first striking criticisms is who does the ‘Mona Lisa’ depict? Along with the discovery of the mosaic, other fascinating discoveries came to light. With the mosaic, Christian pottery was discovered along with Jewish oil lamp remnants. To accompany this, Roman Gods were found in statuette form. All of the discoveries show the diversity of the region, however, who the mosaic depicts cannot be confirmed by the surrounding artefacts.
Leading speculation on its identity point to the Roman goddess Venus. Its location in what looks to be a governor's palace would make the identity most likely Roman of origin.
The possible identity leads us to ask if the mosaic is mentioned in any literary sources. As a floor mosaic, it was a local piece of art, central to the area and to the inhabitants. Adding to this, the possible depiction of a Roman Goddess would make it unlikely this mosaic was mentioned directly in written sources at the time. This is backed up by the lack of literary mention of the mosaic.