Special Issue "Exchange: Media, Movement, and Meaning in Ancient–Medieval Surface Decoration"

A special issue of Arts (ISSN 2076-0752). This special issue belongs to the section "Applied Arts".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 16 July 2021.

Special Issue Editors

Dr. Vanessa Rousseau
Guest Editor
Independent Scholar, St. Paul, MN 55104, USA
Interests: Greek and Roman art; wall painting; opus sectile; surface decoration; Sardis; art authentication; antiquities trade
Special Issues and Collections in MDPI journals
Dr. Elizabeth Molacek
Guest Editor
The Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX 75080, USA
Interests: Roman wall paintings; Hellenistic and Roman mosaics; art and architecture of Greek and Roman worlds; history of excavating and collecting in the U.S. and Europe

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

In this Special Issue of Arts focused on “Exchange: Media, Movement, Meaning in Ancient–Medieval Surface Decoration,” we look forward to exploring surface treatments in the visual and material culture of the ancient and early medieval periods. At a moment when our world is hyper-focused on how people, things, and ideas move between geographies, surfaces, and spaces, we turn to the ancient world to understand instances of visual, technical, and material exchange as manifest in ancient surface decoration. Purposefully diverse in terms of chronology, geography, and cultural purview, the contributions in this Special Issue should address the many mechanisms that propelled the transfer and transmission of artistic concepts, themes, motifs, and decorative schema in ancient painting, mosaic, stucco, textile, and other surface media. Our goal is to foster diverse perspectives, encourage collaboration, and promote critical discourse among those working on the topic of ancient artistic exchange, interchange, and intersections, and we are particularly interested in contributions that spotlight multiple media, time periods, or geographies.

If you are interested in contributing to this Special Issue, please send a brief abstract by 1 December 2020 to Elizabeth Molacek and Vanessa Rousseau.

Dr. Vanessa Rousseau
Dr. Elizabeth Molacek
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a double-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Arts is an international peer-reviewed open access quarterly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1200 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • material culture
  • media
  • Mediterranean
  • Antiquity
  • visual culture
  • decoration
  • movement
  • wall painting
  • stucco
  • textiles
  • vase painting
  • Roman
  • Greek
  • Egyptian

Published Papers

This special issue is now open for submission, see below for planned papers.

Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

The Architecture and Interior Decoration of Elite Ptolemaic Households: A Comparative Approach

Abstract: This paper will explore an under-investigated area of Ptolemaic elite self-presentation: the domestic sphere. Elites not only expressed their identity and allegiances in public or semi-public contexts like tombs and temples, they also selected traditions to incorporate into their household architecture and surface decoration that reflected their own cultural preferences or what the dominant trends called for. Domestic spaces in antiquity were both public and private, with certain rooms aimed at receiving guests and entertaining, and others reserved for private use. Household decoration—especially the decoration applied to the more public areas of the home, like the courtyard and the dining room—demonstrates how individuals wished to be perceived by visitors to their homes.

Due to the rather small quantity of provenanced evidence for elite Ptolemaic households and their decoration, many of the statements that can be made about them are necessarily hypothetical and based on fragmentary evidence. But the evidence that does survive raises numerous questions about the identity of the homeowners and the differences between self-presentation in the homes versus other contexts. Excavated domestic contexts from other Hellenistic sites, like Priene and Delos, can help flesh out the picture in Egypt, as all of these belonged to the same broader Hellenistic koine. While such an investigation cannot achieve a comprehensive scope, surviving evidence allows for at least a partial reconstruction of the wealthy households in a particular time and place: 3rd century BC Alexandria (and, to some extent, sites in the Delta and Fayum).


The Relationship between Centuripe Polychrome Vase Painting and the Mediterranean Mural Painting Traditions

Abstract: Citing the influence of monumental painting, particularly the subtle color combinations and complexity of figural modeling, scholars have emphasized the thematic and visual connections between Sicilian Centuripe polychrome vase paintings (3rd to 2nd c. B.C.E.) and both the roughly contemporary Macedonian tomb paintings and groups of later Campanian mural paintings (1st. C. B.C.E. to 1st c. C.E.). There has been less scholarly discussion, however, regarding the modes through which technical and visual concepts were shared and distributed between the areas that are now identified as northern Greece, the island of Sicily, and the towns and villas encircling the Bay of Naples, and the physical and conceptual means of visual translation from one medium to another. With special attention to the distinct mediums—terracotta vessels and mural paintings—and the original functions and contexts for each of the three classes of works of art, this paper explores questions regarding the specific mechanisms of artistic transmission of themes and subject types and considers which analytical methods would best address these questions.


Marble Mimesis

Abstract: Painted imitations of marble are ubiquitous throughout the geographic and chronological scope of Roman wall painting. Seemingly limitless variations of the motif appear in elite civic, religious, funerary, and domestic contexts. Although (or perhaps because) it is common, scholars have tended to interpret this type of surface decoration as a less expensive version of actual marble revetment. A close examination of materiality, artistic exchange, and visual trickery associated with imitation marble, however, suggests that artists’ intentions with respect to the motif are not only recoverable but also demonstrably complex. In this paper, I will consider examples from the Hellenistic Levant, the Imperial-era Bay of Naples, and Late Antique Anatolia to argue for a new consideration of the motif and its potential for meaning over time and around the Mediterranean.


Co-Constructing Ancient Curved Spaces and Stuccoed Surfaces

Abstract: The first centuries BCE/CE witnessed the development of highly innovative domed and vaulted architectural forms, transforming built environments. Roman vaults covered with sophisticated stucco transect with the architectural, formal, and stylistic novelties of their historical periods. At the Colosseum in Rome, for example, stuccoed reliefs project from soffits and barrel-vaulted corridors, covering complex concrete and travertine structures and formally resonating with stone-cut coffers of nearby triumphal arches. In ancient Iran under the Arsacids (ca. 250 BCE to 226 CE), the co-evolution of geometric stucco and the vaulted ayvan can be seen, for example, at royal pavilions at Assur and Nippur. In this paper, I seek to explore a cross-cultural—and possibly incommensurable—comparison between these two contexts, investigating the intersections of ancient architectonic structure and innovative surface treatments, which rely on and inform other kinds of technical and medial transferences.

By exploring the relationship between vaulted ceilings and decorative stucco, this paper asks: how did stucco become an integral medium of prestigious architectural spaces? How did ancient craftspeople adapt cultural techniques of plastering to vaulted spaces? What types of technical and medial adaptations did they make to decorate such spaces? The investigation questions the inevitability of resulting (geometric and figural) stuccoed surfaces of vaulted architectural spaces. In doing so, I ask us to rethink the vault/ayvan—not only innovative load-bearers and architectural articulations of power—but as generative curvilinear surfaces for the transference of images and formation of new communicative modes. Such an investigation probes the connections between contrived plaster and other forms of surface media, such as painting and “natural” stone.


The Motif of the Waiting Servant in a Late Antique Textile at the Art Institute of Chicago

Abstract: The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Late Antique textiles from Egypt includes numerous examples that reflect the survival of earlier Greek and Roman iconographic motifs originally represented in other media. One particularly outstanding textile, a Fragment of a Hanging currently dated to the fifth to sixth century CE (1982.1578), includes a nearly complete image of a male figure standing between two columns that support an arch. This figure, who wears a knee-length tunic adorned with decorative elements, likely reflect the iconographic motif of the “waiting servant”, a subject attested primarily in literary sources in the Early Empire but not popularly represented in artistic media until the late third to late fourth century CE, when it appears in wall paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and luxury objects produced for use in domestic, funerary, and public contexts (Dunbabin 2003).

Taking the Art Institute’s Fragment of a Hanging as a case study, I consider the formal and iconographic relationships between images of the waiting servant as depicted in domestic wall paintings and floor mosaics and their relation to comparable images in textile furnishings, addressing how this motif conveyed messages of the wealth, prosperity, and hospitality of the household, in turn suggesting the larger theme of the “good life” in elite residences. I also explore how certain formal elements of such textiles, particularly their fictive architectural framing devices, reflect the tradition in Roman wall painting of incorporating real and imagined architectural elements to create illusionistic, spatially ambiguous settings, not unlike the way in which textile hangings themselves were used as flexible walls to create temporary, ephemeral spaces within the home. I conclude by touching on aspects of the materiality of the hanging.


Behind the Curtain: Considering Textiles Painted on Roman Walls

Abstract: Textiles are perhaps the most ephemeral parts of ancient decor, owing to their poor preservation. Nevertheless, they must have been ubiquitous and an essential part of the layering of ornamental motifs that proliferate especially in the late Roman era. In addition to sharing motifs and schemes, decorative surface media such as textiles, wall paintings, stucco, and mosaics routinely illustrate one another. For example, an architectural arcade might be woven into fabric or walls painted with drapery. This paper focuses on these paintings of drapery in domestic spaces and the significance of and changes in the imagery over time. Issues to be considered include: the layering of images in multiple media; exchange of motifs across media; the role of textiles (as moveable objects) in transmission of designs; the functional use of painted drapery in delineating space as well as the revelatory potential of veils or curtains and their possible relationship to theater or religion.

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