Since 2018, we have been keeping one of our most recent acquisitions under wraps, a North African mosaic panel featuring Pankration wrestlers. It was acquired through a bequest from long-time Friend of the Nicholson Collection, Joyce Marchant. Now installed in the exhibition Roman Spectres, we are thrilled to reveal its unusual ancient and modern histories.
The mosaic shows two men engaged in a Pankration competition. This sport was one of the fiercest combat games that made up the suite of boxing-wrestling style competitions of the Panhellenic Games (including the Olympics), which continued into the Roman period. The only off-limits moves were biting and eye or face gouging. The move depicted here is a heel-hook, in which the kneeling figure is about to use his competitor’s ankle to flip him onto his back and claim victory.
The mosaic comes from Roman North Africa, where, like many regions of the Roman Empire, mosaics decorated the floors of wealthy individuals’ homes. Sporting and gladiatorial mosaics were a common motif throughout the Mediterranean during the Imperial period, up until the late 4th to early 5th centuries AD.
This panel was part of the Moroccan royal collection until it was gifted to Apollo 12 astronaut Richard Gordon by King Hussan II in 1970. The Apollo 12 mission succeeded the first landing on the moon by 4 months, launching on 14 November 1969. While the mission began ominously with two lightning strikes just after take-off, the three astronauts, Charles Conrad (Commander), Alan Bean (Lunar Module Pilot) and Richard Gordon (Command Module Pilot), successfully made their round trip to the moon with Conrad and Bean spending a total 31.6 hours on its surface. Upon their return, the Apollo 12 team were sent around the world on a goodwill tour by then US President, Richard Nixon. They were greeted by royalty, government officials and prominent citizens, and in Rabat, Morocco, the astronauts were gifted with golden swords, medals of honour and, for Pilot Gordon, this piece of Moroccan history.
This mosaic is just one of the new acquisitions from the Nicholson Collection on display in the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Candace Richards is Assistant Curator, Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.
This article was first published in Issue 26 of Muse Magazine, November 2020.