Tag Archives: Roman mosaics

A Tail in Several Cities

The Roots of the Tail

In a previous blog, I did some image processing on VMS folio 79v and discovered some odd-looking tails under the green paint.

VMSPond2It’s not unusual to find a feathered tail on images of animals that look like lions, but the critter top-right has a very strange branch-like (or root-like) appendage where one would expect a tail and the lower-left one is unusual too.

RomanDolphinTail2So I looked around and discovered that the Imperial Roman era had quite a tradition of embellishing tails—especially those of sea critters (including fish-legged gods). Even dolphins, which are not fish and do not have fish tails, were created with flower-like tails.

Here are some examples from Greek and Roman mosaics and frescoes. I have intensified the colors on some of the monocromatic mosaics so you can see the imagery more easily.


Dragon with frilled or firey tail in a 3rd century BCE mosaic from Kaulon (Magna Graecia, s. Italy ) courtesy of Wikipedia. Below are Roman mosaics with dolphins or porpoises.

TurkeyDolphinTailTunisDolphinTailRomanDolphinsRomanDolphin3Dolphins or porpoises were a common theme in Roman art, but sea-goats and gods were also drawn with embellished tails.


Sea-goat tails were frequently embellished, as in this Roman floor mosaic from Housestead, England, but lions and horses were sometimes drawn with flowery tails, as well (Housestead mosaic photos courtesy of Mary Ann Sullivan).

RomanGodTailThe natural question to ask is whether Roman imagery (or its later copyists) could have influenced the VMS illustrator and, if so, where was this tradition prevalent? The answer isn’t helpful—the fancy tails are everywhere. Roman flower-tails have been found in every corner of the realm from Rome to Turkey and Tunis to England.

The tradition appears to have inspired manuscript artists in later years, as parchment became more widely available. Embellished tails can be found in marginalia in many manuscripts and not just on sea-critters, the idea expanded to include many forms of mythical beasts, gods, and hybrids. These are just two examples from Ms Trinity B-11-22:

TrinB11-22SplitTail2 TrinB11-22SplitTail


Flowery tails adorn marginalia dragons in many of the English manuscripts, perhaps inspired by the Roman mosaics at Housestead and Bath (Ms. Add. 62925 c. 1290).


A manticore was a creature with a lion’s body, a man’s face, and the tale of a scorpion. As can be seen from this example in Ashmole 1511 from early 13th century England, the interpretation could be quite imaginative and unlike a scorpion’s tail.


This lavishly embellished tail is in a late 14th c Hebrew manuscript in the British Library (Add Ms 26878).

Are There More Telling Tails?

Given the popularity of fancy tails in medieval manuscripts, it’s possible those strange painted-over tails in the VMS were intended as traditional embellishments that didn’t quite work and were covered up by the original illustrator, or maybe they were painted over by someone else. It’s hard to tell, but at least it appears they may not be as unusual as I originally thought.

DragonThumbThe flower-tail critters may also give us additional insight into the strange animal nibbling on a leaf in folio 25v, the one that several have claimed is a mandrake plant with a dog pulling on it.

If the critter by the plant is a dragon, rather than a sheep or a dog (note that the ears are similar to the upper-right pond critter), maybe that curious appendage on its butt isn’t a badly drawn foot—maybe it’s a mini flower tail.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved