The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg possesses the finest collection of antiquities in Florida, certainly, likely the Southeast. The MFA St. Pete mosaics from Antioch are a major contributing factor to that preeminence.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is presenting the famed 1930s excavation of the ancient city of Antioch through rare documents, artifacts and the exquisite mosaics that were discovered during the archaeological dig. “Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA” ( through August 22, 2021) features five geometric mosaic pavements, which date from the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD, from the MFA Collection. The MFA St. Pete mosaics were acquired from Princeton University in 1964, one year prior to the museum opening to the public.
After three of the mosaics were recovered from under the east lawn of the museum in 2018, all five ancient mosaics underwent an extensive conservation and preservation process to restore their original luster. An outdoor conservation lab at the museum allowed the community to observe the process.
MFA St. Pete Antioch mosaics
MFA, St.Petersburg is the only arts institution in Florida with mosaics from ancient Antioch in its collection. The MFA. St. Petersburg’s mosaics are among the hundreds unearthed from 1933–1939 in what was the site of Antioch, a Greco-Roman city in ancient Syria founded in 300 BC that is now modern Antakya, a provincial capital of southern Turkey.
Princeton led the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity, a group of art and academic institutions from the United States and France that excavated the area under an agreement with the Syrian government. The dig resulted in the discovery of the city center of Antioch and its wealthy suburbs, where all the mosaics were discovered covering the floors of the elegant private villas.
In the exhibition, black and white excavation photographs of the homes where the MFA’s mosaics were located have been enlarged, and cover the gallery walls as floor-to-ceiling murals. This design creates an immersive experience for the viewer, imparting an historical context and a sense of scale, place, and time.
To retell the excavation story, Princeton University Art Museum is lending major works from its collection. In addition, the Princeton Archives is lending archival documents from the legendary dig to the MFA exhibition. These include vintage photographs, letters, telegrams, journals and find cards, guestbooks, drawings, as well as newly-discovered film footage that shows the excavation in progress, and actual lifting of the mosaics from their original locations.
“Antioch Reclaimed” is curated by MFA Senior Curator of Early Western Art Michael Bennett, Ph.D. and Andrea DeGiorgi, Ph.D., associate professor of Classics at Florida State University, and one of the leading scholars of ancient Antioch in America.\
“This exhibition is unique for us, and for any art museum for that matter,” said Dr. Bennett. “It’s a hybrid exhibition that seams together history and art to present the riveting story of Antioch and its fascinating excavation. When you step into the galleries, you will see the beauty of the incredible art and images, and learn about the significance of the artifacts, but you’ll also experience and feel what it was like during that ancient time, and in that historical moment of archeological discovery.”
The exhibition is the second phase of a three-phase project for the five MFA St. Pete mosaics. The last phase will be installing all the mosaics in the MFA’s Membership Garden.
The MFA St. Pete mosaics are an integral part of the institution’s 56-year-old history. When MFA Founder Margaret Acheson Stuart and Rexford Stead, the museum’s first director, decided to purchase the mosaics from Princeton it signaled the downtown water front museum would be encyclopedic in scope, telling the history of art with a collection that spans across time and global cultures.
The mosaics were the first shipment of art to arrive in the MFA’s loading dock.
MFA Executive Director and CEO Kristen A. Shepherd said restoring the mosaics has been an exciting opportunity for the community to understand ancient culture and the profound importance of conserving and displaying antiquities.
“We are thrilled to be able to share a piece of history from such a pivotal time in the ancient world with our community and visitors,” she said. Her long time affection for the mosaics began during her visits to the MFA as a teenager. “There has been such a deep and genuine interest from the public for our mosaics, and now we can all truly embrace them and their exciting journey with this one-of-a-kind exhibition.”