Ancient Egypt in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Mosaic

Upon entering the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) through its Queen’s Park doors, a marvel awaits the visitor in the rotunda above their heads. The ceiling contains thousands of glittering tiles that were installed with a new entrance when the museum was expanded in the early 1930s. When the museum opened the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal entrance in 2007, this ornate, original entrance was closed. Finally, in late 2017, the ROM decided to open its historic doors again. For this year’s World Heritage Day, the Nile Scribes take a closer look at this wondrous mosaic that showcases many world cultures.

The ornate mosaic has been a ROM feature since 1933
The ornate mosaic has been a ROM feature since 1933 (authors’ photo)

Brief history of the mosaic

The ROM first opened in 1912, and an additional wing was added in 1933 that featured a dazzling, golden mosaic in the rotunda. Then-director Charles T. Currelly had envisioned adding this mosaic to display the strengths and diversity of the museum’s collections to visitors as they first entered the building. Artists incorporated symbols and icons from various cultures into the thousands of tiny tiles that took over eight months for them to install. The museum imported thousands of plates of glass from Venice, which were then cut into over a million little pieces – their careful installation on the ceiling must have greatly tested the workers’ skill and perseverance.

The central motif is a knot with an inscription from the Book of Job (37:7)
The central motif is a knot with an inscription from the Book of Job 37:7 (authors’ photo)

“That All Men May Know His Work”

The focal point of the mosaic is an inscription taken from the Biblical story of Job – the words “That All Men May Know His Work” run around the central motif of a four-sided knot. The inscription goes back to museological history, when museums were (or sometimes still are) built as repositories of the wonders of God’s creation. By the 17th century, wealthy private collectors amassed cabinets of curiosities, which reflected the personal flavours of the collector and would contain artefacts, natural history specimens, and objects from far-away places in an encyclopaedic approach. This was all part of a growing intellectual curiosity that drove wealthy individuals to collect and explore the world of God’s creation by classifying diverse collections of objects. The Job 37:7 quotation in the mosaic illustrates an original purpose of museum collections in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. 

An Egyptian vulture with its wings to one side sits atop
An Egyptian vulture grasping a shen ring in its talons (authors’ photo)

Motifs and Icons

Below this focal motif, four panels stretch out to each corner of the rotunda, decorated with icons from the Americas, the Ancient World, Europe, and Asia:

  1. Egyptian vulture grasping a shen sign
  2. Bison from North American cave paintings
  3. Winged lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice
  4. Elephant from India
  5. Eagle from a northwest coast crest pole
  6. Inca thunder god, holding snakes representing bolts of lightning
  7. Mythical Greek sea-horse
  8. Romulus and Remus; legendary founders of Rome
  9. Heraldic griffin of Gothic art
  10. Winged bull from Assyria
  11. 3-clawed Dragon from Japan
  12. Fountain of Lions, from Islamic Alhambra in Spain
A pylon from an Egyptian temple is among the four examples of architecture
A pylon from an Egyptian temple is among the four examples of architecture (authors’ photo)

Architectural Elements

Between each of the panels and above the rotunda’s arches, four architectural icons represent buildings from the ancient world:

  1. Egyptian pylon
  2. Mesopotamian ziggurat
  3. Greek temple
  4. Mayan temple
The goddess Nekhbet in vulture form holding a shen-ring (Photo: MMA)
The goddess Nekhbet in vulture form holding a shen-ring (Photo: MMA 30.4.138)

The Egyptian elements in the mosaic, the vulture and the pylon, remind us of temple visits in Egypt, where monumental towers greet the visitor at the entrance, representing the eastern horizon, where the sun is reborn every morning. The Egyptians called the horizon akhet, but today we use the Greek term for these towers: “pylon.” Inside the temples, visitors will see representations of the vulture goddess Nekhbet who spreads her protective wings over images of kings, and sometimes grasps a shen ring in her talons, the hieroglyphic sign for encircling and continuity. The vulture is a common motif that decorates temple ceilings in ancient Egypt, so her place in this rotunda mosaic is very fitting!

The next time you enter through the ROM’s Queen’s Park entrance, make sure to look up and see how many of the icons you can identify!


Photo of the goddess Nekhbet courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Facsimile painted by Charles K. Wilkinson at Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahari (Acc. No. 30.4.138).