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Of a bygone era at London Mithraeum

A subterranean Roman temple, where a mysterious cult worshipped, has been restored within an immersive museum along with a selection of remarkable Roman artefacts and a series of contemporary art commissions, writes Kavitha Yarlagadda
Last Updated : 10 June 2023, 19:15 IST

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A space bathed with soothing blue light and an amazing art space providing a captivating installation of light, sound, and colour gives a warm welcome to visitors at the London Mithraeum by Bloomberg Space in London. On my recent visit to London, this space, with its 28 hanging vessels and interactive sound and light installation Albion Waves, was a hit. A gentle sound evolves as the visitor traverses and interacts with the art by Oliver Beer — this was a personal favourite of mine. Each hanging vessel has a microphone inside it and contains a motion sensor, which emits a sound when anyone moves around the vessel. This space gives us a sense of calmness with soothing sounds akin to meditation.

It resonates

A fresh collection of what Beer calls Resonance Paintings is displayed next to the installation. These paintings are created by applying an ultra-fine pure pigment to a canvas, placing it over a speaker, and playing a note beneath it. The vibrations from the note cause the pigment to move into astoundingly precise geometric shapes. On another side of the wall is a huge display of 600 various artefacts which were discovered at the site, like a wooden door, a sandal, and a wooden tablet with notes. The mezzanine floor is a waiting area for visitors with a long bench and translucent lighted resin casts of major artefacts along with shadowy lighted outlines of the temple occupants. There are also digital kiosks that provide more information about the dig and the finding of the Mithra Empire and more about their culture and traditions.

Seven metres below are the ruins of the Mithra Roman Empire where 14,000 Roman artefacts were unearthed between 2012 and 2014. The Mithraeum is a unique space and a less popular one of the major attractions in London. Visitors descend to the basement level and walk into a big, shadowy space with chanting and then the lights go out. At the altar end of the temple, suddenly and dramatically, you witness light passing through a bull shape. The lights are raised after the dramatic “sound and light show” so you can view the entire breadth of the temple ruins. The most noticeable features are a square lead-lined cistern on one side and an elevated altar space at one end.

Of mystery and discovery...

Light beams have physicality due to “haze,” a glycol/water theatrical fog that has been used for the first time in a permanent installation. To improve the density and intensity of the beam, the light is directed towards a collection of mirrors and refining apertures. Five layers of water-jet-cut steel were used to create the temple altar, and they were cantilevered so that each silhouette was lighted. The cult itself, which is still a mystery today, is mirrored in the way that music, chanting, sounds of water, and fire creates an interaction with the past as one of mystery and discovery.

This temple to the Persian deity of light and the sun was discovered by accident during building and excavation work next to the Walbrook in London in 1954 after the Second World War. It was then transported to a location in Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, so the workers could continue working. The London Mithraeum, as it is well known, was relocated to its Walbrook location in 2012 and re-erected on its original foundations after 58 years. In order to reflect the cave where Mithras is believed to have killed the primordial bull and thereby released the forces of creativity and life into the world, Mithraea were typically erected partially or entirely underground. Despite having considerably older origins, Mithraism gained popularity in the third century AD. It placed a strong emphasis on bravery, character, and moral conduct and quickly gained popularity among Roman army troops. Since the opening of the Mithraeum in November 2017, it has been drawing crowds and the art installation at the main entrance by Oliver Beer is a major attraction ever since it has been erected in February 2023. The art installation and the light and sound show leave the visitors awestruck and take them back centuries to that era. The chanting and the hazy foggy ambience are perfect in representing the mood of the bygone era.

The temple’s relocation to its original location, which was funded by Bloomberg, made an effort to be more true to the historical environs. Even the reconstructed ruin’s earthen floor is a hand-painted resin cast of a recreation of the ground’s trampled Roman-era soil.

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Published 10 June 2023, 18:48 IST

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