One thing is certain, mosaics having reached
their height of widespread appreciation
during the Roman period still provide a unique dignity of design combined with colourful
and jewel-like brilliancy
The art of mosaic, in one form or another, has been practised for thousands of years.The Greek’s who invented this alluring art form passed their skills on to the Romans and we are very fortunate that many ancient mosaics have survived the ravages of time remarkably well. The Romans in due course became the Byzantines, who are renowned for their superb wall and vault mosaics. When Byzantium fell in the 15th century AD mosaic went into a decline until the great revival in the 19th century, a revival which has continued to this day.
Early version of mosaics can be traced back as far as four to three thousand years BC. These, mainly found in Mesopotamia consisted of thin cones of terracotta clay, baked and then painted. The slim cones were then pushed into mud walls to offer some protection and decoration. There is a large section of a wall preserved in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Germany.
By the 8th century BC, there were pebble pavements, using different coloured stones to create patterns, although these tended to be unstructured decoration. The Greeks made excellent use of water worn pebbles to make floor mosaics and in the four centuries BC raised the pebble technique to an art form, with precise geometric patterns and detailed scenes of people and animals. Many of these mosaics were in a polychrome finish and often depicted light figures against a dark background. Good examples of this type of mosaic have been found in Athens, Corinth and Tarsus.
Some of the earliest 2nd and 1st century mosaics were found preserved at Pompeii with some of the pavements decorated in stone and marble patterns being the work of Greek artists. Considering the violent nature of Pompeii's end it is remarkable that such treasures have survived and we are fortunate that these can now be seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.By the end of the 3rd century BC mosaics with pebbles were being replaced by those with tesserae made from stone and glass.
Because of the tesserae's smaller size, more could be packed into a given area. As with printed digital pictures, the more pixels that are included in the image, the better the detail, thus the introduction of tesserae led to designs of ever greater feature and complexity. By 200 BC, specially manufactured pieces ("tesserae") were being used to give extra detail and range of colour to the work. Using small tesserae, sometimes only a few millimetres in size, meant that mosaics could imitate paintings.
Byzantine mosaics
With the rise of the Byzantine Empire from the 5th century onwards, centred on Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey), the art form took on new characteristics. These included Eastern influences in style and the use of special glass tesserae called smalti, manufactured in northern Italy. These were made from thick sheets of coloured glass. Smalti have a rough surface and contain tiny air bubbles. They are sometimes backed with reflective silver or gold leaf.Whereas Roman mosaics were mostly used as floors, the Byzantines specialised in covering walls and ceilings. The smalti were ungrouted, allowing light to reflect and refract within the glass. Also, they were set at slight angles to the wall, so that they caught the light in different ways. The gold tesserae sparkle as the viewer moves around within the building. Roman images were absorbed into the typical Christian themes of the Byzantine mosaics, although some work is decorative and some incorporates portraits of Emperors and Empresses. Spectacular examples can be found in Ravenna, Venice and Sicily and in Istanbul.
Islamic mosaics
In the west of Europe, the Moors brought Islamic mosaic and tile art into the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, while elsewhere in the Muslim world, stone, glass and ceramic were all used in mosaics. In contrast to the figurative representations in Byzantine art, Islamic motifs are mainly geometric and mathematical. Examples can be seen in Spain at the Great Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace.In Arabic countries a distinctive decorative style called zillij uses purpose-made ceramic shapes that are further worked by hand to allow them to tessellate (fit together perfectly to cover a surface).It has been called the eternal art form. In its earliest application, the use of mosaics was found in use as ancient pebble floor coverings and as embellishments to buildings in Sumaria where sectiles were pushed into clay walls to strengthen and adorn them.Stones and pebbles were closely fitted together to form patterns often copied from rugs made in the far-east and later found its way into pictorial effect on panels dating as far back as 2600 BC.In the main, however, mosaic as an art form covered two principal periods in history:
First, the Greco-Roman period, from Alexander the Great to the fall of Rome during which examples like “The Battle of Isus” (2nd century BC) depicting the famous battle of Alexander against Darius were created. Or, later, the classic “black and white” mosaics such as Pompeii’s Cave Canem and the poly-chromatics made under Hadrian’s reign.Second, the Paleo-Christian and Byzantine period extending from the fall of the Roman Empire around 4th century AD to the gradual decline of mosaic in the 12th and 13th centuries, during which time polychromatic mosaics and wall and vault glass and gold mosaics reached a “par excellence” pinnacle.