Mosaics of the Ancient World
Ancient Mosaics from Around the World
Ancient mosaics can be found all over the Mediterrean from France and Italy, through Greece and Turkey to Jordan and Syria and also across Egypt and North Africa as well. This lens is an attempt to give a brief history of Roman and Byzantine mosaics, discuss how mosaics were made and show off some of the beautiful mosaics that have been uncovered.
Picture Source - Wikimedia Commons See below for more details.
Gypsy Girl Mosaic in Zeugma, Turkey
This particular mosaic was uncovered in Zeugma in 1999 and is now in the Gaziantep Museum of Archeology. It has been labelled the Gypsy Girl mosaic and her eyes are have a haunted look in them. What horrors and atrocities did she see? You can absolutely feel the emotion and it is hard to accept that this girl has been dead for well over 1500 years. This mosaic has become the most famous of all the mosaics uncovered in Turkey in recent years.
Picture Source - Wikimedia Commons
My lifetime love affair with Mosaics
I have been in love with mosaics for a very long time. I don't remember the first one I ever saw a picture of, but it was probably a picture of the Madaba Map mosaic and it was most likely in a National Geographic Magazine. I only know that the more I read about mosaics and how they were made, the more I was fascinated.
A mosaic artist has to be multiskilled in order to be a good mosaicist. He or she had to be a painter, (as in sketching the pattern) a sculptor, (as in cutting the pieces of marble, stone, glass ceramics and other materials to the right sizes and shapes, and finding the right color pieces as well) a cement maker, (as in making the right consistency mortar or fixative) and finally a mosaicist (as in laying the right colored pieces in the right places to make the pattern). They also had to know how to read and write for when they added words into the mosaic.
Some great resource guides to study Ancient Mosaic art
Madaba Map Mosaic in Madaba, Jordan
The Madaba Map was discovered in 1896 in the city of Madaba, while a new Greek Orthodox church was being built on top of the old city ruins that had previously been abandoned after an earthquake over 1000 years ago. Before this common era, Mosaics could only be commissioned by rich roman citizens. Several centuries after the common era began, the new christian church did most of the commissioning. That is why so many mosaics today are found in churches.
Picture Source - Wikimedia Commons
A mystery about the Madaba Map Are there more pieces to be found?
Saudi Aramco World Magazine - January/February 1987
Ravenna the city of Mosaics
Ravenna in Italy, has been called the City of Mosaics because there are many beautiful mosaics to be seen scattered around the many churches. The majority of these mosaics date from the 5th and 6th centuries CE.
These mosaics were made in the waning years of the Roman Empire and the early years of the Byzantine Empire. Ravenna was the western centre of power for the Roman Empire as well as the capital of the early Byzantine Empire during the 5th through 8th centuries CE.
Ravenna is in Emelio Romagna region of Italy. The capital of this region is Bologna.
Here are some more details about the Mosaics of Ravenna
Mosaics from Ravenna, ItalyClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Mosaic Artist in the Ancient World
I originally wrote the below article back in 2002 under the name of Alexandria, in an attempt to understand the allure and the mystery of being a mosaic artist. While this article is in no way meant to be accurate, it does give some idea of the details of the life of a mosaic artist.
This article has previously been published only on History Walker - an online chatroom and ancient history game site that has now been offline since 2005. I hereby give permission for my work to be republished here. My name at History Walker was Alexandria.
Picture Source - Tessellations
My name is Alexandria and I have been apprenticed to my father since I was 14 years old. Following in the footsteps of my brothers, who had been apprenticed to other mosaicists. Father had been teaching my brothers and I, about mosaics since we could talk. My brothers had all received their first commissions before they were 20. So we all literally grew up on the job.
I can still remember the day I first went out with my father as his apprentice. I was 14 years old, and so proud at finally being able to learn a trade. Papa had a contract to repair an old mosaic in a church that was falling apart.
"See this Alex", he said, shaking his head as we looked at the old mosaic. The tessarae were crumbling off the walls and were littering the floor. Papa picked up a piece of glass in his hand and showed it to me. The mortar on the back was totally dry, and the gold foil around the glass has almost totally worn away.
"Who ever made this mosaic, used far too much ash in the fixative and not enough limestone and water. Its too dry. This mosaic would never have lasted very long." Papa explained how the fixative called pozzolana was made of volcanic ash, and limestone. When mixed together with water in the right proportions, it made a very strong cement.
Papa stepped back to cast a critical eye over the whole mosaic. He explained how he was trying to find the pattern, the central piece that speaks to people. But he could not find anything. Either it had crumbled off, or more likely it was never there.
Papa was not impressed with the original artist. But he had contracted to fix the mosaic so that it was as good as before. He would use this mosaic to show me the basics of all the skills of the mosaicists art but he never had his whole heart in it. I would not learn about the emotional heart of a mosaic until the next contract.
Papa had always talked about the different skills he had had to learn as an apprentice. While I was growing up he had often stated rules such as...
Never make cement on a frosty day. The moisture will cause the cement to expand and crack as it dries and the mosaic will become distorted.
Always network, network, network. You never know when one of your contacts just might have access to the exact material you need.
Mosaic is an art. You have to make it speak to or raise emotions in people. Otherwise it is not art. Its just colorful pieces of glass and stone on the wall or floor.
To be a great mosaic artist, you have to be very good at many tasks.. Or you will only ever be mediocre.
The most common materials Papa used for mosaics were coloured glass, ceramic pieces, marble and semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, onyx, turquoise and mother of pearl. All these pieces were collectively called tessarae.
The most valuable materials he used in mosaics were gold and silver beaten into thin layers of foil. Papa taught me how to wrap pieces of foil around cut glass cubes called smalti before embedding them in the cement.
Papa also taught me how to make the pozzolana fixative, and how to calculate the correct proportions of water to make cement, how to lay the cement, how to cut the tessarae to different shapes and sizes, how to use the cutting and shaping tools and how to paint the cartoons used for the mosaic picture or pattern.
The mosaic artist has to be multiskilled to be a great mosaic artist. This was the major lesson Papa taught me.
Roman mosaic floor from Villelaure, Vaucluse, France
3rd Century CE Roman mosaic floor from Villa Laure, Villelaure, Vaucluse, France, in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, USA
Previously in the legend of Callisto, Jupiter and Diana - Diana (Artemis) was the virgin goddess of the hunt, All her followers had vowed to remain chaste virgins. Callisto had been seduced by the god Jupiter. This mosaic shows the moment when Diana discovers Callisto's pregnancy.
Note the knot pattern around the sides of this picture. I LOVE this pattern. It is in 4 colours (red, green, yellow and blue) and is very similar looking to a celtic knot. The Villa Laura was an ancient Roman villa found in Vaucluse in Provence, France.
Picture source - Wikimedia Commons
History of Mosaics
The word mosaic comes from the Latin word musivum and the Greek word mouseion the place where the Muses live. This embellishment method was originally used in the caves dedicated to the Muses. That was an artistic offering from the Greeks to the Muses. These common roots with music make mosaic an assembly of art, sounds and colours in symphony and harmony with the sound vibrations. It is an art whose soul is fixed in the Mediterranean basin and it is around it that the mosaic had success.
The first mosaics were made out of two coloured pebbles stuck together in a bed of cement (8th century BCE), then from the 3rd century BCE down to the 1st century CE, mosaics changed to a technique made of stone fragments and tessera. From pebbles to pieces of broken clay, of cut stone, marble or molten glass, they all fit tightly in the cement. Over time, each Mediterranean people gave an identity to the mosaics by putting together materials, forms, and colours.
The Greeks used gold, stones, and glass in their mosaics. The stones and minerals would be cut into squares or diamonds. Finally the squares and diamonds were glued into walls and floors. Glass was used sparingly in floors but graciously in walls. The Romans preferred marble or molten glass cut into square pieces opus tesselatum and their numerous territorial conquests spread this art all over Europe.
The use of cut cubes or tesserae was introduced from the East after the Alexandrian conquest. Roman floor mosaics were probably based upon Greek examples, and glass mosaics applied to columns, niches, and fountains can be seen at Pompeii. In Italy and the Roman colonies the floor patterns were produced both by large slabs of marble in contrasting colors (opus sectile) and by small marble tesserae (opus tessellatum). The tessera designs varied from simple geometrical patterns in black and white to huge pictorial arrangements of figures and animals.
Mosaics with semi precious stone chips and gold foil tesserae, were very much appreciated during the Byzantine Age.
Lady of Carthage Mosaic, Carthage, Tunisia
This mosaic has been dated to the 6th century CE. It has been suggested that this person is actually a male, possibly a Byzantine emperor, rather than a lady. But there is no information available to identify this person at all.
This mosaic can be found at the Carthage National Museum
Picture source - Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Mediterranean Mosaics
A Guide to Understanding Mediterranean Mosaics
Because mosaics are a part of a site’s architecture, they must be viewed on location. One cannot travel to a museum to see them, which makes them unique to travelers.
Below is the link to a travel guide of places around the Mediterranean where you can see some of the greatest mosaics ever made. Great mosaics in places such as Italy and Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.