What do polished stone, toast, glazed tiles and bacon have in common? They have all been little pieces in a bigger picture. Let’s talk about mosaics.
In the beginning, mosaics were made with small natural pebbles. In ancient Greece, people decorated a surface with designs made up of small uniform stones. The Greeks then progressed to a technique called tessera, where they cut the stones or tiles to a triangular, square or other regular shape. They created art showing geometric patterns, people and animals. Here is an example of an early tessera from Greece around 200 BC.
Three 2,200 year old glass mosaics were recently uncovered in the ancient Greek city of Zeugma. These floor designs depict the gods and goddesses that inspired literature, science and the arts of the time. The mosaics were underwater for thousands of years and yet, their beauty and exquisite detail remain amazingly intact.
In the rise of the Roman Empire (27 BC) artworks were created with stone, glass, and ceramic tiles. The Byzantine Empire (5th Century) saw the rise of glass tesserae from Italy, called Smalti. They were thick sheets of glass backed by a reflective silver or gold leaf. Even with little technical knowledge about optics, the artists were able to design the mosaics to perfectly reflect the light of a building. They created an effect they called “Rendering the light emanating from God.” This technique of using gold in mosaics was the inspiration behind the halo of gold becoming prominent in so many Christian portrait artworks.
To make this reflecting effect even more dramatic, artisans began tilting the tesserae. The gold and silver tiles were set at extremely sharp angles to reflect the maximum amount of light down to the observer. At the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, there are tesserae tilted to catch the light from windows into unlit areas. The Dome of the Rock is also an example of some of the most impressive Islamic mosaic art.
In the 8th Century, Islamic mosaic art saw a rise in mosaics with geometrical and mathematical patterns and Arabic calligraphy. Religion, human beings, and animals were forbidden in Islamic art, and so shapes like stars, squares, diamonds and flowers were common. Intricate mosaics in vivid colors could be found in palaces, mosques, fountains, tombs, gardens and hammams. At the Dome of the Rock, along with motifs of vegetation, crowns, and vessels, there is a 240 meter long inscription from the Qur’an.
With each century, mosaics became more elaborate, meticulous and refined. And then, things got a little crazy.
These days, mosaics have taken a whole new direction with materials. Instead of using glass tiles that could last 2,000 years, artists are experimenting with designs that won’t last a week. One of my favorites is the mosaic of Kevin Bacon by Jason Mecier made out of, of course, bacon:
Artists these days don’t hold back! One year, I had the privilege of being in Kivik, Sweden during the annual Apple Festival. Since 1988, Helge Lundstrom and his daughter Emma Karp have created enormous masterpieces each year using up to 75,000 apples. It was incredible to witness this 4 ton mosaic in person.
Other materials people use in their mosaic artwork include glass, tiles, shells, gumballs, jellybeans, trash, computer parts, paper, stamps, handprints, screws, burnt toast, coffee beans, recycled junk mail, and even naked human bodies. You name it, they’ve used it. Here are a few examples of how creative people can get:
I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about mosaics. What materials would you use in your own artwork?