My journey to learn the secrets of mosaics began while I was working in Los Angeles in 1990. At the time, a contemporary revival of mosaic art was taking place in LA due to its creative vibe, great number of artists and the dry Mediterranean climate which is perfect for the preservation of outdoor mosaics.
I began creating my own mosaic works as I delved more deeply into the materials and techniques used in producing traditional mosaics, an art form that stretches back to ancient Greece and Rome. Like any poor artist, I collected materials wherever I could afford–asking inside retail tile stores and dumpster-diving near design centers. Having always had an affinity for the beauty, luster and durability of tile, I fell in love with this medium as a means of creative expression.
At the same time, I set about planning a 1993 art and architecture tour around Europe. Along with two close friends, we gawked with delight at awe-inspiring art which ranged from Antoni Gaudí’s early 20th century mosaic fantasy of Güell Park in Barcelona, to the large, meticulously rendered mosaics inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
There was a particular work inside St. Peter’s that had fooled me–when viewed from a distance–into thinking the mosaic was actually a large-scale Renaissance painting. This became my first opportunity to closely observe the subtly outlined forms and astonishing number of tile colors used by the mosaic artists of that period. Since St. Peter’s is an Italian Renaissance church, mosaic art had advanced into a more naturalistic style with an amazing array of tile shades in each color group, shades of color that weren’t available to artists during the earlier Byzantine period.
While the Renaissance mosaics I saw that autumn in Rome were surely created at the artistic height of the art form, my fascination with Byzantine mosaics stems from their vast number and direct connection to the sprawling Empire that spawned them.
A bit of historical background
Based on archaeological finds, the earliest mosaic art was produced for temples in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium BC. These early designs were created from available materials–shells from the coast, rounded or worked stones and pieces of bone or ivory. This was the traditional foundation of mosaic production that would be turned into a fine art by the Greeks and Romans almost three-thousand years later.
The Byzantine Empire
In 330 CE, after the Roman Emperor’s conversion to Christianity, Constantine moved the seat of power from Rome to Constantinople, which he established as a second Rome on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). At it’s peak, the Byzantine Empire stretched from Spain in the west to Palestine in the east, and was divided into the Western and Eastern Empires. Ravenna, Italy was made the Western Empire’s seat of power, while Constantinople was the Eastern seat of power and main capital of the Empire until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.
Constantine and later Emperors–particularly Justinian, who expanded the Byzantine Empire to its greatest extent–used the Empire’s wealth to develop churches and pubic buildings that made liberal use of mosaics and frescoes which presented various Biblical stories as well as perpetuating Imperial power. The scale and beauty of Byzantine architecture is on full display in buildings such as the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Istanbul and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.
During the Byzantine period, mosaic patterns were created using individual pieces of stone or glass known as tesserae or smalti, the latter often produced in Venice, Italy. The entire interior–ceilings, walls and floors–of Byzantine churches was often covered in Biblical scenes and other motifs meticulously created with these stone and glass tiles.
These mosaic scenes contained many symbolic elements and often included figures representing the Emperor and Empress, thereby granting them ‘holy’ status as they vied for wall space with the likes of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Knowledge, skill and above all–patience
It feels overwhelming when I imagine the process involving months or years of labor in order to complete such great works of art. Producing such large-scale mosaics is an incredibly tedious endeavor and is physically demanding work as each tesserae or smalti is set in place one tiny piece at a time. While mosaic artists of this period would have undoubtedly had assistants, the dedication and patience involved is humbling to consider.
While those who are interested can find a critical mass of these dramatic works of art in cities such as Istanbul, Ravenna and Thessaloniki, Greece, Byzantine mosaics can also be found in many other regions that border the Mediterranean Sea.
Most contemporary mosaic art found in orthodox churches from Greece to Russia closely follows Byzantine styles and themes.
Due to the late 20th century resurgence in the popularity of mosaics–especially those made from pieces of randomly broken tile–art lovers today can view these works on walls, counters and tables in restaurants and other public places from coast to coast in the USA and in many other parts of the world. However, these contemporary mosaics have much more in common with Gaudí’s whimiscal Barcelona creations than with the highly structured styles adhered to in ancient Byzantine works of art.