Mosaic Art
Definition, Characteristics, History of Decorative Mosaics.

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Mosaic Art
Types, History of Mosaics


What is Mosaic Art?
How to Create Different Types of Mosaic?
Creative Attributes of Mosaic Art
Origins & History of Mosaic Art

The most celebrated of the
12th century Byzantine mosaics
in the Hagia Sophia in
Constantinople - the picture
of Christ Pantocrator in the
upper southern gallery.
A beautiful example of
medieval religious art
of the Eastern Orthodox

What is Mosaic Art?

Mosaic is the decorative art of creating pictures and patterns on a surface by setting small coloured pieces of glass, marble or other materials in a bed of cement, plaster or adhesive. Employed as a form of interior or exterior decoration, and originally developed in ancient Greece, mosaics were developed extensively by Roman craftsmen, mostly in the form of pavements. Later, during the era of Byzantine art, artists specialized in creating mosaic designs for walls, and were renowned for their shimmering masterpieces of gold and multi-coloured glass. As a form of ornamental Christian art, mosaic was superceded during Renaissance times by fresco painting. A revival of sorts occurred in the 19th century when many public buildings were decorated with mosaics (eg. Westminster Catholic Cathedral), usually of mass produced ceramic tile or glass tesserae. Certain design styles, such as Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau provided new designs and uses for the art form. Today, mosaic remains a popular craft around the world, promoted by organisations like the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM) and The Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA), and available as a subject in some of the best art schools in America and Europe.

Mosaic of the Byzantine Emperor
Justinian the Great, from the
San Vitale Cathedral in Ravenna.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

Medieval Byzantine mosaics in
St Mark's Basilica, Venice.

Art Questions
Methods, Genres, Forms.
Questions About History of Art
Movements, periods, styles.

For details of differing types
of visual and fine arts, see:
Meaning/Definition of Art.

How to Create Different Types of Mosaic?

There are three main ways of constructing mosaics: the direct method, the indirect method and the double indirect method.

1. The direct method of mosaic-building involves affixing the individual tesserae directly onto the surface of the chosen support. Preliminary drawings may be made beforehand on the area to be decorated. The direct method was a popular approach used by traditional artists in the completion of many famous European wall and ceiling mosaics. It is also used in conjunction with the surfaces of three-dimensional objects, such as vases. One disadvantage of the direct method is that the mosaicist must work at the site to be decorated, which may not be feasible for any length of time. A modern improvement involves the use of a fiberglass mesh. The mosaic is constructed on the mesh, in the artist's workshop, before being brought to its final location.

2. The indirect method of mosaic creation, customarily employed for large-scale commissions with repetitive design elements, requires the components (glass, tiles etc) to be affixed face-down onto a sticky backing. Later, they are transferred to their final destination. The advantage of this approach is that it gives the artist the opportunity to rework areas.

3. The double indirect method is like the indirect method with an extra stage. Instead of tiles being placed face-down onto sticky backing, they are placed face-up. This allows the mosaicist to see the pattern being created. Once the mosaic is finished, another layer of sticky backing is applied onto the top of it. Then the original layer is peeled off. The mosaic can then be transferred to its final resting place, as in the indirect method (2).

Note: Mosaic differs from inlay in that its component tesserae are applied to a recess just below the surface to be decorated. Each piece of mosaic is small and it is only when the piece forms part of an overall design that it acquires decorative significance.


Computer Aided Designs

Mosaics can now be made using computer-aided design (CAD) software. These programs may be employed by individual craftsmen, or by robotic manufacturing systems. In order to speed up the mosaic making process, eliminate errors and reduce costs, mosaics are now being assembled by computer-driven robots, rather than by hand. Production can be 10 times faster with fewer errors.

Creative Attributes of Mosaic Art

Mosaic as an art form is closest to painting: both represent a two-dimensional image. Also, both mosaic and painting are suitable for large-scale surface decoration. However, unlike the painter, the mosaicist is limited in his colour-palette, by his choice of materials. Thus it is extremely difficult to achieve the same tonal variation of light and shadow as can be attained by using (say) oil paint, whose colour spectrum is enormous. Even so, mosaic art has attributes that render it more effective for distance effects. Chief among them is the light-catching qualities of the glass tesserae used, which can be further enhanced by the application of gold/silver foil to the back of the glass pieces, or by setting the latter at a reflective angle.

The History of Mosaic Art

The earliest known mosaics, created using pebbles as tesserae, date from the 8th century BCE. This pebble technique, used for both pavements and walls, was later greatly refined by Greek craftsmen during the 5th century. They were able to create intricate designs, using pebbles between one and two centimetres in diameter. Outlines were created with tiny black pebbles, and by the 4th century, coloured stones painted red and green were added for greater variety, helping Greek artists to produce complex geometric patterns as well as detailed scenes of people and animals. (See also: Greek Art.)

Stone Floors

Throughout classical antiquity, mosaic remained first and foremost a technique used for decorating pavements or floors where durability was a paramount priority. Stone, particularly limestone and marble, was ideally suited for this purpose. It could be cut into tiny chunks and its natural hue(s) provided an adequate basic range of colours for most pictorial designs.

Manufactured Tesserae and First Use of Glass

During the era of Hellenistic art (c.323-27 BCE), Greek mosaicists made further progress. First, they began using glass as well as stone. Glass could be manufactured in almost any hue or shade, thus greatly extending the range of colour available to the artist. By the end of the 3rd Century BCE, small factories had sprung up to manufacture special mosaic pieces (tesserae) offering enough extra detail to enable mosaicists to imitate paintings. And while glass was not as suitable as stone for pavements and floors, its lightness made it ideal for wall mosaic where decorative quality was more important than durability.

Roman Mosaics

Greek craftsmen were recruited in large numbers by Rome after Greece declined, although the Romans employed mosaic mainly for the floors of domestic buildings. Outstanding examples have survived from Herculaneun, Pompeii, and Ostia. Mosaic designs during the Roman period - typically devoted to scenes celebrating gods, domestic themes and geometric patternwork - were executed throughout the Roman Empire, but skill levels were not maintained. Mosaics made in Northern Gaul or Roman Britain, for instance, were noticeably more primitive than Italian and Greek examples. (See also Roman Art.)

Glass Walls

During the era of early Christian art (c.300-400 CE) in the Byzantine empire, wall mosaics came into favour with the growth of Church architecture and decoration - replacing religious paintings in the process - and were to remain the major form of decorative art during the coming Byzantine era of South-East Europe (450-1450). (See also Russian Medieval Painting.) It was also during the Early Christian period, that artists first produced gold and silver glass tesserae, by applying metallic foil to the backs of glass pieces. This type of "mirror glass" led to an even greater intensity of light.

Byzantine Mosaics

With the fall of Rome, Byzantium (Constantinople) became the centre of Christianity, and attracted huge numbers of Roman and Greek craftsmen, including mosaicists. Indeed, during this period, mosaic achieved new heights of creativity and technique, becoming an important feature of Byzantine architecture. New glass tesserae (smalti) were manufactured from thick sheets of coloured glass. The smalti were left ungrouted, so extra light was refracted within the glass. Also, in the 6th century, Byzantine mosaicists developed a method of setting glass tesserae into the adhesive mortar at a sharp angle, in order to reflect even greater light. These enhancements led to the creation of the great shimmering mosaics of the Byzantine period.

The finest Byzantine mosaics were mostly Biblical art created for churches and mosques in Constantinople, such as the Hagia Sophia, and for buildings throughout the Byzantine Empire. (See also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.) Notable examples include those created at Daphni near Athens (11th century); in the cathedral of Ravenna and in its churches of S.Apollinaire Nuovo and S.Vitale (12th century); at Torcello near Venice, and at the Capella Palatina (Palace Chapel) and the cathedral of Monreale in Palermo (all 12th century); and at St Mark's Cathedral in Venice (11th to the 14th century). (For other forms of medieval decoration, see: Stained Glass art.)

Islamic Mosaics

Meantime, from the 8th century onwards, Islamic artists began incorporating mosaics into the decorative schemes of their mosques. Mosaic was an ideal form of decoration for Islamic art, which banned figurative imagery from its religious buildings, focusing instead on abstract or geometric designs. As the Moors entered Spain from North Africa they brought Islamic mosaics into the Iberian peninsula. Employing stone, glass and ceramic tesserae, these Moorish mosaics can be seen at the Great Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

Mosaics continued to be a feature of Romanesque art (1000-1200) and Gothic architecture, albeit in a lesser manner.

Superceded by Fresco Murals

With the advent of Renaissance art (c.1400), mosaic gradually declined as an art form: not least because fresco painting offered greater realism for artists who were in any case tired of the stylized decorative quality of Byzantine art.

19th Century

Mosaic art enjoyed a come-back in the second half of the 19th century when many public buildings were decorated with mosaic-patterns and pictures, usually made from mass-produced ceramic or glass tesserae. Examples include the Byzantine style mosaics in Westminster Cathedral London, and in the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Paris. The Gothic Revival in architecture was an important influence as were developments in the Venetian glass industry. Mosaic production was also stimulated by the Art Nouveau movement: see for example, the exceptional ceramic mosaics of Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) and Josep Maria Jujol in the Guell Park, Barcelona.

An interesting modern-day mosaic is the half-size mosaic of the Bayeux Tapestry which was created in 1979-99 by Michael Linton. It is currently on public display in Geraldine, New Zealand.

• For more about the history, types and making of mosaics, see: Homepage.

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