Holy cow, it’s already November! This month, ArtSmart is highlighting genres of art. I really wanted to feature my favorite genre, illuminated manuscripts, but the usage rights are, um, very restrictive. Another genre that’s just as colorful and intricate is the mosaic. Mosaics have been made for millennia, in fact the earliest known work dates from 3000 BC. It’s an extremely time consuming genre that you can find across much of the Western world on ceilings, walls, and floors. It’s an extremely durable form of art; I mean, how often can you WALK on art?
You can find mosaics in churches, synagogues, mosques, and secular buildings from the Late Roman Empire into the early Middle Ages. You’ll see both completely abstract pieces, completely figurative works, and everything in between. I’m going to highlight mosaics from three different places in several different time periods.
The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica are both full of mosaics. In fact, St. Peter’s does not have any frescoes. All the imagery in the basilica is mosaic. There are several theories why they chose mosaic over fresco at a time that was chock-full of fresco. The height? The light? The durability? No one’s quite sure.
The museum houses several late Roman mosaics such as these floor samples. They show two styles of mosaic, one is a grid and the other uses concentric horizontal bands around a central image. That’s one of the great things about mosaics. There are so many ways to lay out the tessarae, or individual pieces, and those tesserae can be any shape or size.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is a visual timeline of Byzantine mosaic styles. The earlier mosaics show the softer realism of Late Roman style to the more stylized hard forms of later Byzantine art. Christ as Pantocrator dates from the earlier history of Hagia Sophia. The forms are angled to give a bit of perspective and look somewhat realistic.
The Madonna and Child with the Emperor and Empress from the later Byzantine period show how flattened the figures have become. They’re more symbols than portraits. The gold background gives some continuity between the centuries that separate the two pieces.
Also in Istanbul is Chora Church. Some of the best pieces of late Byzantine (like 1300s) mosaics exist inside this church, mainly because they were plastered over when the church was converted into a mosque (the same goes for Hagia Sophia).
Here, you can see some examples of close ups since the walls and ceilings were totally covered in mosaics. You can see part of the underdrawing used as a guide for laying out the tesserae as well as the different angles of each tile to catch the light.
This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:
Christina of Daydream Tourist: Self-Portraits
Kelly of Travellious: Old Master Prints
Lesley of CultureTripper: Genre Paintings of Holland’s Golden Age