Monday, November 5, 2012

ArtSmart Roundtable: Mosaics Aren’t Square

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.

A mosaic from the drum of the dome in St. Peter’s.

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.

Fun floor design.


I have a thing for peacocks.

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.

Christ as Pantocrator

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.

Madonna and Child

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.

Madonna and Child.

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).

Close up.


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

  Pin It

10 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: Mosaics Aren’t Square”

  1. 1

    Lesley Peterson — November 5, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    Gorgeous photos, Erin! I am a mosaic fanatic myself and especially love the closeups you took, they really show how it was done. Great post.

    • ehalvey replied: — November 7th, 2012 @ 12:00 am

      Thanks, Lesley! Chora Church lets you get super close to the works which was an amazing experience.

  2. 2

    Types of Self Portraits | Daydream Tourist — November 5, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

    […] of A Sense of Place: Mosaics Aren’t Square Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

  3. 3

    Shtina — November 7, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

    Great topic! I love mosaics too 🙂 Where was that Athena floor mosaic? The Vatican too?

    • ehalvey replied: — November 7th, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

      Athena’s on the floor at the Vatican Museum. Everyone was beelining for all of the other famous artifacts so she had plenty of space to breathe.

  4. 4

    Jeff Titelius — November 7, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

    Wonderful choice of genres Erin! I loved the mosaic ceilings of the Florence Baptistery and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and found it so fascinating that oftentimes, the back sides of the glass in these mosaics were decorated, not the fronts! This is a fine collection too!

    • ehalvey replied: — November 7th, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

      Yes! I always love works that are made to not be on view like the reverse sides of tesserae being decorated. It highlights the ultimate purpose for religious mosaics, they’re not just for the believer’s eyes.

  5. 5

    LandLopers Picks of the Week — November 9, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

    […] ArtSmart Roundtable: Mosaics Aren’t Square […]

  6. 6

    Alyssa — November 10, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

    I had a bit of mosaics geekery in Israel this summer — it was a lot of fun! However, we ran into one really awful situation:
    (This happened the day before we visited that particular site, and there were pieces of the mosaic still scattered everywhere.)

    • ehalvey replied: — November 11th, 2012 @ 8:26 pm


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge