Explore a facinating history which stretches from ancient Babylon to the present, and see some of the finest examples of mosaics from many different cultures...
Long, long ago …
The oldest known form of mosaic used clay cones pushed point-first into a wet mud plaster background to strengthen and decorate walls of temples in Ancient Babylon. By the eighth century BC, pebble pavements were being created using coloured stones to produce patterns.
Greece is the word!
In the fourth century BC, Greeks artists raised the pebble technique to an art form by using smaller pebbles to create defined geometric patterns and detailed scenes of gods, people and animals. This brought about the transition from pebbles to specially cut pieces of stone or marble called tesserae. This gave greater control over the material being used enabling the creation of more colourful and detailed work.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Mosaic art was introduced into Italy by Greek craftsmen and was used abundantly in Pompeii. The Romans considered mosaics as luxury items and they embellished the villas of wealthy classes. As the Roman Empire expanded into North Africa and Europe, so did mosaic decoration. In Roman Britain mosaics are known to have existed since 60 AD. The earliest fragments are from a legionary bath house in Exeter.
Simply the Best!
Byzantine Mosaics. With the rise of the Byzantine Empire mosaic work was encouraged and mosaicists were even exempt from paying taxes. Whereas Roman mosaics were mostly used as floors, the Byzantines specialised in covering walls and ceilings. Byzantine mosaicists utilised glass tesserae, called smalti, made especially for mosaic to create glowing areas of colour and luminescence.
Mosaic work found particular expression in the Byzantine period, when this magnificent art form was widely used as an ornamental style in civic and religious buildings. It is widely considered that mosaic art reached its pinnacle in the Byzantine period.
The Road to Damascus!
In the early seventh century AD, mosaic art was adopted by Muslim rulers to decorate mosques and places of worship. The Great Mosque at Damascus is decorated with designs which show a strong Byzantine influence, Imagery from the pre-Islamic art of Syria and Iran is also included.
In the 8th century, the Moors brought Islamic mosaic and tile art into the Iberian Peninsula where an art form known as Hispano/Moresque flourished in Cordoba, Andalusia. Examples of this may be seen in Spain at the Great Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace.
Cheap as Chips!
Mosaic art became less popular from the fifteenth through to the early nineteenth centuries. As Byzantine mosaics began to deteriorate they were replaced by paintings which offered a more fluid application.
This decline was halted by an upsurge in demand for large-scale architectural projects in the mid- to late nineteenth century. A new technique of making up mosaics, known as the indirect or reverse method, was developed where tiles were cut and temporarily applied face down on strong backing paper. The mosaics were then transported, reassembled and permanently fixed on site. This technique offered a cheaper and more efficient method of application making mosaic art available to more people.
The Art Nouveau movement also embraced mosaic art. In Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi worked with Josep Maria Jujol to produce the stunning ceramic mosaics of the Guell Park in the early twentieth century. These used a technique known as trencadis in which tiles (purpose-made and waste) covered surfaces of buildings. They also incorporated broken crockery and other found objects, a revolutionary idea in formal art and architecture.
Today's mosaic artists still follow many of the same techniques and principles as their predecessors did thousands of years ago. The field is rich with new ideas and approaches with styles ranging from abstract to representational, traditional to deco, and from the simple to the extremely complex.