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Art Through Mosaic Patterns - The History Of Mosaics

As far back as 4000 years ago we find evidence of mosaic patterns being used, first through the use of terracotta cones being applied point first onto structures as a means of decoration, then through the appearance of pebbled pavements in the eight century BC.  While these decorative elements were somewhat unstructured, with different colored stones being used to simply create patterns, by the fourth century BC the Greeks had raised the bar and started to create art with pebbles through the depiction of geometric patterns and detailed scenes of people and animals.

They continued to perfect their technique, and by 200 BC they were manufacturing special pieces called 'tesserae' to add levels of detail and color to their mosaic patterns.  Using these small tesserae, some of which were just a few millimeters in size, allowed them to create mosaic patterns that could mirror paintings and many of the mosaics preserved from that time, for example from Pompeii, were the work of Greek artists.

The ascent of the Roman Empire caused mosaic patterns to be used more broadly, with depictions of gods, geometric designs and domestic settings being the most popular themes and while this expansion led to the mosaic art we know today, it did cause some of the level of skill and artistry to be diluted.

Byzantine mosaics

The art of creating mosaic patterns grew and developed with the rise of the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century.  New characteristics appeared in mosaics with Eastern influences in style and the use of glass tesserae, known as smalti, sourced from northern Italy.  This added new texture and life to the mosaic patterns being created, with the smalti, which were cut from thick sheets of colored glass and had a rough surface and tiny air bubbles throughout, being backed by reflective silver or gold leaf.

The application of mosaics also changed; while the Romans favored the use of mosaic patterns for flooring, the Byzantines took the art further and applied them to walls and ceilings.  They kept their smalti un-grouted to allow light to reflect and refract through them and set their pieces at slight angles to capture the play of light as it moved through the space and allow the silver or gold backing to sparkle from every angle.

The mosaic patterns and themes melded together, with Roman images being absorbed into the predominantly Christian themes favored by the Byzantines, and while some of the pieces remained purely decorative, some were used to depict Emperors much as the Romans depicted gods.


Islamic mosaic art

Throughout the Muslim world, glass, stone and ceramic tiles were all used to create mosaic patterns, and Islamic mosaic art was brought to Western Europe, and more specifically the Iberian Peninsula, by the Moors in the 8th century.  While Byzantine art focused primarily on figurative representations, Islamic mosaic patterns were mainly geometric and mathematical. Examples of this era can be found at the Great Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace in Spain, while in Arabic countries examples of a distinct style, zillij, can be found; this style uses purpose made ceramic pieces that are then refined by hand to create mosaic patterns that tessellate (fit together) perfectly.

Mosaic patterns and art went into decline throughout the rest of Europe in the middle ages, then the 19th century saw a revival of interest in the art form, with preference being shown for the Byzantine style representations of which can be seen at Westminster Cathedral in London and the Sacre-Coeur in Paris.

The arrival of the Art Nouveau movement saw pursued interest in mosaic patterns and art; a stunning example of this is the work of Antoni Gaudi and Josep Maria Jujol as seen in the mosaics in Guell Park created in the 20th century.  They used a technique called trencadis in which both purpose made and waste tiles were used to cover the entire surfaces of buildings while also incorporating broken crockery and various 'found' objects; this was a revolutionary process in terms of both formal art and architectural norms.

It is worth noting that 'found' object have been used to create mosaic patterns in a number of ways; in Victorian times china pieces and other items were stuck to the base of 'putty pots' with linseed putty to create a personal collage of objects sometimes known as memory-ware.

Modern mosaics

In current times mosaic patterns and art are still highly prized despite a tendency for them to be thought of more as a craft than an art.  The primary reason for this seems to be the delineating line between purpose and art; while mosaic patterns can be used for functional and durable flooring, they also provide beauty and creativity to a space.  Mosaic art is the ultimate blend of accessible, non-elitist and functional art and the field is full of new approaches, techniques and ideas; organizations such as the British Association for Modern Mosaic and The Society of American Mosaic Artists exist to promote mosaic art . BAMM has an excellent list of sources on ancient mosaics and the internet opens the door to finding a wealth of artists that specialize in the medium.

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