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.
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.