In our previous look at the history of mosaic art, we traced its origins from the 3rd Millennium BC right up to the Ancient Grecians and Romans. In that time, we saw the evolution of mosaic from simple, coloured pebbles and stones to a genuine and distinctive movement in art. And boy, it was glorious. Let’s continue this voyage of discovery, travelling back to 5th and 6th century Italy – to the capital of Roman mosaic art, Ravenna.
As you might expect for the age, the mosaics, like most artwork of the period, were dominated by religious iconography. Basilicas across the Roman Empire were decorated with work influenced by Christian teachings, such as saints in prayer. Visit the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and you’ll find some amazing artwork – arches and ceilings decorated with beautiful mosaics that seem to echo lunar themes, with vivid gold and silver orbs set against a deep blue background. One of the finest mosaics in the mausoleum, above the northern entrance, is The Good Shepherd. In it, you’ll see a halo-ed Christ sat amongst his flock, in robes of gold and purple – purple being known as a noble colour. It’s by no means an attempt at artistic realism, but rather artwork with a distinctly spiritual focus, featuring a Christ more kingly than previously seen. If you really want a laugh though – sure, it’s a mausoleum, but… – check out the cat-like tails of the lambs.
As it rises, so it falls. Later in the 6th century, the Greeks rose once more, giving birth to the Byzantine Empire, and creating even more intricate and detailed mosaics. For nine centuries, the Byzantine Empire dominated the cultural scene –and you thought your mother-in-law outstayed her welcome. Sadly though – and unlike your mother-in-law – much of the mosaics from this period have disappeared without a trace. How do we know they even existed? Well, ok, a few have survived. One of the best examples of the artwork of that time can be found in the Great Palace of Constantinople. They call it the Mosaic Peristyle. Basically, this mosaic was as grand as any floor mosaic could be. Think of it as a tiled carpet, forming the perimeter of an outdoor courtyard. The Mosaic Peristyle features a wild combination of mythological legends, circus and hunting scenes, and the remains of this extraordinarily elaborate artwork can still be seen today. One figure that looms out from the scroll is a Jason King-like moustachioed man who, Byzantine experts believe, is a Gothic Chieftain. That shows the level of respect such experts rightly have for moustachioed men.
Head East from Ravenna and eventually you’ll find, well, the Middle East. After the Byzantine Empire conquered Muslim countries, the locals began making use of mosaic to create seriously impressive art. The Arabs of Egypt and Syria, in particular, were heavily influenced by the art of the conquering Empires of the west. Unlike the mosaics of the west, however, which focussed on human figures, Islamic mosaics – say that three times fast – generally feature polychromatic geometric patterns which may remind readers of a certain age of those Magic Eye books so prevalent in the 90’s. Despite its status as the first great religious building in the Muslim world, the Dome of the Rock’s impressive glass mosaics were actually built by Byzantine craftsmen – so there’s a pub quiz answer, if you go to really obscure and improbably-questioned pub quizzes.
Complex wouldn’t even begin to describe quite how incredible and intricate the designs of Islamic mosaic could be. The favoured style is commonly known as Girih, which fuses interlocking and symmetrical shapes to create, for instance, stars. However, more classical mosaics are known, which eschew any sort of religious iconography in favour of more natural depictions of the world. By which we mean recognisable flora and fauna. Unfortunately, around the 8th century mosaics fell out of favour and fashion in the Muslim world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be astounded by what they did leave.
And so we reach the end of the second part of our fascinating historical tour. Here at Tile Mart, you’ll find a vast collection, from mosaic bathroom tiles to slate wall tiles so you can create a stunning bathroom or kitchen that rivals even that of the ancients. Just contact us on 01772 550900 or drop into one of our showrooms.