Mosaic of Empress Theodora, Byzantine Empire

Mosaic, is the art of arranging colored pieces of marble, glass, tile, wood, or other material to create an ornamental surface design. Mosaics may depict anything from scenes of everyday life, images of various Gods and Goddesses, studies of plants and animals in nature, to aesthetically beautiful designs.

Since early times man has used bits of stone, ceramics, glass, shell, and plastics, as well as other unusual materials, to create mosaics for public and private buildings, spaces and purposes. The permanence of the materials used has meant that many mosaics have survived in good condition. Mosaics have been uncovered in many cities.

The combination art of heterogeneous or homogenous materials is related exclusively to the man’s decorative needs, the first mosaic surfaces will have to be considered as an invention from the people of Mesopotamia.

Sumerians, were the first who created decorative surfaces in various semi-precious materials and combinations that date back to the 3rd millennium BC, while for the decoration of the imperial palaces at the town of Uruk, they had anticipated facing architectural surfaces using clay-cone shaped tesserae at the 2nd millennium BC, although completely different was the application and combination of the heterogeneous materials in the Egyptian art (Toutanghamons gold throne) for their luxurious constructions.

Nevertheless, the mosaic concept is mainly combined with the form that dominated the Mediterranean area, mainly as a human need for functional and durability in the use of floors. The more ancient samples show that in the 9th century (Arslan-Tash, Til-Barsib), and in the 8th century BC (Gordio, Muela de Castulo), people used raw materials like the pebbles, which in combination with the use of mortars as bedding, formed durable floors, while the use of two-colored pebbles ensured the decoration needs.

The need for richer decoration floors rendered inevitable the use of pebbled tesserae, pursuing the presence of painted representations in the floors, with excellent results, as evidence are the pebbled floors of the 4th century BC in Pella, Olynthos and Eretria. The mosaic, from a usage technique is transformed to a high form of art, of which the importance and the cost are limited to important buildings.

By the 6th century BC the mosaicist are already released by the pebbles shape and color limitations. They used cut down pebbles or various stones by which, they formed four sided or irregular shape tesserae according to the excavation findings in ancient Carthage.

During the Hellenistic era the pebbled floors creations constitutes the minority of the mosaics. Having as main production centers the Eastern Mediterranean (Pergamos, Alexandria, Egypt, Delos, Samos, Pompeia, etc.) the use of mosaic floors is spreading everywhere. Rooms, platforms, atriums, peristyles, latrines, in public buildings, public places and private residences, the mosaic floors are available in different typologies according to the construction cost.

The mosaic creations with the highest construction cost (emblems) even if they remain tied to the exact replica of drawing patterns they created exceptional aesthetic results. In this matter contributes the great color gradation of the stone tesserae, the use of artificial materials (smalti and faience, for colors which are difficult to be found in nature), while the application of the methodologies entrenched the autonomy of the mosaic surface. All the same and in the simplest constructions, it is obvious that the mosaicist employ unequalled abilities even in our days of combination and placing of the tesserae.

In the Roman era, the mosaic art spreads to all the provinces of the empire, while simultaneously it finds new applications in surfaces with the presence of running water (nuptial places and fountains), as well as walls in great buildings like the Nero Domus Aurea, where for the first time was detected the use of gold foils in the tesserae construction process.

The Byzantine art will adopt the mosaic art, in order to offer unique masterpieces. Simultaneously, the mosaic undertakes primal role in the creation of the transcendent atmosphere in the Christian churches, having Constantinople as the dominated production center.

With the rise of the Byzantine Empire from the 5th century onwards, centered on Byzantium, the art form took on new characteristics. These included Eastern influences in style and the use of special glass tesserae called smalti, manufactured in northern Italy. These were made from thick sheets of coloured glass. Smalti have a rough surface and contain tiny air bubbles. They are sometimes backed with reflective silver or gold leaf.

Whereas Roman mosaics were mostly used as floors, the Byzantines specialised in covering walls and ceilings. The smalti were ungrouted, allowing light to reflect and refract within the glass. Also, they were set at slight angles to the wall, so that they caught the light in different ways. The gold tesserae sparkle as the viewer moves around within the building.

Roman images were absorbed into the typical Christian themes of the Byzantine mosaics, although some work is decorative and some incorporates portraits of Emperors and Empresses.The mosaic here is from the ceiling of the baptistery in Florence, Italy. Other spectacular examples can be found in Ravenna, Venice and Sicily and in Istanbul.

In the west of Europe, the Moors brought Islamic mosaic and tile art into the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, while elsewhere in the Muslim world, stone, glass and ceramic were all used in mosaics. In contrast to the figurative representations in Byzantine art, Islamic motifs are mainly geometric and mathematical. Examples can be seen in Spain at the Great Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace. In Arabic countries a distinctive decorative style called zillij uses purpose-made ceramic shapes that are further worked by hand to allow them to tessellate (fit together perfectly to cover a surface).

This interdependence of the mosaic art as technical mean for the attribution of painting works except for a few cases, free from the semantic ties and applications of the past will constitute the destiny of the mosaic art, up to the present day.

Today the mosaic by adopting various forms and uses, by keeping its unbreakable relation with the painting or by laying emphasis on its autonomy, it traces new routes in the pursuit of a new identity, to whom the results will be known after following the necessary period of time.