Mosaics​—Paintings in Stone


MOSAIC has been called “a bizarre art-form,” a “striking” ornamentation technique, and one of “the most durable forms of decorative art to have survived from antiquity.” Fifteenth-century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandajo called it the “true way of painting for eternity.” Whatever you think of mosaics, they have a truly fascinating history.

Mosaic may be defined as the art of embellishing a surface​—such as a floor, a wall, or a vault—​with designs made of small, closely set pieces of stone, glass, or tile. From ancient times, mosaics have been used to adorn floors and walls. Mosaics have also decorated baths, pools, and fountains​—places where humidity would have damaged more delicate art forms.

Mosaics can vary greatly in appearance, ranging from simple monochrome floors to black and white designs and from complex polychrome floral patterns to ambitious pictorial compositions.

Invention and Development

It is not clear who invented mosaics. Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians adorned their buildings with colored surface-patterns. However, the art seems to have died out without further development. Asia Minor, Carthage, Crete, Greece, Sicily, Spain, and Syria have all been credited with being the birthplace of mosaic, leading one writer to theorize that the technique was “invented, forgotten, and invented again at different times and in several places of the Mediterranean basin.”

Early mosaics, some as old as the ninth century B.C.E., were made of smooth pebbles arranged in simple patterns.  Local stones provided the range of colors. The stones usually measured one half to three quarters of an inch [10 to 20 mm] in diameter, but some detailed sections used pebbles as small as a mere one quarter of an inch [5 mm]. By the fourth century B.C.E., artisans began cutting pebbles into smaller pieces, permitting greater precision. Stone cubes, or tesserae, gradually superseded pebbles. Tesserae offered a greater range of tints and were more easily laid and adapted to the required design. They produced even surfaces, which could be ground and waxed to enhance the brilliance of their colors. By the second century C.E., extensive use was also being made of small pieces of colored glass, which greatly enriched the mosaicist’s palette.

The Hellenistic period (c. 300 B.C.E. to c. 30 B.C.E.) produced particularly fine pictorial mosaics. “By employing the widest possible range of colours and by reducing the size of the tesserae to one cubic millimetre . . . , the works executed by Greek mosaicists came to vie with wall painting,” says the book Glossario tecnico-storico del mosaico (Technical-Historical Glossary of Mosaic Art). Color was skillfully used to  obtain subtle illusions of light, shade, depth, volume, and perspective.

Typical of Greek works is the highly refined central inset, or emblema​—often a virtuoso reproduction of a famous painting—​surrounded by ornate borders. Some insets have tesserae so tiny and well-fitting that they seem to have been created with brush strokes rather than with individual pieces of stone.

Roman Mosaics

Mosaic is often considered to be a Roman art because of the wealth of mosaics found in Italy and provinces of the Roman Empire. “Pavements of this type have been found by the hundred thousand in buildings of the Roman period from northern Britain to Libya, from the Atlantic coast to the Syrian desert,” says one source. “They are sometimes regarded as one of the identifying features of Roman presence in an area, so closely is the peculiar technique associated with the spread of Roman culture.”

However, multicolored pictorial mosaics proved ill-suited to the needs of the early empire. Great urban growth during the first century C.E. led to increased demand for quicker and cheaper mosaic work. This spurred on the introduction of mosaics that used only black and white tesserae. Production boomed, and according to the Enciclopedia dell’arte antica (Encyclopedia of Ancient Art), “there was not a well-to-do house in any city of the empire without a m[osaic].”

Exact replicas of certain designs can be found in widely separated locations. This suggests that teams of artisans​—or perhaps books containing mosaic patterns—​traveled from one building site to another. If desired, a studio-produced emblema could be ordered in advance, fabricated,  transported to the construction site on a marble or terra-cotta tray, and then installed. All other mosaic work was done on site.

Careful planning was needed to fit designs and borders into their setting. Attention was paid to the foundation and its surface to make sure it was smooth and level. Then a thin layer of fine mortar (called the setting bed) was spread over an area small enough to be worked before it dried​—perhaps less than a square yard. A sketch might be scored onto the surface as a guide. The tesserae were cut to size, and the artisan began laying them in place.

One by one, tesserae were pressed into the mortar, which squeezed up between the pieces. Once an area was covered, a setting bed would be laid in a successive area, and then another, and so on. Master craftsmen worked on the more complex sections, leaving their assistants to fill in some of the plainer areas.

The Mosaics of Christendom

In the fourth century C.E., mosaics began to be used in Christendom’s churches. Often depicting Bible stories, such mosaics served to instruct worshipers. Flickering lights reflected on gold and colored-glass tesserae created an aura of mysticism. Says Storia dell’arte italiana (The History of Italian Art): “Mosaic art was in perfect harmony with the ideology of the time, which was greatly influenced by . . . Neoplatonism. In mosaic art there took place a process by means of which matter loses its dullness and is transformed into pure spirituality, pure light and pure space.” * What a radical departure from the simple form of worship taught by Christianity’s founder​—Jesus Christ!​—John 4:21-24.

Byzantine churches contain some outstanding examples of mosaic work. In some houses of worship, tesserae cover almost every inch of the interior walls and vaults. What are described as “masterpieces of Christian mosaic” can be seen in Ravenna, Italy, where gold backgrounds dominate, portraying divine light and mystic inaccessibility.

Mosaic continued to be used prominently in Western European churches throughout the Middle Ages and was masterfully used in the Islamic world. In Renaissance Italy, workshops attached to great cathedrals, such as St. Mark’s in Venice and St. Peter’s in Rome, became production centers for mosaics. In about 1775, artisans in Rome learned how to cut molten glass threads of every shade imaginable into tiny tesserae, making it possible to execute miniature mosaic reproductions of paintings.

Modern Methods and Use

Modern mosaicists use the so-called indirect method. This consists of gluing tesserae facedown onto a full-size paper pattern in a workshop, leaving their reverse side exposed. The mosaic is carried section by section to the installation site, where the backs of the tesserae are pressed into the setting bed. When the mortar dries, the paper and glue are washed off, leaving the viewing side uppermost. This method reduces time and labor, but the flat finish lacks the sparkle of the Medieval productions.

Even so, countless 19th-century city halls, opera houses, churches, and the like were ornamented using this method. In addition, the method has been used extensively in museums, subway stations, shopping malls, and parks and playgrounds, from Mexico City to Moscow and from Israel to Japan. Smooth, yet faceted, mosaic surfaces have also been considered ideal for decorating the large unbroken facades of modern buildings.

Sixteenth-century Italian artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote: “Mosaic is the most durable picture that exists. Other painting fades through time, but mosaic continually brightens with age.” Yes, the workmanship that went into many mosaics captures our attention. Mosaics are indeed fascinating paintings in stone!


^ par. 18 Among other things, the unscriptural Neoplatonic philosophies promoted belief in the immortality of the soul.

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Map of Jerusalem (sixth century C.E.)

[Credit Line]

Garo Nalbandian

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Alexander the Great (second century B.C.E.)

[Credit Line]

Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (built 685-691 C.E.)

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“Dionysos,” Antioch (about 325 C.E.)

[Credit Line]

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, by exchange with the Worcester Art Museum, photography by Del Bogart

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Tesserae, colored glass, and pebbles are still used in modern mosaics

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Mosaic displayed at Lynn Heritage State Park, Massachusetts

[Credit Line]

Kindra Clineff/Index Stock Photography

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Mosaics designed by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona (1852-1926)

[Credit Line]

Foto: Por cortesía de la Fundació Caixa Catalunya