The art of mosaics is a monumental art with a long history dating back to the late antiquity.
A brief historical overview reveals that the first and most antique mosaics we have uncovered were floor mosaics and make their appearance in the first decades of the 7th century BC
(image no 1). [Image 1. Constantinople, Holy Palace – Children riding a camel]
In the Helladic region mosaics make their appearance in the 5th and 4th century BC in Pella, Rhodes, Olympia etc. The materials used for their fabrication are mostly pebbles, marble and ceramic tiles with simple colours. Their pattern and design are simple, geometrical but later become enriched with representations of everyday life, the public life as well as mythology (e.g. «Bellerephon» in Rhodes). At times we can find inlaid thin stripes of lead, 1mm thick, which help in the disposition of the main design of the mosaic
(image no 2) [Pella – Lion hunting]
During the Hellenistic period representations with tesserae, like the ones in the cities of Argos, Patras, etc., are predominant and these mosaics are usually found in Roman houses.
From the 3rd century BC and onwards, mosaic is no longer used exclusively as a floor medium but expands and begins to cover lateral surfaces as well, as is the case in Byzantine temples. Mosaics become wall mounted and their themes change, the new themes being mostly religious. Other materials such as enamel, glass and gold tesserae, which are made out of gold leaves, are introduced thus contributing to the creation of the golden background that is so characteristic of byzantine art. Chromatic variety increases at that time.
While floor mosaics depicted mostly allegorical representations (such as the vine, the peacock etc.) in order to allow for more resistant materials to be used, byzantine wall mosaics acquire a more luxurious character. This is due to the robust position of the Byzantine Empire, both on an economic and political level, which in turn lead to the further evolution of mosaic art.
In Constantinople the Hagia Sophia is decorated in consecutive yet distinct periods starting in the 9th until the 13th century BC. The three monumental complexes of the Helladic area of the 11th century are extremely important. The Dafni Monastery, the Osios Loukas Monastery and the New Monastery in Chios. Following in importance are the Chora Monastery in Constantinople and then mosaic constructions in the Italian peninsula, in Venice, Ravenna, Sicily etc.
With the fall of the Byzantine Empire, mosaic is gradually replaced by frescoes, as they are a less costly technique.
In modern times, interesting mosaic works were produced by the Russian modern artist Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) and the Spaniard Antoni Gaudi (1852 – 1926) and mosaic becomes a medium applied in modern and contemporary architectural constructions.
The main adhesive material used for mosaics is mortar (kourasani). This mixture is made of lime, sand, Santorini’s soil, pounded brick and at times powdered marble. Two layers of mortar – kourasani precede the setting bed on the surface that will carry the mosaic. Starting from the coarser grain, roughened and resisting to humidity mortar layer and topped by the second mortar layer that has a finer grain. On this layer is set the mosaic using either the direct or indirect method.
In the first case, i.e. the direct method
(image no 3) [Image no 3 Direct setting – Fish]
we have a direct setting of the mosaic on the kourasani, where previously a sketch serving as a guide for the disposition of the tesserae has been made. This is a very demanding technique, as the tesserae must be placed within a specific time frame, while the lime keeps the mortar moist.
In the second case, i.e. the indirect method
(image no 4), a prefabrication of the mosaic in the workshop precedes the setting. The mosaic is first set in reverse with glue on paper. This technique allows for more time and more minute details in the construction.
[Image no 4, Indirect setting- Madonna and Jesus Christ.]
When the work is completed it is placed on a kourasani that has just been poured on the surface intended for the mosaic. As mortar is a very tough material, characterized by great resistance and elasticity, it has been widely used in antiquity and allowed many mosaic masterpieces to survive until today.
The art of mosaics, or as it is otherwise very often called “the art of patience”, is a long and painstaking work since it requires the use of very tough materials (such as stone, granite etc.), great concentration, perseverance and an in-depth knowledge of fabrication techniques that at the end offers us an impressive work of art that can sand the test of time.
An article by visual artist Krystalia Kefallinou.