Mosaics are designs or pictures created by embedding small pieces
of glass, stone, terracotta etc. into a bed of cement or other form
of fixative. This form of decoration is often used for panels
or on floors, but is especially effective on curved surfaces,
such as ceilings and vaults. Mosaics are found both indoors and
The art of mosaic, in one form or another, has been practised for
thousands of years, but mosaic as we know it was invented by the
Greeks, who then passed their skills on to the Romans. Many ancient
mosaics have survived the ravages of time remarkably well.
The Romans in due course became the Byzantines, who are renowned
for their superb wall and vault mosaics. Byzantium fell in the 15th
century AD, and mosaic went into a decline until the great revival
in the 19th century, a revival which has continued to this day.
Modern developments in materials and techniques are evidence that
mosaic is very much alive in the 21st century. Computers are of
course ideal for designing contemporary mosaics, and are increasingly
used for that purpose.
But when mosaics were originally invented, life was very much simpler....
Early mosaics can be traced back as far as four to three thousand
years BC. These basic mosaics, mainly found in Mesopotamia, consisted
of thin cones of clay, baked and then painted. The slim cones were
then pushed into mud walls to offer some protection and decoration.
There is a large section of wall preserved in the Staatliche Museum
in Berlin, Germany.
"Cone mosaic" pillars from Uruk, Mesopotamia
The Greeks made good use of water-worn pebbles to make floor mosaics.
These pebble mosaics could be found all around the Greek world from
the 6th to 4th century BC. Many of these mosaics were in a polychrome
finish and often depicted light figures against a dark background.
Good examples of this type of mosaic have been found in Athens,
Corinth and Tarsus.
The Lion Hunt, pebble mosaic, Pella, Greece
- 4th ct BC
By the end of the 3rd century BC mosaics with pebbles were being
replaced by those with tesserae made from stone and glass. Because
of tesserae's smaller size, more could be packed into a given area.
And as with printed pictures, the more dots, the more detail. This
led to designs of ever greater detail and complexity.
It was the Romans, who learnt the art of mosaics from the Greeks,
who were responsible for the spread of mosaics throughout their
huge empire. Some of the earliest 2nd and 1st century AD mosaics
have been found preserved at Pompeii. Even the pavements were decorated
with stone and marble patterns. Considering the violent nature of
Pompeii's end it is remarkable that such treasures have survived!