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History of Mosaics

The history of mosaics goes back some 4,000 years or more, with the use of terracotta cones pushed point-first into the background to give decoration. In the eighth century BC,  pebbles were used in pavements to give a textured look and feel, with different colored stones to create patterns, although they were mostly as unstructured decoration. Around four centuries BC, the Greeks, raised the pebble technique to an art form, creating precise geometric patterns and detailed scenes of people and animals. 

Mosaic History – Greek & Roman

In 200 BC, specially manufactured pieces (“tesserae“) were used to provide more detail and add color schemes to the work. Using small tesserae, sometimes only a few millimeters in size, means that the mosaics could imitate paintings. Numerous mosaics preserved at, for example, Pompeii were the work of Greek mosaics artists.

The expansion of the Roman Empire took this art form further and changed the history of mosaics forever, although the level of skill and talent became diluted. If you compare mosaics from Roman Britain, with the Italians, you’ll notice that the British examples are simpler in design and less proficient in terms of overall execution and design.

Typically Roman subjects were scenes celebrating their gods, domestic themes and geometric designs.

Mosaic History – Byzantine mosaics

Byzantine Mosaic
Byzantine Mosaic

With the rise of the Byzantine Empire from the 5th century onwards, centred on Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey), the art form took on a new distinction. 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.

Roman mosaics were mostly used in flooring, the Byzantines mastered techniques involving covering walls and ceilings. The smalti did not have grout, allowing light to reflect and refract within the glass. In addition, 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.

Mosaic History – Islamic mosaic art

Islamic Mosaic
Islamic Mosaic

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

Mosaic History – Medieval Mosaics

Around Europe, mosaic went into general decline throughout the Middle Ages. However a blossoming tile industry led to mosaic tiling designs in abbeys and other major religious buildings.

Medieval Mosaic
Medieval Mosaic

In the 19th century there was a renewed interest, particularly in the Byzantine style, with buildings such as the Sacre-Coeur in Paris. In Britain, this was led by the concentration of wealth that the Victorian era brought, with increased domestic and public building projects. New techniques for mass-producing tiles meant a renewed interest in decorative floors. The Gothic Revival in architecture and design looked back to medieval themes and this was reflected in the way tiles and mosaic were used. Another industrial influence was Antonio Salviati, who is credited with breathing new life into the Venetian glass industry. He saw the business opportunity in matching the ancient skills practised in Venice with the Victorian demand for glass mosaic.

The Art Nouveau era also embraced mosaic art. In Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi worked with Josep Maria Jujol to produce the stunning ceramic mosaics of the Guell Park in the first two decades of the 20th century. These used a technique known as trencadis in which tiles (purpose-made and waste tiles) covered surfaces of buildings. They also incorporated broken crockery and other found objects, a revolutionary idea in formal art and architecture.

Objects that have been recently discovered have revealed that mosaic materials were used in a range of ways, for example in Victorian shell grottoes and “putty pots”, where china and other items (buttons, toy figures etc) are stuck to a base with linseed putty. This kind of collage of personal objects with connections to everyday life is also sometimes called “memoryware”.

Mosaic History – Modern mosaics

Modern Mosaics
JH Mosaics Modern Design

Mosaic is in a healthy state in the early 21st century, despite a tendency for it to be thought of as more the work of craftspeople than artists. Maybe this is a difficulty in accepting the fact that mosaics often have a dual function, for example as flooring, and also because it is a very accessible, non-elitist form of creativity. The field is rich with new ideas and approaches, so gradually mosaics becomes the popular art form for normal people. We supply mosaic tiles to wholesalers and the general public, have a look at our online shop.