A Brief History of Mosaicing

When many people think of mosaicing, they are drawn to ancient Roman villas with elaborate floor art. Mosaics however did not drop out of fashion after the Roman empire fell, only to re-emerge over the last twenty years or so. Many cultures over the last two thousand years and before have used mosaics as a form of art, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish. This article will briefly introduce the history of mosaicing in the form of a timeline, with much more detailed articles to follow.

The Bronze Age: The earliest mosaics ever discovered are dated to this period and are made from pebbles.

4th Century BCE: Mosaics from this time are known as the predecessors to the traditional Greek style that developed around 3rd century BCE. Mosaics from this time have been found in the Macedonian palace-city known as Aegea, and also in Albania. The Beauty of Durrës, as it is known, was discovered during the Austria-Hungary occupation of Albania and depicts a woman's head on a black background surrounded by flowers in what would later be known as the 'figural' style.

The Beauty of Durres

64 BCE: The next mosaic that we have dated comes from 64 BCE, when the Emperor Nero ordered his architects to cover some of the surfaces of the Domus Aurea with mosaic.

1st - 2nd Century AD: A mosaic is discovered in Libya dated from this period. It is famous for its depictions on gladiatorial combat, hunting scenes and every-day life. It decorated the walls of a cold plunge pool in the bath house of a Roman Villa.

4th Century AD onwards: This is a great period for mosaicing as the burgeoning Christian religion sneaks its symbolism everywhere it can find, leading to some beautiful artwork that is filled with Christian imagery. In the early 4th century, the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily was built, and has the largest surviving collection of mosaics in situ in the world and is protected by UNESCO. They depict hunting scenes and mythological scenes. As the century progressed, mosaics were adopted for Christian basilicas. While the earliest examples of such mosaics do not survive, there are a variety of mosaics bearing Christian motifs that do. While I cannot go into to much detail here, as it would go against the word 'brief', examples include Santa Constanza and Santa Pudenziana. What is interesting is that many traditions from the original Roman pantheon still persisted, for example Santa Constanza had mosaic depictions of Bacchus in the ambulatory.

A mosaic from the bedroom of Villa Romana del Casale
3rd – 7th Centuries AD: This was the highlight of the Jewish era of mosaicing. Jewish mosaics often incorporated the zodiac, as well as scenes from the Ark of the Covenant and other religious scenes. Some mosaics will include the names of key religious figures but not their images, showing they belonged to a conservative community who obeyed the ban on depicting religious figures.

To be continued...

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