One of the oldest of the decorative arts, mosaic has enchanted artist and art-lovers across cultures for thousands of years. Today, you can find mosaics in 1,500-year-old Italian basilicas, in New York City subway stops, and even in potholes in Chicago. (True story.) Here, a brief (and incomplete) history of a spectacular art form that has expressed millennia of human experience.
4th Millennium BC: The first known examples of mosaic art are created in the Temple of Uruk in Mesopotamia. (The site is in modern-day Iraq.) Artists form small clay cones, push them into a wall covered in wet plaster, and then paint the flat ends.
9th – 4th Centuries BC: The Olmec culture (in modern-day Mexico) produces impressive pavements of inlaid serpentine in the form of abstract jaguar masks. The mosaics are religious offerings, and as part of the rite, are buried under layers of adobe and clay.
4th Century BC: The floors in well-heeled Greeks’ homes are covered in mosaics, pictorial scenes surrounded by borders, so the effect is similar to that of a rug. The artists’ medium of choice: pebbles, mainly black and white, accented by pebbles of different hues. (In 1920, the excavation of the ancient Greek town of Olynthus reveals sophisticated images on floors, far more advanced than earlier examples from Crete and mainland Greece.)
2nd Century BC – 3rd Century AD: Greek craftsmen manufacture special colored materials, called tesserae, specifically for mosaic work. As the Romans conquer the Greeks, beginning in the 2nd century BC, the art form reaches the far edge of the empire. Rich villas display eye-catching mosaic floors that reflect scenes of life in and around the villas.
311 AD: Roman Emperor Constantine establishes the Christian Church as a power in the State, and the once-persecuted church suddenly has to create worship spaces large enough for congregations—and different enough from pagan temples so as not to confuse new converts. The answer: basilicas (roughly “royal halls”). How to decorate them is a genuine problem: There can be no statues because they are too similar to graven images and idols condemned by the Bible. Mosaic is a legitimate alternative, and for centuries, craftsmen decorate basilica walls with images drawn from biblical stories.
5th Century: The Byzantines’ rise marks another shift in mosaics’ aesthetic, marked by Eastern influences in style and the use of glass tesserae, called smalti, made in northern Italy from thick sheets of colored glass. Sometimes the smalti are backed by silver or gold leaf, and they’re often left ungrouted, allowing light to filter through the spaces between them.
6th Century: In the early 6th century, Western Roman Emperor Honorius decamps to Ravenna, an Italian seaport town, to escape the Huns who are approaching Rome. In subsequent centuries, Ravenna becomes a treasure trove of mosaics, as Byzantine rulers (and a few barbarians) decorate the city’s holy buildings with dazzling mosaic. The themes are religious or political, depicting scenes of Christ or of the rulers themselves.
688-692: A testament to mosaic’s prominent place in a vast array of cultures, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is constructed, with its beautiful interior mosaics, which draw heavily on Byzantine architectural and artistic traditions—an interesting aesthetic given the building’s prominence in Islamic culture (and its Quranic inscriptions).
8th Century: When they invade the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors bring with them Islamic mosaic and tile art. Unlike the figurative images in Byzantine art, Islamic mosaic show elaborate geometric patterns. Meanwhile, in Arabic countries, artisans develop the art of zellige, in which small ceramic chips are set into plaster. (Keen observers will recognize this work in Moroccan architecture.)
Middle Ages: Artists in Europe and across the Middle East continue to decorate important buildings—secular and sacred—with mosaic art. Among the highlights is Capella Palatina in Palermo: For the apse and cupola, artisans from Constantinople create an image of Christ Pantocrator. Scenes from the Old Testament and from the lives of Peter and Paul cover the walls. And of course, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice displays one of the most magnificent church interiors in the world, thanks to the glittering gold mosaics. (Starting in the 11th century, the church is known by its nickname: the Chiesa d’Oro, or “church of gold.”)
Renaissance: As the Byzantine Empire dies away, so too does the golden age of mosaic art as frescoes become more popular. However, around 1775, Italian artists begin working on micromosaics, works made from very small pieces of glass. This technique leads to an interest in pietre dure (hard stones), designs created by fitting semiprecious stones together so snugly that the space between them is barely visible.
1804: Pope Pius VII presents micromosaics to Napoleon on the occasion of his coronation.
19th Century: Mosaics again capture Europeans’ attention, thanks to a confluence of forces: the wealth of the Victorian era, new techniques for mass-producing tiles, and a renewed interest in Byzantine style. What’s more, in the mid-19th century, a lawyer named Antonio Salviati revitalizes the Venetian glass industry—which is eclipsed by British and Bohemian glass—by creating a company that manufactures beautiful mosaics and glass in bright, eye-catching colors. The company receives commissions from St. Mark’s Basilica, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Westminster Abbey, among other places.
Turn of the 20th Century: Art Nouveau is all the rage, and the style is a fine fit for mosaic art. In Barcelona, architect Antoni Gaudí uses mosaic in much of his work, most notably in Park Güell, a public park that shows off a number of mosaic-covered sculptures and buildings.
Mid-Century: Mosaics are popular in public life—adorning public buildings across the U.S. In France, Pablo Picasso is collaborating with mosaicist Hjalmar Boyesen to create mosaics of stone and colored glass set onto a wood panel. The designs are simplistic—even child-like—and convey a sense of light-hearted fun.
Late 20th Century: Mosaics straddle the line between art and craft, inspiring massive public art instillations and amateur artists to create at-home works.
2009: The Italian city of Ravenna establishes Ravenna Mosaico, an event that welcomes contemporary mosaic artists to this mecca to exhibit their work and compete for prizes—and continue to celebrate the versatility and strength of this age-old medium.
See our own round-up of mosaic pieces from The HighBoy.