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….