Coming to Greece in 2001 stripped everything from me: language, family, friends, work, culture, points of reference and sense of self. I arrived five months pregnant with two small children after my husband took a job in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with the expectation of finding a cosmopolitan city where we could settle and I could find work. We put the children into a local Greek school so that they could learn the language and integrate. After a while, I went to the university to learn Greek myself and we threw ourselves into exploring the country.
I don’t know when or how the realisation dawned that our expectations of our new life in Greece were off kilter, but I do remember neighbours who wouldn’t acknowledge we existed years after moving in, struggling to entertain boisterous boys in a badly insulated house where it’s against the law to make any noise between 3 and 6pm, and feeling baffled by a school system which finishes at noon and depends on grandparents and paid help to fill in for working parents. I also remember one day curling myself into a ball in the corner of a downstairs room where I hoped no one would hear me and crying so desperately that it felt like retching. Continue reading →
Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part II: A guide to the mosaics of Greece.
To mark the fact that my days of being permanently based in Athens have come to an end, my previous post was a personal story about my mosaic journey in Greece. As well as learning how to make mosaics there and practicing the art for over a decade, I also visited and explored as many mosaic sites as possible across the length of the country: ancient and modern, famous and obscure, well preserved and neglected.
I know that there are many more sites left to see, particularly on the islands, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to visit them in the years to come, but meanwhile in Part II of this two-part series about Greece, Mosaics and Me, I have compiled a comprehensive guide to the mosaics of Greece for visitors and mosaic enthusiasts.
I have written about most of these sites in separate blog posts but I thought it would be useful to have a one-stop-shop post about the mosaics of Greece rather than needing to flit from page to page. In this way, if you are interested in a holiday in Greece and want to visit a few mosaic sites along the way, then you can find all you need to know here. I have also listed the three main sites which I haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet: 1) the 2nd century mosaics of the House of the Dophins and the House of Dionysos on the island of Delos 2) the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni on the island of Chios and 3) the various Roman mosaics of Crete. Please let me know if I have left any out. I have an insatiable appetite for mosaics and I would be loathe to miss any.
The wonderful thing about visiting the mosaics of Greece is that they are everywhere. On modern church facades, in almost every museum and in many of the ancient sites. I just have to wander out of my front door and down the road to the metro station (passing scattered ancient ruins in someone’s front garden) to see these at the Church of Panagia, Kifissia, Greece:
Or stroll up to the shopping area to check out the sales and linger over these at the Church of Panagitsa, Kifissia.
Going to central Athens on the metro, there are these to enjoy at the Agio Eleftheriious station:
And of course the centre of the city has endless fragments and one-off mosaics in different locations.
Alphabetical guide to the mosaics of Greece:
ATALANTI, fragments of late Roman mosaics on the sea shore. Difficult to find and not interesting examples of the art, but very atmospheric.
ATHENS ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. Mostly statutes but if you are in the museum anyway and need a break, go downstairs to the cafe and enjoy the wall mounted mosaic of Medusa in the courtyard garden.
ATHENS, BYZANTINE AND CHRISTIAN MUSEUM. Predominately Byzantine icons but there is a good full-sized copy of the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora by the ticket office and some nice mosaic fragments in the final room. Until recently you also had the pleasure of walking over a Roman mosaic pavement at the entrance to the museum but I think it might have been removed for restoration.
ATHENS MOSAIC SCHOOL. Run by Nikos Tolis. The place to go if you want to attend a mosaic course in Athens or see the methods favoured by Greek mosaic artists. There is some fine work hanging in the rooms and Artemis Klitsi, who is on the board of the Greek Mosaic Assocation, would be happy to show you around.
BENAKI MUSEUM, ATHENS. Well worth going to for all sorts of unmosaic related reasons but if it’s mosaics you are after then stop by for the wonderful life size copy of the Virgin and child from Agia Sophia in Istanbul, a 10th century fragment from the Studios Monastery in Instanbul and my favourite Medusa head of all time from the Eastern Meditteranean.
CORINTH. The museum attached to the ancient site of Corinth has four wall mounted mosaics which are well worth seeing, particularly the dining room floor with delicate glass embeded mosaics of fruit, animals and plant tendrils.
CRETE. Crete has a lot to offer in the Roman mosaic line and there’s even a book dedicated to the Mosaics of Roman Crete so it’s clearly worth a visit on those grounds alone. I haven’t been mosaic hunting there myself so I can’t give you personal recommendations but some basic research suggests that Kissamos is the place to head for.
DAPHNI MONASTERY, ATHENS. This is an UNESCO World Heritage site covered in glittering gold Byzantine mosaics of the highest quality. The only problem is that they have been closed to the public for the last 16 years. Check before you visit.
DELOS ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. The island of Delos is only accessible by shuttle boat from nearby Mykonos but is well worth the effort to get there for the exquisitely detailed mosaics from the Hellenistic and later periods including the famous one of Dionysos riding a leopard. This is probably top of my list of places to visit to see this little chap:
DELPHI. Has one large 5-6th century church floor mosaic outside the archeological museum with splendid details of domestic and extoic animals and fish but it’s hard to appreciate from behind the barrier. Worth asking to see if you can get up closer and Atalanti isn’t too far away if you are up for an adventure.
DION. Do-able in a day trip from Thessaloniki, see below. A spread-out archeological site which always seems to be virtually empty with an excellent museum attached. The museum has a floor mosaic of Medusa from the House of Dionysos which is well worth seeing and there are other interesting mosaics still in situ at the Roman bathhouse. The famous Epiphany of Dionysos mosaic is being restored and cannot be viewed at present.
DISTOMO. A little village enroute to the Monastery of Osios Loukas (see below) which is famous for being the site of a massacre of civilians during Nazi occupation. It has a small museum with a few unlabelled but amusingly odd mosaics randomly stacked against the walls.
HYPATI, BYZANTINE MUSEUM OF PHTHIOTIS. It’s curiously difficult to find out anything about this nine-year-old museum which is located in central Greece not far from Lamia (see below) but if you click on the brochure attached to the link above you will see that the museum purports to contain ‘an exhibition devoted to the art and technique of Early Christian mosaics’. Hmmmm, yes, sort of. If you’re going out of your way to see the museum please be warned that a large section of the exhibition is devoted to mosaics which can’t be seen because they are in storage, are still covered up in situ or are out on loan, but there are plenty of photos to remind you of what you’re missing.
LAMIA ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. Not really handy for anywhere and only has one mosaic in the town’s museum but if you are indefatigable and really want to make a detour then go for it and you will be rewarded with this.
NEA MONI MONASTERY, CHIOS. This 11th century monastery on the island of Chios has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is prized for its mosaics. I haven’t been there, but would love to.
NIKOPOLIS. Founded by Octavian in 31BC. One of my favourite mosaic sites because the boys ‘discovered’ it. We were on a long car journey and I was determined not to stop but my site-seeing son insisted and the site was closed (as they often are) but, undeterred, the boys clambered over the walls and I heard shouts of glee: ‘Mosaics! Come! Mosaics!’
OSIOS LOUKAS. This secluded 10th century Byzantine monastery covered in mosaics gets five stars. It’s a two-hour trek from Athens but well worth it and if you are feeling super energetic and want to make a long day of it, you could combine it with Delphi (above).
PELLA. The birthplace of Alexander the Great and the birthplace of mosaics as we know them dating from the 4th century BC. Pella has some stunning pebble floors including beautiful swirling floral patterns and is well worth visiting. It would be criminal to miss if you are in Thessaloniki anyway.
RHODES. There is lots to see and do on the mosaic front in the medieval town of Rhodes from the pebble mosaics which decorate the streets to the very fine mosaics at the Archaeological Museum and those at the Palace of the Grand Masters.
SPARTA ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. Sometimes small museums are the best. I loved this one. It has quite a few wall-mounted third century mosaics in a quiet little museum which you are likely to have all to yourself.
THESSALONIKI, MUSEUM OF BYZANTINE ART. This is where my passion for mosaics began so naturally I’m rather fond of it. It includes 4th century patterned stone mosaics from private houses, a 5th century work incorporating the months of the year, and exquisite fragments of dedicatory church churches from the 7th – 9th centuries with all the glass and gold confidence of the best Byzantine murals. A must if you are in Thessaloniki. Also bear in mind that Macedonia isn’t far away and you might want to scoot up to Stobi and Heraclea Lyncestis.
THESSALONIKI, BYZANTINE CHURCHES. Thessaloniki is a UNESCO site for a reason – there are an awful lot of Byzantine churches tucked away behind tower blocks in the city centre or nestling up within the old city walls many of which have good if not expansive mosaics. If you want to see a good smattering you need to leap out of bed and head out pronto with a cup of coffee in one hand and a good guide book in the other because they tend to close at around 2pm and many of them don’t reopen in the afternoon. There are too many to list here (that’s where the guide book comes in handy) but I would particularly recommend the 4th century Rotunda mosaics and the 14th century Church of the Holy Apostles.
Andamento is the visual flow and direction within a mosaic produced by the placement of rows of tesserae. (From: www.joyofshards.co.uk)
Andamento – time for an update.
You might be forgiven for thinking that I am a bit of a traditionalist. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs has a distinctly tweed coat and brogues ring to it. And then there all my blog posts about ancient mosaics and precious few about their modern equivalents so really I wouldn’t blame you for being convinced that I wear knitted cardigans and have a deep fondness for Anita Brookner novels. But buried within this buttoned-up exterior lurks the heart of a rebel and when it comes to the subject of andamento in mosaics that rebel is chafing to get out.
My andamento rebellion is one of those quiet ones that disgruntled children excel at. Not saying anything, perhaps. No screaming and slamming doors, maybe. But a pervasive presence and a body language that’s as clear as a siren that says whatever you have decreed is not well received and will just not do. You might not be able to see me but my arms are crossed across my chest, my shoulders are hunched and my bottom lip is protuding all because I feel that the opus-sayers, the shadowy figures who decide what is an opus and what is not, have apparently checked out and forgotten to turn off the lights.
Part II of a two-part post on making mosaics on mesh.
Let me cast your minds back to February, 2014 when I wrote a step-by-step tutorial post on how to make a mosaic on mesh. Back then I was full of the joys of mesh and two years later I am still bursting with enthusiasm about the method. I love its versatility, and lightness and the way it solves the problem of making mosaics for faraway destinations, hard to reach places or awkward surfaces. It has all the advantages of the reverse paper method without the disadvantages of working in reverse.
The original blog post laid out the method for making a small mosaic and now its time to think about larger mosaics on mesh. Over the months a few people (to whom I am eternally grateful) have written comments in response to the post and it’s clear that people are interested in the method but that the first post doesn’t go far enough – so this post about larger mosaics on mesh is for all those mosaic makers out there who are ready to take off and tackle bigger, more ambitious projects. Continue reading →
The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)
The conversation went a bit like this:
D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?
D: Santorini or Rhodes?
Me: (Inner musing: Santorini = the whole Greek thing. White washed houses set on cliffs over looking azure seas. Rhodes = mosaics) Rhodes!
And so off we went one weekend to see the mosaics of Rhodes, Greece. As it happens, Rhodes is a perfect place to really see mosaics, not just the tarted up ancient variety which now hang on museum walls. Pebble mosaics, characteristic of many of the Greek islands, are everywhere in the medieval town of Rhodes covering pavements, shop entrance ways, hotel foyers and cafe floors. What a delight! Instead of cranning your neck to see mosaics plucked from their original settings and displayed like works of art in hushed settings or having to lean precariously over a barrier to get a closer view of them at archeological sites, here they are all over the place. Neither revered or disregarded; they are just there. Continue reading →
This is a photo gallery showing the process of making a mosaic hour by hour.
Or: Why Kenyans make such good runners.
If you were to ask me if I’d like to meet for coffee. you might notice a flicker of panic cross my face. Rest assured, the panic is not about the thought of spending an hour or so in your company. There’s nothing I’d like better. But my moment of hestitation will usually hide a rapid calculation as to whether that hour, short but infinitely precious, can be spared from my latest mosaic project. If I were to try and explain why an hour matters so much, I think you’d probably assume I was thinking of excuses or had become slightly unhinged. ‘What’s the big deal?’, I can almost hear you thinking. Surely, in the space of day with all the time it contains, I can spare one mingy little hour for a simple cup of coffee.
Ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church
Behind the panic there is also an befuddled internal monologue in which I attempt to articulate the importance of that hour. But if I say it out loud, the words sound unconvincing and fall flat. So to circumvent the need to explain myself, I decided to keep a photographic record of a mosaic under construction. I wanted to show you what’s really involved in making a mosaic – not just the work in progress shots and photos of the finished piece but the nitty gritty of the whole process. Continue reading →
It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.
And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading →
(For Part I – my guide to online mosaic courses and tips please follow this link: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaics-miscellaneous/online-mosaic-courses/)
This post is both a source of information about teaching yourself mosaics and a resounding bell-ringing shout-out. Since I can’t go to the top of a building with a megaphone it’s the next best way to say that self taught mosaic artists are one helluva inspiring bunch. Until I started a discussion about teaching yourself mosaics on Contemporary Mosaic Art I had no idea that there was a whole sub-category of mosaicists out there who have sat down and quietly and doggedly taught themselves everything they needed to know to pursue their artistic vision. Their work and dedication says much louder and clearer than I ever could that great things can be achieved, creative wonders realised, beautiful mosaics materialised without the help of classes or formal training.
I can’t claim to be a self taught mosaicist myself as I attended weekly classes here in Greece with mastercraftsmen who specialised in the making of Byzantine-style icons. But I was frustrated by the limitations of the methods and approaches of the teachers (only the indirect method was used, no tessera could be larger than a match head, no spaces were allowed between the pieces) and went home and experimented. I read mosaic books and followed step by step projects, I endlessly visited ancient mosaics in museums and sites and I made an awful lot of mosaics which I am glad that I will never had to see again.
There is no point in pussy-footing around so I may as well just spit it out: I don’t know how to use a hammer and hardie. Dear me, what was that? You falling off your chair? I dont blame you. To be a full time, full-on maker of mosaics inspired by the ancients, to be a mosaicist who uses stone and not to know how to use a hammer and hardie is, quite frankly, a disgrace. It’s not something I am proud of but I need to get it out there if I am going to discuss the topic of online mosaic courses.
It’s not that I haven’t been shown how to use a hammer and hardie and it’s not that I don’t have one, I do, but it is gathering dust in the corner of my workspace and I rely on this gorgeous beast – a purpose made stone cutter – in its stead:
It’s a bit of a brute to look at and I can’t fling it in the back of the car, but it’s handy none the less and has allowed me to slip into bad habits – for years. However, I have recently taken the bold and exciting move of signing up for a three day master class with Dagmar Freidrich to be held in Edinburgh at the end of August and I need to learn how to use a hammer and hardie fast. And, thankfully for me, help is at hand – teaching yourself mosaics has never been easier thanks to short online videos offering mosaic tips and advice. Continue reading →
Athens - Edinburgh
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Helen Miles Mosaics
I learnt how to make mosaics with Greek masters of the craft in Thessaloniki and Athens who taught using traditional methods with a focus on Byzantine iconography. Later, I become fixated with Roman designs and now my aim is to preserve the simplicity and directness of early mosaics while creating pieces which suit our modern lives.
Lesser known mosaics from local museums off the beaten track in Greece are included in this fully illustrated Comprehensive Guide to the Mosaics of Greece: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaic-sites/guide-mosaics-greece/Mosaics above from 1. Dion 2. Sparta and 3. Hypati, Greece.
Opus variatum or biggsum, opus drostleum, opus fluctum and opus opusum - examples of the new opuses which I’ve added to the lexicon in my latest blog post: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaics-miscellaneous/andamento/