Mosaics in the history of art (or not as the case may be)

mosaics in the history of art.
Neptune mosaic, 2nd century AD, Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Photo: @Tony Hisgett.

My father, old now, was and is an art historian through and through. An academic who’s devoted his life to art, he is now confined to a chair but his mind is still keen and his hearing is sharp so he seemed like a good a person as any on which to test my theory about mosaics in the history of art. The theory revolves around the fact that mosaics are essentially written out of the history of art but as I started to expound my theory, my father took exception to my premise. That’s quite wrong, he said. So I corrected myself: Not all mosaics, but pre-Byzantine mosaics do not feature in the history of art, I said. At that, he relaxed and listened.

mosaics in the history of art
Port Scene, detail. 1st to 3rd century AD. Photo: @John Paul Getty Museum.

The theory first took root when I was visiting the Archaeological Museum of Sparta in Greece with a friend, S, whose life, like my father’s, has been devoted to art. I have often wondered why these glorious, clever, beautiful and infinitely varied and various things are not referred to in the history of art. Why does The Story of Art, the seminal work by E. H. Gombrich, only mention them in passing before he stops to dwell on the 6th century mosaics of St Apollinare, Ravenna? Why does Stephen Farthing in Art, the Whole Story also gloss over pre-Byzantine mosaics before taking note of the12th century Monreale Basiilia in Sicily? What’s going on here? Why are we all familiar with the Venus of Milo in the Louvre but few of us have any idea about the existence of the Zeus and Ganymede mosaic in the Metropolitan?

mosaics in the history of art
Zeus and Ganymede mosaic, 2nd century AD, Metropolitan Museum, NYC. Photo:

It’s not that pre-Byzantine mosaics don’t attract academic or public attention, of course they do. They are admired, studied, written about and painstakingly lifted and preserved. Specialists in Roman mosaics write learned tomes about them, as well they should, and there are wonderful books aplenty full of gorgeous coloured illustrations detailing mosaics from across the Roman empire. But that’s not the point. The point is that Farthing’s 550 page volume includes examples of work as diverse as an Indian 12th century bronze, a 19th century indigenous North American blanket and a Korean 13th water sprinkler, but Roman mosaics, unillustrated, are relegated to a single line: ‘The floors of many of the [Roman] homes were covered with elaborate mosaics’.

mosaics in the history of art
Ravilious style detail, Animal Room, Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

S, who studied history of art and who has spent the past three decades working in the art world, warmed to the subject as she looked closely at the 3rd-5th century mosaics in the unfrequented provincial museum where we had stopped on our way to a Pelopponesian beach.

mosaics in the history of art
Detail from the ‘toilet of Venus’, 3rd century AD, Sparta Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Was it perhaps their functionality that kept them off the art history radar, she suggested? A vase by Edmund de Waal is a work of art. But does the same vase with a bunch of irises in it become simply a vase? Roman mosaics were largely made as floors for people to walk on so they didnt get as much attention as works which were made purely to delight. Perhaps it is because they were designed and made by anonymous artists, S continued? By and large mosaicists of old did not sign their work and they therefore do not comfortably fit into our modern notion of Art being made by a single named Artist.

mosaics in the history of art
Pheasant, 3rd century AD, Villa of the Aviary, Carthage, Tunisia. Photo: @David Tipling.

There was much to be said for S’s theories but still, somehow, they didn’t quite cover the wholesale neglect of pre-Byzantine mosaics in the history of art. There must be another explanation and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. Could it be something even more fundamental to the nature of Roman mosaics, something we scarcely think about now but which for centuries meant they weren’t included in the canon that we nowadays consider central to the history of Western art?

mosaics in the history of art
‘Mona Lisa’ of Galilee, 3rd century, Sepphoris, Israel. Photo: @The Ancient World.

As far as I can see, the key difference between Byzantine era mosaics, which are included in the history of art, and pre-Byzantine ones which are not, is that it was during Byzantine times that mosaics were lifted, figuratively and literally, from floors and used as wall decorations. Moreover, pebbles, stones or ceramic were replaced by smalti – colourful, rich, glittering glass – thereby elevating the ‘art’ of mosaics from being merely utilitarian floor surfaces using everyday materials to a decorative form which was respected, admired and coveted. This ties in nicely with S’s theory but nevertheless it is impossible to claim that Byzantine mosaics are somehow artistically superior. Even Gombrich has to admit that the mosaics of San Apollinare are ‘rather stiff and rigid’ and that ‘there is nothing of the mastery of movement and expression which was the pride of Greek art, and which persisted till Roman times.’

Judgement of Paris mosaic, c 150AD, Louvre, Paris. Photo: @Wikicommons.

Then it came to me – the explanation was simple. The reason why pre-Byzantine mosaics are excluded from the history of art is because they were immovable. Think about it – during the Renaissance when painters sought to codify and refine the principles of representational art by studying and emulating the work of the ancients, they would understandably have concentrated their attentions on sculpture – objects which could be easily transported. If you tried to remove a mosaic it would crumble into a million tesserae which meant that they were all but worthless and never acquired the status of artefacts that could be widely admired outside their original context.

mosaics in the history of art
Leopard mosaic, 100BC, Archeological Museum of Delos, Greece. Photo:

Moreover, most of the mosaics we know now hadn’t been excavated by the 1500s so Renaissance artists would have been largely unaware of them. Excavations at Pompeii began in the 1740s, Delos in the 1840s, Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale in the late 19th century, Pella in the 1950s, Zeugma in the 1990s and so on. So all the time, the crucial centuries, when western art was flourishing, pre-Byzantine mosaics were effectively invisible.

Mosaics in the history of art
Medusa panel, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

This invisibility was later consolidated by the collecting tendancies of the young artisocrats who took their Grand Tours of Europe from the late 18th century onwards. Drifting around the continent, buying, amassing and shipping anything moveable back home to adorn their country estates – marbles, books, sarcophogi, manuscripts, vases, jewels, furniture-  but not mosaics. Art is about display and mosaics couldn’t be displayed so they didn’t get accepted as Art.

Unswept floor mosaic, 2nd century AD, Vatican Museums.

At this stage in history methods for moving mosaics were still rudimentary. If a mosaic took your fancy, you were likely to hack out the central emblema, usually a neat, transportable tableau, and discard the rest, so the full magnificence of mosaics in situ or properly lifted could not be appreciated. These private collections in turn formed the basis of the first museums which in their turn would have been the focus of the burgeoning curiosity in the history of art which began to become a formal discipline in the 19th century. Thus it was, so my theory goes, that mosaics were left out of the history of art.

mosaics in the history of art
Hunting dog, 6th century, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

This means mosaics in the history of art are rather like women or black people in history full stop. Their perceived inferiority and therefore invisibiity meant that they were only rarely able to step over the social and cultural divide and when they did so their contributions didn’t fit into the prevailing norm so were largely unrecorded. Looking back, academics are now aware of how certain categories of people were cut out of the history books and can do something to rectify the gaps in our understanding but when it came to rewrite the history of art, pre-Byzantine mosaics were still disregarded.

Detail of Dionysos mosaic, c 120BC, House of Dionysos, Delos, Greece.

This seems even harder to explain but again I am sure I have found the answer. When art history was being rewritten and the neglected areas of world art were finally being discussed and included in the study of how art evolved, Western historians were understandably keen to look outwards to parts of the world which had previously been ignored.

mosaics in the history of art
Dog and worker, detail from Neptune mosaic, Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

According to my theory it would have been harder to weave Roman mosaics into the new narrative than it was to turn one’s attention to things of beauty from further afield. Adding Roman mosaics to the story of art would have smacked of more of the same, reinforcing the endlessly Western-centric focus of art history, whereas an Indian bronze or a Korean water sprinkler was something fresh and innovative. Thus, once again, Roman mosaics got left behind.

Mosaic skeleton, 1st century BC, Pompeii.

It’s just a theory but my father, listening intently, agreed with my reasoning. It may be nothing more than a hunch but it goes a long way to explaining why mosaics still hover in the no man’s land between art and craft. Even when the acknowledged greats of 20th century art, Picasso, for example, or Diego Rivera, experimented with the medium, their mosaic works remain little known. Wham-bam-in-your-face work by Niki de Saint Phalle, who’s sculpture garden is a mosaic orgy, is harder to ignore but the fact that she was heavily influenced by Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell and that her work is as much about surface, texture, reflection and found objects as it is about fantastical forms and sinuous shapes seems to receive less attention.

To finish here is a detail from the floor of the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.  We see from this floor, which incorporates Roman mosaic fragments, that the Byzantine builders understood something of the beauty of Roman mosaics – they used them when they could have easily tossed them aside and started again. But they thought of them as something lesser, something not as good or as splendid or as worthy as their own smalti creations, and so the story of Roman mosaics in the history of art began.

mosaics in the history of art
Roman mosaic fragments incorporated into the floor of San Vitale, Ravena. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics










The secrets of using thinset for mosaics by Julie Sperling

Drinking from a firehose: flood prone yet drought stricken. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling
Guest tutorial by Julie Sperling: Using thinset for mosaics

I am delighted to present a guest post (my first) by award winning Canadian mosaicist Julie Sperling about using thinset for mosaics. Julie’s work stands apart in being both fiercely beautiful and intelligently polemical. In her hands mosaics move out of the decorative realm and into a hybrid world where art meets politics meets activism. Using a wide range of tesserae and found objects from the traditional (smalti and limestone) to the unusual (grafiiti paint layers) and the bizarre (flue damper), Julie explores the subject of climate change and our human response to it through mosaics which make your heart sing and your thoughts linger.

using thinset for mosaics
Dialogue, the Burden of the Message. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling

How does she do it? you ask. I have often wondered. No one (probably least of all Julie) could precisely explain the process by which she interweaves her materials with the subject matter to create works of art but Julie’s work is impressive on many levels, including its sheer technical virtuosity. In many of her mosaics the substrate is part of the piece rather than just a surface to be mosaicked. It’s a pause, a space, a frame, it allows her to open the work up to infinite suggestions, to make emphases, to change direction and to add permutations and explorations both on and beyond the ‘canvas’. See how she does it here in Heat (Each Decade Hotter Than The Last) where the central ‘graph’ is separated by a perfectly balanced border of thinset:

using thinset for mosaics
Detail from Heat, Each Decade Hotter Than the Last. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.

Thinset (or mortar) isn’t an attractive word or in most people’s books the most appealing aspect of mosaics, but in this blog post about using thinset for mosaics, Julie shows us how this most mundane of substances can be used to create stunning effects. Many thanks Julie!

using thinset for mosaics
Flip the system; Amplified Change. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.
Julie’s tutorial: Using thinset for mosaics

Before we start, a caveat: This is what works for me, but it is by no means the only (or best) way to do it. It is the method I have learned through trial and error to compensate for my complete lack of palette knife skills. So proceed with caution, take it with a grain of salt, use at your own risk, etc.So, how do I get the thinset in my mosaics smooth, both between my lines and tesserae and in the background?

First, my go-to implements for the task: an array of paintbrushes, spatulas, and palette knives, as well as water and a rag. And don’t think I only use the brush/blade end! Anything is fair game, including fingers.

using thinset for mosaics
Julie’s thinset smoothing tools. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Now, if you want to save yourself work, make sure your initial bed of thinset is as smooth as you can make it. Just like taking a good photograph to start will save you time and frustration in post-production, touching up a smoothish surface is much easier than trying to fix an area riddled with bumps and ridges and lumps later on. A pass or two with a clean palette knife (wiped with a damp cloth) will make your life much easier. Admittedly, though, I usually skip this part or, at best, make a half-hearted attempt to get a nice smooth bed. Why? Because I’m not really great at using a palette knife and because fixing it later doesn’t particularly bug me.

Smooth thinset in between lines and tesserae

When I weave my lines, I like the thinset to be smooth, especially where there’s more open space. I have no reason for this other than personal preference. Once I set my tesserae into the thinset, I leave them for a bit before attempting to go in with my various implements to smooth it out. I’ve found it’s far easier to work with the thinset once it has set up a bit—it’s less sticky and far more compliant. I just pat it / brush it as best I can, mostly with a dry brush or other tool (or, more frequently, the blunt end of a tool).


using thinset for mosaics
Patting and brushing the thinset into place using both ends of the paintbrush, once it has set up a bit. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes the thinset dries shiny and smooth. I don’t particularly care for this look, so I will take a slightly thinner mix of thinset at the very end (when I’m cleaning up the background) and just dab it into the small spaces, being very careful not to get any on the tesserae.

using thinset for mosaics
The shininess of this dry thinset really bugs me, so I always go back and fix it. Photo: @Julie Sperling
using thinset for mosaics
A steady hand and a small paintbrush. Dabbing a bit of thinset onto the shiny part is an easy albeit nerve-racking fix. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Smooth thinset as the background

I save this step for the very end. I spread my thinset on the background, usually in stages (I find doing one side at a time works well for me). I try not to put it on too thick (because then it just squishes around when I try to smooth it with my brush) or too thin (because then the roughness of the substrate comes through).

using thinset for mosaics
Covering the background with thinset. No need to be careful or make it look pretty, because it gets fixed with the damp foam brush. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Then I take a foam brush, wet it with water, and squeeze the excess out with my cloth so the brush is just damp—this is very important, because if your brush is too wet you risk getting white splotches on your thinset once it dries.

using thinset for mosaics
Make sure your brush isn’t too wet. Trust me. Photo: @Julie Sperling

I lightly brush the thinset with my damp brush to smooth it out, taking care to keep my brush strokes going in the same direction. I find that shorter, quicker strokes work better for me. When too much thinset accumulates on my brush, I rinse it, wring it out in my cloth, and keep going.

using thinset for mosaics
A barely-damp foam brush is your best friend when smoothing out your background thinset. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes I have to switch to a smaller brush to work closer to the tesserae, but normally I can make it work by angling my foam brush this way and that to follow the curves of the outer tesserae.

And that’s it! It really all boils down to working as neatly as you can from the start to save yourself the headaches later on, making sure your brush isn’t too wet, and being patient.

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A collection of ancient mosaic Medusa heads.


medusa head
Medusa head, Dion, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics
Mosaic Medusa heads: warding off evil.

Hello, hello, I’m back! Is anyone there? Coo-eeeeeeee (echos reverberating down the corridors of mosaic lovers). Let me just walk in, sit down for a moment and take a deep breath in and another long one out. There, that’s better.

mosaic medusa head
Medusa head, Sparta, 3rd century, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Shall I regale you with tales of the move? Do you really want to hear about boxes piled up to the ceiling and mountains of packaging, the multiple runs to the municipal recycling centre and charity shops, the scraps of love, the hordes of letters, the 1970s diaries, the 80s boob tubes, and the sense of quiet and not so quiet panic at the number of unidentified socks that are still heaped up in a corner? I doubt it. So instead it seems appropriate to talk about mosaic Medusa heads – partly because I have felt not unlike one myself over recent weeks and partly because in all the relocating confusion I have at least been spared the obligation of finding a Gorgon to put on my doormat.

medusa head
Archeological Musem of Palencia, Spain

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Comprehensive guide to the mosaics of Greece.

Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part II: A guide to the mosaics of Greece.

Helen Miles Mosaics.
Nereid riding a sea centaur. Sparta Archaeological Museum, Greece. 3rd century AD. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

I’ve left!

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.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Mantlepiece mosaic, Theodora (?), Candili, Evvia, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaic

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. Continue reading


Greece, mosaics and me

Helen Miles Mosaics
Me in the middle of my pre-move studio mess. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part I: A personal story. 

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.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Fruit detail, 2-3rd C AD, Corinth. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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


Andamento: an old subject with a new twist.

Andamento is the visual flow and direction within a mosaic produced by the placement of rows of tesserae. (From: 

Leaves and fruit. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics
Andamento – time for an update.
Infilling detail. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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.

Cockerel. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics


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.

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Eight easy steps to making larger mosaics on mesh

larger mosaics on mesh, fish mosaic, Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail of fish mosaic splashback. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Larger mosaics on mesh.

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.

larger mosaics on mesh, Helen Miles Mosaics,
Installing the Unswept Floor Mosaic. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

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.

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)

mosaics of Rhodes
Partridge feeding her chicks, 2nd century AD, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

The conversation went a bit like this:

D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?

Me: Yes!

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! 

mosaics of Rhodes
Mosaic floor, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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


Making a mosaic hour by hour

The Lemon Tree Mosaic Project

making a mosaic hour by hour
Me and the finished lemon tree mosaic before grouting. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

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.

a mosaic project hour by hour
Lemon tree mosaic design by Constantinos Gallis. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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