A collection of ancient mosaic Medusa heads.


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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.

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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.

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Archeological Musem of Palencia, Spain

When the Romans were setting up house they didn’t get off so lightly. I have already written about similarities between mosaics across the ancient world, but it was only recently that I have noticed that there are an astonishing number of mosaic Medusa heads. Fiece, scary ones with bulgling eyes, fey ones with vapid stares, ones that are almost line drawings in their simplicity and others rendered in great detail.

Medusa head, Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex, UK. Photo: @romanobritian.org

The number of ancient mosaic Medusa heads (which must be only a fraction of the ones that were actually made) far exceeds expectation or coincidence. Does this suggest that the belief in the Medusa’s power to ward off evil was deeply embedded in the ancient psyche and that Roman householders had a good deal more to worry about than where to position the day beds? Or that fashion was so rigid that a mosaic Medusa head was de rigueur for all households of a certain social pretension?

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Medusa head, Sparta Archaeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmsoaics

The first impression is that these weren’t just idle talismen, the Roman equivalent of a hand of Fatima or Evil Eye displayed near the front door. The obiquitiousnes of the mosaic Medusa heads and the fact that they are often the central piece in an elaborate psychodelic design of ellipses or spiralling triangles, indicates that the Medusa motif was believed to exert real power in a world where life was precarious and danger was never far away.

medusa, brading roman villa, isle of wight. andantetravels.com
Medusa head, Brading Roman Villa, Isle of Wight, UK. Photo: @andantetravels.com.
Mosaic Medusa heads: the myth

As legend would have it, Medusa was once a beautiful woman who attracted the attention of Poseidon. Athena, furious that Poseidon raped Medusa in her temple, punished Medusa by transforming her into a monster whose locks of hair became writhing snakes. Anyone who looked at her turned into stone. Medusa was later beheaded by Perseus, the son of Zeus, who kept her head to use as a weapon because it still retained its powers.

Medusa head, Alexandria National Museum, Egypt. Photo: @zippytales

Mosaic Medusa heads turn up all over the Roman world from Britian’s Northern shores to Spain, Greece, Tunisia and beyond. Many show truncated wings on the monster’s brow referring to the belief that Medusa, along with her two immortal sisters, had the power of flight. Most of the mosaic representations strip away her femininity and turn her into a chubby faced youth, sparing their owners the potential embarassment of inadvertently turning their guests into lumps of stone by having the monster’s gaze slightly askew.

Medusa head, Sousee Archaeological Museum, Tunisia. Photo: @wikipedia.

Interestingly in this mosaic of Alexander the Great from Pompeii, a Medusa head is even depicted on the warrior’s breast plate protecting him in battle.

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Alexander the Great with Medusa head breast plate armour, Naples Archaeological Museum, Italy. Photo: @wikipedia
Mosaic Medusa heads: a statement

But maybe these sideways-looking glances and even the bold frontal stares indicate that the Romans, far from retaining real faith in Medusa’s powers, felt immune from them. With their vast empire and clever inventions, the Romans might have considered themselves somewhat superior to the ancient Greeks from whom the Medusa myth was dervived. By having the monster in your sitting room perhaps you were actually letting everyone know how modern and sophisticated you were like adding a classical portico to your electric-gated executive home.

medusa, palace of the grand masters
Medusa head, Palace of the Grand Masters, Rhodes, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Afterall, a terrifying creature that you walk across routinely in your bare feet is not going to be terrifying for long. Moreover, we know from the gladitorial and hunting scenes that the Romans didn’t shy away from using mosaics to show violent acts in all their gory detail so it seems to me that if they wanted to depict a truly scary monster they would have done so. But these mosaic Medusa heads can be whimsically appealing:

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Medusa head, Athens Archaeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Or downright silly:

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Medusa head, Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

In many ways the most striking thing about these mosaic Medusa heads is the pattern that often surrounds them:

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Medusa head in radiating patterned surround, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

I assume the pattern in itself – its mesmerising, dazzling effect – did the job of petrifying (in the literal sense) any unwelcome intruder as much as the ghoulish appearance of the severed head. It is interesting that I have only come across one example of the pattern without a Medusa at its centre. This one from Corinth, Greece, which dates from the 2-3rd century AD, has replaced a Gorgon with a head of Dionysos. But look how similar Dionysos’ features and hair are to the typical Medusas we’ve seen above. Did a young wife, hotheaded and flush with youth and love, stamp her pretty foot and demand something a little more up to date for her hallway than an old fusty Medusa?

Dionysos mosaic, Corinth, Greece.
Head of Dionysos in Spirograph pattern surround, Corinth, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

It’s tempting to speculate that perhaps the prevelance of mosaic Medusa heads refer to a time, rather like our own, when society was moving between two belief systems – one old, entrenched and familiar but not necessarily any longer revered. And the other new, not yet established and still slightly unsettling. Christianity was taking hold and the Romans were endlessly expanding and innovating – travelling, trading, conquering – and it must have been comforting to have something of the old world in times of rapid change.

medusa head, princeton art museum
Medusa head, Princeton Art Museum, USA.

Just as today’s couples who don’t believe in God still choose to marry in churches so perhaps the Roman house builders commissioning mosaics for their reception rooms wanted something that had the gravitas of age and carried a little of the magic and mystique of earlier times when life was simpler and they didnt have to worry about what the future held.

national archeological museum of tarragona.
Medusa head, National Archeological Museum of Tarragona.
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Medusa head, 3rd century, Sfax Archaeological Museum, Tunisia. Thank you to Katelijne Leemans for identifying it!
mosaic Medusa heads
Medusa head, Canania, Spain. 2-3rd Century AD. Photo: @The Hispanic Society of America.
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Medusa head, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, Germany.


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: www.joyofshards.co.uk) 

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.

Continue reading


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.

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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


Making Roman mosaic copies

roman mosaic copies
Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

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.

Heraclea Lyncestis
Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

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


Teaching Yourself Mosaics – Part II

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Pet portrait by self taught glass mosaic artist Christine Brallier. Photo and mosaic: @cbmosaics

Part II: Books, forums and experiments

(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.

teaching yourself mosaics
An early home experiment made during my mosaic class days. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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.

teaching yourself mosaics
An early indirect method mosaic made with glass, mirror and smalti. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Continue reading