The use of glass in ancient mosaics

glass in ancient mosaics
Face detail, Love Mosaic, Linares, Jaen, Spain. Posted by FORVM MMX Yacimiento Arqueológico de Cástulo, Linares, Jaén on Facebook.

Sometimes when I look at ancient mosaics I fear that I might explode. The beauty of them, the movement, the expressions, the scenes, the patterns, the workmanship, the ancientness, everything about them moves me but I think it might be the use of glass in ancient mosaics which squeezes my heart the hardest; those defiant flashes of colour asserting their presence, like a hand raised in farewell from the deck of a steamer as the ship pulls away.

glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from the Zeus and Ganymede Mosaic, Metropolitan Museum, NYC. Photo by kind permission of www.sedefscorner.com

These dancing, jewel-like fragments appear in all sorts of variations – from almost random embellishments and flourishes to entire mosaics, where glass is used like paint on a canvas: subtle, rich and visually intense. But there’s a mystery here too: since the Romans were renowned for copying designs, techniques and styles of mosaics across their vast empire, why aren’t there more glass mosaics? Everyone must have wanted one. Who wouldn’t? So why do we have so few examples like the drop-dead gorgeous floor mosaic of Zeus and Ganymede from the east of modern day Turkey, now on display at New York’s  Metropolitan Museum of Art?

glass in ancient mosaics
Woodpecker and butterfly detail, Zeus and Ganymede Mosaic. Photo by kind permission: www.sedefscorner.com

This second century mosaic is so technically accomplished and so detailed that it zims and sings with energy and visual delight.

glass in ancient mosaics
Lizard and dragonfly detail, Zeus and Ganymede Mosaic. Photo by kind permission: www.sedefscorner.com

Could it be that glass of the quality needed to sustain heavy use was relatively rare or only accessible in some areas? It can’t just have been a matter of expense that stopped glass becoming the material of choice because in other aspects of their lives it’s clear that the Romans didn’t shy away from splashing their money around on lavish adornment and serious bling.

glass in ancient mosaics
Zeus and Ganymede mosaic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by kind permission: www.sedefscorner.com

As a rule, despite examples like these, glass in ancient (pre-Byzantine) mosaics is confined to a line or two for emphasis or to highlight a particular feature of the design. Look at these strokes of colour in the hair and around the face of this mosaic from the Roman villa of Robacal in Portugal:

glass in ancient mosaics
Museu da Villa Romana do Robacal, Portugal. Posted by the museum on Facebook.

Or this flower from Corinth, Greece:

glass in ancient mosaics
Flower detail, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Here, glass is added to pick out the detail of the plant but the background tesserae are stone. As it happens, this floor which measures nine metres by five metres, is unusual for the quantity of glass in its composition. Dating from the 2nd to 3rd century AD and found close to the forum of Ancient Corinth, the mosaic uses glass in it’s border:

glass in ancient mosaics
Border detail, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And in the decorative details of the main design:

glass in ancient mosaics
Cockerel head, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
glass in ancient mosaics
Cockerel feathers, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
glass in ancient mosaics
Pears, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

But when it comes to the parts of the floor which would have been under the diners’ couches, the tesserae revert to plainer materials:

glass in ancient mosaics
Mosaic floor, late 2nd to early 3rd century AD, Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Specialists in ancient artefacts often make a great fuss of scarcely visible pigment residues and urge us to remember that the surfaces of statues or temple architecture were once highly decorated and brightly painted. I want to sieze them by the lapels and say: ‘Look! Look down!’ – why bother with a scaly flake of pigment to prove the point when mosaics provide real, glinting, and most of all extant evidence of the Romans’ love of colour?

glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Dionysos Mosaic, Cologne, Germany. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

As for colour preferences, blues and greens are most commonly used but as we see from the Zeus and Ganymede mosaic above, the Romans understood how to use a whole spectrum of strong colours. In mosaics which employ less glass, the material is reserved for details such as peacock feathers and flowing water where the reflective quality of glass would be most effective:

glass in ancient mosaics
Peacock feathers, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And birds’ plummage in general is also often rendered in glass:

glass in ancient mosaics
Duck with glass detail, Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

But other details can also be picked out in glass:

glass in ancient mosaics
Man carrying basket of fruit, Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

More often than not, the use of glass in ancient mosaics is erratic. It might be added to one part of the mosaic composition and then left out in another – why, for example, did the makers of the mosaic above choose to highlight what I assume is a melon on the platter and not the other fruit? Was it because the designer was striving towards realism and green glass is the closest you can get to the right colour? Or was it, as I think is more likely, that glass – or at least the kind of glass which was hard enough to be used in floors – was such a coveted commodity that it was added as an embellishment, enhancing the perceived sophistication of the floor’s commissioner even if an all-glass floor was unachievable?

glass in ancient mosaics
Bird, Izmir, Turkey. Photo: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com

As one would expect, there are exceptions. Take the 3rd century AD Dionysus mosaic in Cologne’s Roman-Germanic Museum in which glass is used in a consistent and  effective way to draw the eye towards particular features of the design – folds of cloth, an urn framed by birds or Ero’s wings as he rides a lion:

glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Dionysos mosaic, Cologne, Germany. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org
glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Dionysos mosaic, Cologne, Germany. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org
glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Dionysos mosaic, Cologne, Germany. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Although as a rule the use of glass was limited, there are three places (that I know of) other than in the Zeus and Ganymede mosaic where glass is used extensively: First,  the brilliantly coloured wall mosaics of Herculaneum, Pompeii’s sister city which was also buried under the ash of Vesuvius’ erruption:

Herculaneum_Neptune_And_Amphitrite
Glass mosaic, Herculaneum. Neptune and Afrodite.

Second, a floor mosaic which once belonged to a Roman bath house which was recently found in the ancient city of Plotinopolis in north eastern Greece. Here the entire surface, which is still being excavated, is covered in glass tesserae including the borders. Not only is this amount of glass in an ancient floor mosaic extremely rare, the fact that the glass itself is relatively unscathed is also unusual.

glass in ancient mosaics
Mosaic at Roman baths, Plotinopolis, Greece.

Third, are these stunning panels from the border of the 4th century AD Boar Hunt Mosaic which are on display at the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain. They not only defy the limited use of glass in ancient mosaics rule, but also do it in a most surprising way – by using what looks like glass in the background. [Apologies for not being able to identify the source of the photographs]

glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Boar Hunt Mosaic, National Museum of Roman Art, Merida, Spain
glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from Boar Hunt Mosaic, National Museum of Roman Art, Merida, Spain.

It’s also possible that in general glass wasnt extensively used because the mosaics’ makers intuited that the material, albeit brilliant in effect, wouldn’t last as long if subjected to heavy use. Looking at ancient mosaics up close one can see that the areas which once had glass tesserae are often more badly damaged than the parts where stones are used.

glass in ancient mosaics
Detail from peacock mosaic, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
glass in ancient mosaics
Peacock head, Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Perhaps, too, there are so few examples of ancient mosaics with large amounts of glass tesserae because their beauty made them a natural target? Admired, envied, and desired both at their time of making and through the centuries it would have been tempting to chip out the coloured pieces or try and chisel away a chunk long before techniques for lifting mosaics had been devised or museums prepared to pay for undamaged artefacts had come into existence. So it is mostly only those mosaics which have the lightest sprinkling which survive.

glass in ancient mosaics
Pheasant detail with glass in the bird’s neck, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Be that as it may, the Romans started something which later caught on in a big way; during the Byzantine era the use of glass in mosaics soared in popularity. The mosaic masters of the time knew and understood what glass could do – as beautiful as it was on floors, its decorative power was at its most effective on walls or ceilings; they saw how it could catch the light in domed vaults, outline a saint’s features or simply reduce the humble petitioner to a state of awed and subdued respect in the house of God. There was no looking back.

glass in ancient mosaics
Ceiling decoration, The Rotunda, Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
glass in ancient mosaics
Mixture of glass and stone in Byzantine mosaic, St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
glass in ancient mosaics
Glass. Oh, glass! Detail from S. Appollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Coming soon: mosaics for special occasions. 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Helen, This is an excellent post, I have been thinking a lot about the use of glass in prebyzantine mosaics.

    One reason we have much less glass that stones in the Roman mosaics is that because
    1 – generally speaking, glass tesserae do not do very well on floors. But much better on walls, where people do not step on them, so our ancestors used glass much more on walls than on floors; and
    2 – We have very few walls mosaics left, because wall collapse, while floors stayed in place. In Pompeii, which was “slowly” destroyed, it took between 24 and 36 hours for the ashes to accumulate on roofs and crash the buildings, and we only have floor mosaics left. However, in Herculanum the buildings were filled with ashes in a matter of minutes, they did not have tome to collapse, and most walls were preserved. SO we have these gorgeous wall mosaics left as the Neptune and Aphrodite house one.

    Even in our days we are very limited in our use of glass on floor mosaics. We use it for swimming pools, showers, where people walk barefoot, but not in places were they will walk with shoes that might damage them a lot.

    So it could be that the romans were using much more glass than we can see, because all of the glass they used was gone when the walls collapsed.

    1. Many thanks for this, Frederic, and for your very helpful point that glass was probably used much more extensively in wall mosaics which would have been lost when walls collapsed both at Pompeii and elsewhere. However, it is clear that the Romans did like to add glass to their floors even though it wasnt a suitable material for floor use and there are examples of it being used extensively. I came across a very damaged example in Israel which was apparently destroyed in antiquity and reassembled by the archeologists who found the pieces in a pit. Could it be, therefore, that glass floor mosaics were smashed by invaders who would have taken anything portable but would have wanted to destroy things of value that coiuldn’t be removed? Is that too far fetched? Stone mosaics, on the other hand, were so ubiquitous that they would not have been perceived as worth breaking up.

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