The nature of mosaics

nature of mosaics field of daisies
Nature of Mosaics: field of daisies, Pelion, Greece. @Helen Miles Mosaics

The Nature of Mosaics:

A New Theory About What Makes Mosaics Different.

I have a new theory about the nature of mosaics. Hold on, stop right there. Don’t flick forward quite so fast. This theory has been bobbing around in the back of my mind for some time and I don’t have anyone to try it out on, so I need you to bear with me. You, my fellow mosaic makers, are the only ones who can help me decide whether this theory has a kernel of truth in it or is just the fantastical workings of a mosaic obsessed mind so I humbly request that you read on.

nature of mosaics _ bale of hay mosaic
Roto B, Marco Bravura. MAR Museum, Ravenna. @Helen Miles Mosaics.

My theory about the nature of mosaics is not particularly complicated and certainly not at all profound so I wont keep you long. In many ways it is a peeling back of an earlier post, There’s no world without mosaics, which explored how tessalated patterns can be found all around us in the natural world and in man made constructions (walls being the obvious example).

pomegranates in an athens market
The Nature of Mosaics: pomegranates in an Athens market. @Helen Miles Mosaics

And yet, when I see an actual mosaic, one which has been deliberately made, I am moved, I am soothed. It could be small, inconsequential and badly put together but never the less something inside me lurches in delight before critical thought and personal taste kick in. At first I assumed that this is purely because I love them. After all, I have a version of the same feeling when I walk into the sitting room and the dog, stretched out in the morning light, thumps his tail in welcome without looking up.

But this would not explain why all mosaics produce the same reaction in me. It is only my dog that delights me, my children’s hair that I want to ruffle. So is it art that is moving me? Again, no. I may go to a museum and among the thousands of exhibits, the galleries of paintings, there will be only some that catch my attention and hold me and, besides, a damaged mosaic fragment not good enough to warrant even being kept indoors cannot be called art simply by dint of being old or being a mosaic.

ancient mosaic fragment in yellow and red
Mosaic fragment mounted on outside of museum, unlabelled. Jaresh, Jordan. @Helen Miles Mosaics

The nature of mosaics _explained.

And then I hit upon the idea that perhaps this feeling comes from the inherent nature of mosaics: the world and everything around is either particulate or cellular. All of it, from the table I am writing at, to the hands that hit the keys, to the motes of dust in the air, all is made of parts, particles and cells. Ever since the invention of the microscope we have been able to look into the underlying structure of the world and see. What? Mosaics, of course. Budding and dividing, building and boiling, expanding and splitting, a seething, invisible universe of bits that come together and make something new. Or as Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Man: ‘All are but parts of one stupendous whole,/Whose body nature is…’

detail of mosaic by CaC03.
The Nature of Mosaic: detail of work by CaC03, Mar Museum, Ravenna. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Looking at a mosaic, this fracturedness of nature is made manifest. You see at once that a mosaic is composed of parts, the eye momentarily tracks the individual pieces before reassembling them visually. It is this tiny pause, the imperceptible moment of stillness between seeing the parts and seeing the whole which connects our response to mosaics with our response to nature. Lying on the lawn on a summer’s afternoon and looking  up through the trees, at first you notice the canopy, secondly the individual leaves. Climbing a church tower, you take in the view and then see the roof tops and field divisions. With mosaics you see the parts before the whole and with nature it is the other way around but the processes are closely linked.

rooftops, rhodes
The Nature of Mosaics: rooftops, Rhodes. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Yet, from the earliest stages of human civilisation, we have striven to make things that defy the natural world, that escape or obscure the fracturedness that I am talking about. Whether it’s the alabaster clad pyramids of Egypt, concrete facades, glass walls, sheet metal panels, or expanses of asphalt, many of our proudest and most impressive structures have flat, dead, inanimate surfaces. Surfaces which can only be human.

pebble mosaic door frame
Nature of mosaics: pebble mosaic door frame, Rhodes, Greece. @Helen Miles Mosaics
funerary stone carved couple
Funerary couple. Rhodes, Greece. @Helen Miles Mosaics

As for art, we endlessly create things: marble sculptures, bronze ceremonial vessels, embossed armour, painted porcelain, stone carvings, illuminated manuscripts, totem poles, embroidered textiles, painted landscapes, the list goes on, but all assert their humanness, their clever, gorgeous, beautiful, conceptual difference from that natural world. It is only mosaics, flagrantly and openly fractured, that mimic and reflect nature, making them both deeply human and deeply affiliated to something greater, more universal, more real.

Open any scientific text book and it will be illustrated with images of the structures and interiors of things – planetary arrangements, cellular formations, the segmented parts of organisms. Google contemporary mosaic artists and you will see an unconscious reflection of these innate patterns in their work, as if they are driven to make manifest the neural paths of our bodies and the complex hidden worlds of micro biology.

structure of a leaf close up
Nature of Mosaics: structure of a leaf, close up. @iStock

If art is bound up with the notion of artifice then perhaps this is why art historians peer haughtily over their half-moon glasses and refuse to acknowledge the place of mosaics in the history of art, or why mosaics struggle to be recognised as contemporary art. Mosaics are proudly and unreservedly bitty, their bitty-ness is their point and their nature.

I’ve finished theorising. Mull it over and write back if you wish. I always love to hear from you.

damaged mosaic fragment
The Nature of Mosaics: old, neglected, damaged mosaic. Rhodes Archaeological Museum, Greece. @Helen Miles Mosaics

10 Comments

  1. Fiona

    Such an interesting theory, Helen. I will need to mull it over. My immediate response is that there has to be an element of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. That for you (and me) mosaics moves us and resonates with us at a deep level but for others it might be painting or fabrics or whatever. I feel the same way about plants- an intense joy and affinity, for example. As I said, I think more about it over a sunny Sydney weekend.

  2. Though I think there is much truth in what you write I think the real reason (at least to me) why mosaics are so touching is the thought that every tiny piece has been put into place by human hands and human brains from long forgotten times have cared and planned and thought long and hard how to achieve this of that effect.
    Fingers from people like me living in another time have deliberately crafted and moved every single piece and formed it into a time conquering piece of everyday life. Because those mosaics we find today have most of the time belonged to a household, a palace, a public place that was visited by other people. People have lived here, have made plans, formed a society very different from ours but the mosaics tell us that no matter how long ago their creation dates back it is proof that we share a common sense of beauty with the creators of ancient history.
    It is true that we have more remains from buildings, some artifacts, even fabrics with weaving and patterns here and there. But the mosaics are much more emotionally touching in displaying that we share not only the same space but as well something in our core that connects us with those human beings long gone.

    1. Many thanks for this, Silvia. Yes, I quite agree that the impact and delight of ancient mosaics is partly about the intimate link they forge between us and their long dead creators. But that doesn’t explain why I feel exactly the same way – it is a physical thing – about contemporary mosaics, even quite bad ones. I do think that above and beyond the connection that we feel with mosaics’ makers because of their deliberate, slow, handmade quality, there is also something distinct and different about mosaics because of their tessalation and therefore their nature.

  3. Thought provoking post. I am always drawn to mosaics as I am to the natural world, much in the way you describe. Mosaic making has always felt like an elemental, almost instinctual process to me. You may be onto something here!

  4. Claire

    Hello Helen, I enjoy your works and your thoughts. To me, they relate to the drive in art for the smooth and finished work, as you mentioned. It put me in mind of the trend of recreating reality or a photograph, how the artist amazingly makes something appear “as if it was real”. Admirable but I see it as one art trend rather than an ultimate goal. Mosaicists’ work is an opposite, maybe, appearing as a deconstructed image. I like your point about the eye seeing the tessarae and then the image, that’s very interesting, it flips, I think, the idea of seeing the work and then the elements. For me mosaic is a sculptural painting and maybe those who appreciate it have a unique eye on the world. Kind regards.

  5. Lorraine

    I’m always inspired by your blog, thanks for putting things into words. Listening to my daughter work her way through piano grades also gave me this feeling. The structure, patterns, rules and spaces that go into a beautiful piece are real and elemental. I think this resonates in mosaic for me as well.

  6. Surely mosaic has become “your dog” by now? What I mean is that if you were a quilt maker your eye would be alert to pattern from a quilty perspective – you would be looking at tiled floors and turning them into quilts. I don’t think this translates to crafts such as knitting in quite the same way, although knitters certainly notice handknits in films when others don’t.

    1. Yes, indeed, you’re right that quilt making is very akin to mosaics in it’s fractured/tessellated quality and yes, mosaic is ‘my dog’ in a sense. But I still think that doesn’t fully explain why I react to ALL mosaics in the same way. Other things I love dont inspire a generic reaction, but only a specific one to a specific thing (ie I dont feel a warmth or connection to all dogs, but only my own)!

  7. Hello, I have thought often about this and talked about it in Greece, observing the immediate warm enthusiasm about mosaics, ancient and contemporary.
    Personally I think that human mind absolutely loves in mosaics the constant game of analysis in small dots and in the same time synthesis in a whole.
    We could note that the tiny small element compare to the infinite universe was probably one of the reasons for mosaics to have such a major role in Byzantine art, for their symbolism of an escalation to infinity and the sublime.
    But we (still and always) enjoy immensely the concept of this comparison, even without thinking about it.
    Surely there is a lot in common with forms of nature, and this, through the augmented reality of the eye of the artist always moves us.
    But it is this enjoyment of the materials and the colors, this relief that invites the touch, the touch which is not common in paintings that makes a lot of difference. Mentally or literary, we always test, caress and feel the surface of the mosaics like we touch rocks and pebbles, and with the same joy, if not bigger.
    So, with all the above that I have mentioned, it is a complex form of art, that its main theme is joy. The ultimate bliss of composing beautiful elements, marbles, pebbles, rocks, colors: maybe that joy is the key. Best regards!

    1. Hello Rita, Many thanks indeed for this. I think you have hit on something here. I like the idea of the symbolism of the infinitesimally small against the vastness of the universe but what really struck me about this is your point about the touch. Silvia mentions above how incredibly moving ancient mosaics are because of our awareness of the hands that made them so long ago, but I didn’t put two and two together and think about the touch in relation to the other arts – all of the artistic endeavours that I mention in the post obviously involve the human hand but that involvement is subsidiary to our response to them as works of art. Mosaics are different as you (and Sylvia) say because of the awareness of the original touch (and the invitation to continue to touch) when we interact with mosaics whether ancient or contemporary. I will go off now and mull over the concept of touch. Thank you!

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