Ancient mosaics – general

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? Continue reading

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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.

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.

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Archeological Musem of Palencia, Spain

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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

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Ancient Mosaic Quiz: Answers

So how did you get on with the ancient mosaic quiz, 2015? Did you find all the answers? Did you rattle them off, scratch your head, or scour the internet? Some were easy, some a little more challenging – I wanted to really push those ancient mosaic brain cells to their limit! So now let’s see how well you did…Here are the ancient mosaic quiz questions in italics and the mosaic quiz answers highlighted in bold:

  1. What is this?
  • a) a precusor of Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum in Ravenna?
  • b) a detail of a leprosy victim?
  • c) A leopard’s spots?

c) A leopards’s spots.

mosaic quiz answers
Leopard devours its prey, Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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20 Ancient Mosaic Quiz Questions for Christmas 2015

Ancient Mosaic Quiz

  1. What is this?
  • a) a precusor of Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum in Ravenna?
  • b) a detail of a leprosy victim?
  • c) A leopard’s spots?

IMG_16542. Big bushy beard, droopy eyebrows and a resigned expression after wearing a synthetic fibre costume for too long in the toy department; looks like Father Christmas, but is really which Roman god?

Father Christmas, el Jem museum, destoop

3. How many ancient versions are there of the Unswept Floor Mosaic?

Unswept-floor-mosaic_Vatican-Museums_3rd_with-mouse

4. Where would you find a rare Roman mosaic depiction of a giraffe? Continue reading

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Ancient mosaic fragments in the sea, Atalanti, Greece.

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The tide came in as we were sitting there and the water lapped over the mosaics. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

I know what I would have done if I had discovered the ancient mosaic fragments in the sea near Atalanti on the east coast of mainland Greece. I would have wrapped up my secret in tissue paper and put it in a shoe box under the bed. I would have hoarded the knowledge and pleasure of those fragments all to myself, worried for their safety, conscious of their fragility, but I didn’t discover them so they are not in my shoe box but here, on the internet, for all to see.

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Mosaic fragments in the sea. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

I came across the fragments through a Facebook post by Olga Goulandris , a mixed media mosaic artist living and working in Greece. In a comment thread she wrote that the mosaics fragments in the sea could be found off the main national road north of Athens heading towards Lamia. As it happens, I pass along that road quite often. With a car loaded with boys, weekend supplies and a scruffy dog, I routinely zoom past the turning en route to our little house in the mountains of Pelion. After seeing Olga’s post I often calculated whether I could test the patience of my fractious teenagers and go in search of the mosaics, but having hauled them around many of the major mosaic sites of Europe I knew that boys and mosaics are not necessarily a good mix and deferred. Continue reading

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The modernity of ancient mosaics

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Man hugging his dog. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Many years ago, when I lived and worked in Egypt, I spent a week in the Cairo museum researching an article about it’s 100th anniversary. My apartment was close by and I would nip in through a side entrance bypassing the crowds and spend hours wandering through it’s musty, less frequented galleries. I was allowed to go into the conservation room and try on ancient pharaonic jewellry and I had all the time I wanted alone with the spookily alive Fayoum portraits.

Bardo Museum. dog and worker.
Dog and worker. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

Such delights are hard to forget but it was in the Tutankhamen exhibition that I remember having that feeling which ancient things can give you – of hopping over a barrier of time and seeing, not the objects themselves or their beauty or oldness, but the people who used and held them. It was the hinge of Tutankhamen’s folding bed that did it for me. A hinge: utilitarian, practical, simple and unchanged over thousands of years. No more or less a hinge than all the hinges we use in our daily lives. Never mind all that gold – it was the hinge that I loved. Continue reading

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