Mosaic headstones: ancient and modern

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My aunt and grandfather’s grave, Mount Vernon, Edinburgh. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic headstones: my aunt’s grave.

When my aunt knew she was dying, she asked me to make a mosaic for her grave. It was four years ago, but even now I find myself enormously touched by her request. She wanted to be buried with her father, my grandfather, who died of a brain tumour in 1937 and was interred in a large, urban graveyard on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Their names and dates are written in black lettering on a simple granite tombstone which consists of three low steps at the base of a plain cross.

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Lachrimae Rerum mosaic. Photo taken after washing away the grout (which is why it’s wet) and before the final seal

 Mosaic headstones: a simple plaque

My aunt wanted the words ‘Lacrimae Rerum’ to be made in mosaic letters and placed on the back of the second step. The words come from Virgil’s Aeneid and mean ‘the tears of things,’ referring to the inherent saddness of existence. I don’t know why she chose those words. I never asked and now I am sorry that I didn’t but it’s an epigram that one can’t argue with. The size of the mosaic, a mere 18cm by 45cm, left little room for manoeuvre especially because I wanted to include a border and some simple decoration. I chose an unusual font partly because I liked it and partly because I wanted the lettering to be decoration in itself, to draw the eye and make the non Latin reading casual cemetry wanderer stop for a moment or two and ponder.

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Lachrimae Rerum sketch for mosaic. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Now that I have acquired and attempted to absorb the Tom Perkins’ wondrous book, The Art of Letter Carving on Stone, I can see where I went wrong. The book is the only one I have come across which deals with the complicated business of letter spacing and ‘weight’ (determined by the number of times the letter stem width fits into the letter height, since you ask) but at the time of making my aunt’s mosaic I only had my eye and sense of proportion and balance to work with. I made the mosaic on mesh and once it was completed, I handed it over to the cemetry caretaker to install because (as I have confessed before) mosaic installation is not my forte.

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Nureyev’s tomb. Photo: www.ipreferparis.net

Mosaic headstones: modern

Now that I have made a mosaic headstone, albeit a modest one, I can’t see why mosaic memorials aren’t all over the place. Mosaics are endlessly versatile and have that very durability that is sought after when it comes to memorials. There is, of course, the unsurpassable mosaic carpet draped over the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb in the Montparnasse cemetry of Paris. The sumptiousness of the soft folds in gold and smalti achieve with mosaic something almost akin to that final moment of utter desdainful grace achieved by the dancer taking his final bow.

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Nureyev’s tomb, detail. Photo: www.ipreferparis.net

And once I got going on the hunt for mosaic headstones, they started to pop up here and there. Due to to Jenine Gerlofsma’s Mosaic Gravestones board on Pinterest I came across this memorial to Ricardo Menon (1952-1989) created by Niki de Saint Phalle also in Montparnasse:

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Mosaic cat memorial by Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo: hyperallergic.com

There is also  this portrait of a young man on a headstone in Montreal, Canada:

Face7. Headstone, Montreal. Maine Transplant. flickr.
Headstone, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Maine Transplant, Flickr

And I also found these two from Venice, Italy which were posted on the Mosaic Art Source blog and attributed to simonk on Flickr must be surely be made by the same artist although the first is not ‘signed’ and the second is:

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Headstone, Venice, Italy. Photo: mosaicartsource.wordpress.com
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Mosaic headstone, Venice, Italy. Photo: mosaicartsource.wordpress.com

 Mosaic headstones: ancient

My efforts to find examples of ancient mosaic headstones yielded slim pickings. Given the Roman’s penchant for mosaics and their use of mosaic decoration to underscore social status and display their wealth, it strikes me as a pity that mosaic memorials didn’t hit it off during the heyday of the Roman empire. Yet how can one begrudge the lack of mosaics on headstones in Roman times when we have funerary stelae in their place, able even now to tear at one’s heart strings?

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Detail of Roman funeray stele. Athens Archeological Museum. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Nonetheless, I found a few. First, this one (2nd to 3rd century AD) from the ancient pagan necropolis of Isola Sacra, south of Rome:

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Mosaic grave marker from Isola Sacra near Rome. Photo: www.ClassicsWithMrsB.blogspot

This cross-eyed lady also comes from Isola Sacra so it doesnt seem far fetched to assume it was once a tomb marker too, but try as I may, I cant seem to pin it down more precisely and the headdress suggests it might just be a depiction of one of the seasons. Does anyone know?

Isola-Sacra

The inimitable Carole Raddato of Following Hadrian posted this wonderful photograph on Flickr of a deceased person standing next to a bust of Sappho from the tombstone of a nine-year-old boy now in the Split Archeological Museum, Croatia:Following Hadrain. Tombstone of Aurelius Aurelianus

And the Bardo Museum in Tunis has plenty of examples of Christian mosaic tombstones dating from the 4th to 5th century AD:

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Christian tombstones, Bardo Museum, Tunis. Photo: www.romanartlover.tripod.com

These photos are on www.romanartlover.tripod.com where a wonderful blog post about the Bardo Museum mosaics tells us more about the Christian tombstones in particular:

In general the inscriptions on Christian gravestones were limited to the name of the dead, the age and the formula vixit in pace (he/she spent a peaceful life). The grieved parents of Natalica [third mosaic from left, above] made an exception for their daughter who lived ten years, eight months and twenty-one days and called her dulcissima (sweetest). The inscription has another interesting aspect: the use of b instead of v in bixit in pace, an effect of Byzantine influence because in Greek b sounds as v.

The Bardo collection also includes these (the top one is one of my personal favourites. Who can resist those goggly eyes and sticky outy arms?):

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Christian mosaic grave stone. Photo: Mariapaola Landini, Museo Bardo album, Facebook
Dardanius, 4/5th century, AD
Dardanius, 4/5th century, AD

Lawrence Payne of Roman Mosaic Workshops reminded me that meanwhile in Spain, around about the same period (4th century BC) we have Bishop Optimus’ tomb stone mosaic which was found in the necropolis of Taragona and which he made a copy of for the nearby Biblical Museum.

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Copy of Bishop Optimus mosaic, Tarragona, Spain. Work and photo: Roman Mosaic Workshops

By and large mosaic headstones kept to the old formula of inscriptions, simple patterns and crude likenesses, but then some time in the middle of the 5th century something changed. Think of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum  in Ravenna, Italy, reputedly (noone’s really sure) made by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I’s daughter as a tomb for her and her family. It’s as if the concept of mosaic headstones has resurfaced like the shark in Jaws with a sudden jolt,  bursting onto the scene with a whole building encased in glittering glass mosaics to commemorate the dead. Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum:

Come to think of it, the idea of a planning one’s own tomb has a certain appeal. I have the plot. Now all I have to do is think of the design….

Coming soon: Restoring Ancient Mosaics

 

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10 Comments

  1. Wow, there is so much detail in those mosaic headstones. I especially love the tomb one, where it looks like a blanket has been draped over it. Any time I see things like that, I wonder just how long it takes to put all of those small pieces together! I would love something artistic like these on my headstone someday.

  2. Not sure if you’ll be able to receive this comment, but it looks like you are getting a PHP error on your wordpress site when a comment is submitted. On my blog, that tends to happen when a plugin doesn’t work with my theme, or the WordPress version, or my .htaccess file. You might want to contact your host and ask for some help troubleshooting it! Best of luck.

    1. Many thanks for this. Funnily enough the comments do come through at my end with no problem. If you have the time, do you mind telling me please what happens at yours that makes you think that there is an error? I would really appreicate it. Helen.

  3. The design of these headstones are very beautiful. They have a very cultured look to them and that alone says a lot about the people who are buried there. I’m grateful that we have services that make things like this to help us honor our loved ones who have passed on.

  4. Mosaics can add some beautiful detail to grave markers. The “Lachrimae Rerum” mosaic that you made adds a touch of elegance and, like you said, should cause the causal cemetery walker a moment of pause. No one wants to see their loved ones die, but adding a personalized mosaic to their grave marker is a special way to remember them. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Pingback: Peacock splashes of colour in between the grey and the black – mosaics in cemeteries (and a few other places) – shadows fly away

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