ancient mosaics

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

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

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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

The early Christian mosaics of Delphi, Greece.

Delphi, Greece.
Cat enjoying the sun on the ruins of Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Sometimes I feel blessed. Not just blessed, but blessed-blessed. In addition to the blessed of daily life which is more than blessed enough, I have the extra blessing of being able to walk out of the house, hop in the car and go see ancient mosaics almost on my door step including the early Christian mosaics of Dephi. Now, really, how blessed is that?

mosaics of Delphi
Pattern detail. Dephi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Here in Athens there are Byzantine churches with gloomy interiors and glittering mosaics within easy access, Corinth is a mere hour a way, it’s hard to enter a museum without encountering mosaics and even long boring journeys can yield unexpected delights of the mosaic variety. I don’t like to gloat but sometimes it’s hard not to feel that when the Gods were distributing their gifts they dropped an extra mosaic-shaped sackful just for me.

mosaics of Delphi
Dedication plaque, Dephi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

That’s exactly how I felt the day I went to see the mosaics of Delphi with my friend Angie. She was keen to revisit the ruins and I wanted to see the extensive mosaic floor which originally came from a late 5th, early 6th century church in the village of Delphi nearby but is now to be found outside the site’s archeological museum. I had seen it before on a family trip when small children, an elderly mother in law and a fierce sun had deterred us from lingering and this time I was intent on savouring it.

mosaics of Delphi
Fish detail, Delphi, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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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

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

A gallery of pomegranate mosaics

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Pomegranate tree mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Frederic Lecut, Mosaic Blues.

I know why Hades chose a pomegranate to tempt Persephone. You’re stuck down there in the underworld, in those vaulted, sunless spaces and you’ve got to find something that she won’t be able to resist, something that conjures up all the light and energy that she’s pining for. It’s the perfect fruit. The blushing skin, those bright, too-red seeds, so small, so beguilingly small that surely it wouldn’t matter to just have one, or two. No one would notice. Why would they care?

Pomegranate. Hinton St. Mary. www.telegraph.co.uk
Christ and pomegranates, Hinton St. Mary, Dorset. www.telegraph.co.uk

Just as it’s not surprising that Hades chose a pomegranate to trick his victim, nor is it unexpected that religions and cultures from China and India to the Middle East, Iran and Turkey have commandeered the pomegranate as a receptacle for all sorts of symbolic meanings. The pomegranate is a casting agent’s dream – it’s rich, luxurious, sexual, and full and has been widely appropriated to signify propserity, marriage and fertility. Continue reading