animal mosaics

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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Snap! Comparing ancient mosaics.

Mosaic floor in situ, Pompeii bath house.
Mosaic octopus, Pompeii bath house. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Octopos, Isthmia
Mosaic octopus. Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Finding similarities between ancient mosaics

The day is done. The dishwasher is rumbling away, the boys are arrayed on the sofa in front of the TV, the dog is stretched out in the part of the sitting room that he has claimed as his own and I slink off, tea in hand, to my computer. It’s my way of unwinding.  A quick check for any interesting mosaic pins on Pinterest,  a glance at mosaic matters on Twitter (oh, how I love it’s brevity), followed by a longer, slower look at what fellow mosaicists are up to on Facebook, clicking through to interesting links they’ve posted which often leads on to another link and then another… And as the idle minutes pass, day after day, I start to notice certain similarities between ancient mosaics from all over the Roman world.

Leaf border design. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Leaf border design. Nikopolis, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Leaf border design. Stobi, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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How long does it take to make a mosaic?

Five black and white birds. 96cm by 63cm. Direct method on mesh.

I know it’s a niggly silly question, like asking how long is a piece of string or the price of love. But actually it’s a question that’s often asked and, if I’m honest, I’ve always rather wondered myself. How long does it take to make a mosaic? I’m up there, in my little studio at the top of the house, in a happy trace, making my latest mosaic and utterly oblivious to the hours passing. Sometimes I look up and realise two hours, three, have just vanished and my lovely precious time is gone and I must rush downstairs, fling on something presentable, and dash off to school to collect the boys. And so the days go by. Sometimes the hours are more, sometimes less. Sometimes I can ignore the unwelcome intrusions of the outside world, at other times the world comes and seizes me by the scruff of the neck and drags me reluctantly back to attend to it’s affairs. Continue reading

My top ten favourite mosaics

My favourite mosaics

Feeling a bit gloomy and introspective after some major dental work and so I cheered myself up by spending an evening collecting my favourite mosaics in one place. These are in no particular order.

1. The mosaic floor of the Basilica of Aquileia, Italy, 4th century, AD.

This strange little detail of a tortoise meeting a cockerel gives you an idea of the odd ball moments in this enormous Roman mosaic which covers the entire floor of the church. We went there in the summer and I have posted an album of photographs for anyone who is interested:

Aquileia mosaic, tortoise and cockerel.

2. The Lod Mosaic, near Tel Aviv, Israel. 3rd century, AD. An immensely well preserved Roman mosaic of vast extent and beauty. The top picture is still only a fraction of the whole and the others are details.

Lod mosaic, overview

Lod mosaic, fishLod mosaic, birds

3. The map of Madaba, Church of St. George, Jordan. 6th century, AD.

Madaba map, Jordan.

4. The Unswept Floor, Vatican Museum, Rome. 2nd century, AD. I was determined to see this mosaic on a recent trip to Rome, but failed miserably. There were mosaics all over the Vatican but this one eluded me. Even the woman at the information booth couldn’t help. Is it really there?

Unswept floor

5. The Shepherdess Walk Mosaic Project, Hackney, London. Led by Tessa Hunkin and opened earlier this year. This is a mere drop in the ocean of an enormous community project mosaic recently completed in London.

Tessa Hunkin, Hackney mosaic

6. New York City subway mosaics, of which this is one example at Delancey Street. The subway mosaics also include some wonderful mosaic signs which is a use of mosaic that I am particularly partial to.

Mosaic fish, Delancey Street

7. The Low Ham Mosaic, Somerset, UK. This is one of five panels. 4th century AD. Dido embracing Aeneas. It’s his skirt, her bottom and the trees that do it for me.

Low Ham Roman Mosaic

8. Horse and Pomegranate. 4th century, AD. Villa Fortunatus, Zaragoza Museum, Spain. A horse and a pomegranate in one mosaic. What more can one ask for?  More on pomegranates in mosaics here: and pomegranate.

9. Emma Biggs. Green bowls, detail. As far as I’m concerned, everything Emma Biggs does is perfect, but this is even more perfect than normal.

Emma Biggs, Green Bowls, Detail

10. Marc Chagall, Four Seasons Mosaic, bird detail, Chase Tower Plaza, Chicago, Illinois. I love the way the adamento (filling in bits) are laid in this 21-metre long mosaic completed in 1974.

Chagall mosaic, Chicago

10 and a half.  Leopard, Beit el Din, Lebanon.

Beit Ed Dine, Panather, Lebanon.

Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy.

 Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: Getting there

Bird mosaic, Aquileia, Italy. 4th century, AD.

We set out easily enough from Trieste. We typed ‘Aquileia‘ into the GPS, checked it against the map, congratulated ourselves that we only had an half hour drive and set off in a cheery mood. Fast forward to an hour and half later, insert a lot of rude words and we arrived. Everyone was so annoyed (with the GPS, with each other, with Italy, with driving across the whole of Europe and back) that they had to stay in the car to recover some sort of equilibrium but needless to say I leapt out because here I was at last: Aquileia, once a great city, one of the greatest of the Early Roman Empire, hugely important and hugely wealthy and hugely rich in mosaics. A squabble with Kate (the GPS lady) wasn’t going to stop me.

Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: History

The city itself was destroyed by Atilla the Hun in the mid 5th century AD and so it was abandoned, become overgrown and was largely forgotten. A sad end, but the good thing was that no other city rose in its place so the ruins of Aquileia now constitute the most complete example of an early Roman city in the Mediterranean world.  Another good thing is, that for all his sacking and pillaging, Atilla left the great Basilica of Aquileia still standing – today a World Heritage Site with some of the most beautiful mosaics I have ever seen.

Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: Photos

The floor of the basilica is so covered with mosaic decoration of such astonishing variety and originality from a wonderful aquatic scene, to patterned expanses and unusual animal details that I am not even going to try and show you the half of what I saw. This post just covers some of the bird mosaics and others will follow:

My personal favourite:

Two birds on a branch, mosaic, Aquileia, Italy. 4th century, AD

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: the mosaics.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic portrait Life and Death  Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic skeleton

Pompeii Mosaics: Preserve of the rich

There is one thing that really bothers me about mosaics: they are the preserve of the rich. There is no way around it. Mosaics take ludicrous amounts of time to make, require skilled craftsmen to execute and there are no short cuts. Ever since they were first used to embellish the palace floors of Pella, Greece in 400 BC, they have been symbols of wealth and status. In the world before Porsche Cayennes, 50′ flat screen TVs, and infinity pools they served the same function of demonstrating that you enjoyed luxury and had money to throw around. Look at the Pompeii mosaic portrait of a gentlewoman above – her hair is coiffed, her lips are pursed, her pearls are large and she has the haughty look of one for whom only the best will do. Who can blame her?  How glorious it must have been, how deliciously comfortable, for bare feet to walk on stone, swept and freshly washed, after being accustomed to floors of beaten earth. The Roman mosaic floors which survive generally speak of  this world of ease and plenty – of languid content and quiet delight in domestic order but what I liked about the Pompeii mosaics in Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the British Museum exhibition on show till September 29, was that they also spoke of real people with vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies.

Everyday mosaics in Pompeii

The best, as far as I am concerned, is this wonderfully eccentric mosaic of a pot of fish sauce:

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: fish sauce mosaic

It’s barking mad. Its owner, Mr. Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, was clearly very proud of himself for making a go of the fish sauce business and felt such fondness for the product that had made him wealthy that he wanted to have it immortalised in stone. No tasteful motifs of Roman gods and goddesses for him or intricate marine scenes that could have belonged to anybody. Oh no. He wanted to make sure that the whole world knew, loud and clear, that he was the maker, the connoisseur, the lover and producer of the best fish sauce on the market and you can almost see him waddling complacently over his new floor admiring it from every angle and congratulating himself on his originality.

The other oddball mosaic in the exhibition is the one of the skeleton holding two jugs of wine (pictured above) which was thought to be once the central emblema of a dining room. We are told in the exhibition catalogue that the message is intended for the diners to ‘seize the day’ in the face of the inevitability of death but it seems a rather bizarre design choice to have in the middle of your floor. Death cant have been very far away in the days before antibiotics and effective medicines and I’m really not sure that there was any need to ram home the message when everyone was meant to be having a good time.

The famous Pompeii dog mosaic (below), often copied, is also in the exhibition. It’s simple black and white design with touches of red which was laid in an entrance hall leading straight from the street conveys an obvious warning to all those who enter. But there’s a wryness in the work too: the dog is tied and is bouncing forward in a friendly manner (unlike the more aggressive CAVE CANEM dog mosaic) and you get the feeling that this dog was part of a family.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic guard dog

It’s counterpart, the cast of a dead dog, is remarkably similar in size and breed and wearing the same wide collar, and it too was probably tied up when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD  and rivers of superheated ash and gas poured into the city below.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Dog cast

Pompeii mosaics: technical brilliance

The Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition also includes other, more conventional, but no less remarkable mosaics. There are three theatrical mosaic masks from the pre Christian era, one of which is fake, with a interesting explanation of how the experts can tell. For sheer technical ability, detail, and close attention to life nothing beats the woman’s portrait (above) and this well known aquatic scene of fish swimming around an octopus wrestling with a lobster:

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: mosaic marine life

And it’s the details, in the Pompeii mosaics or otherwise, which make this exhibition worth seeing; which bring the ancient world before us as a world of ordinary, imperfect people whose dying made them extraordinary and whose art shows their drive for perfection. Don’t miss the graffiti in the lower half of an fresco demonstrating the ‘second style’ in Pompeii painting. It’s a child’s drawing, a simple, clumsy shape of a human figure with a line for a mouth and dots for eyes made by stabbing at the wall and chipping away at the plaster. It’s this, like so much else, which makes the exhibition more about life than death.








A weekend of mosaics, Candili, Greece.

weekend of mosaics.
Group photo, Candili Mosaics Weekend. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Here we all are! Who says you cant make mosaics in a swimming suit? It’s a new trend and thoroughly to be recommended.

weekend of mosaics
A young mosaic maker all set to go. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Alison and I drove from Athens in a car heaving with marble and materials, not entirely sure how many people were going to join us for a weekend of mosaics  at Candili on the island of Evvia.  Three families were spending the weekend there with various offspring and relatives varying in age from five to seventy five but weekending in Candili with its lovely grounds, heavenly food, easy access to the beach and the constant appeal of a large pool surrounded by trees and tended lawns, is one thing. Spending hours hunched over a table painstakingly gluing bits of stone onto a board on a hot summer day, is quite another.

weekend of mosaics
Family fun making mosaics. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

So we set up our temporary studio in the Candili art room fully expecting the children to just pop in and then drift off. Sure enough, we had a handful of takers at the start of the day and we launched into design choices and basic cutting techniques quite content to concentrate our weekend of mosaics on a limited number while most of the children raced and frolicked outside. Twenty minutes or so passed and then one of the fathers hit upon a plan – he seized a rod of marble and a pair of nippers and headed for the pool and then, lo and behold, he returned shortly with a flock of young, eager mosaic makers.

weekend of mosaics
Finished mosaics laid out to dry. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Luckily I had a brought a large stack of boards and we ended up with a grand total of sixteen finished 20cm by 20cm mosaics made from scratch and grouted and varnished to boot. I had pre-prepared a number of sized designs from Rosalind Wates’ The Mosaic Decorator’s Source Book which were popular with the children who variously chose a snail, a crab, a moor hen, a star fish, and a frog although 11-year-old Hector did an interesting black and white cartoon design, Hume opted for simple but effective Moroccan-style houses, George made a fabulous rocket with different shapes of stone, his 13-year-old older brother chose a self portrait with protruding teeth and young Alex (aged 6) made a mosaic replica of his favourite Eeyore soft toy complete with a ribbon on the end of its tail.

Here’s a picture of a row of boys absorbed in their work with Alison keeping a beady eye on them:

weekend of mosaics.
Alison Scourti directs the boys. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

At the same time, the adults set to work on their own designs which ranged from Bill’s unorthodox iphone mosaic using different coloured stones for the buttons, Meriel’s tortoise which bore an uncanny resemblance to the real thing, Anne’s beautifully proportioned hoopoe bird, Lia’s eye-catching leaf, while Jenny made one of Lawrence Payne’s little birds. The air of industrious concentration which filled the room was most impressive.

weekend of mosaics
Meriel and her turtles. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Here’s Meriel with her mosaic and a real tortoise which Bill came across in the plunge pool as he headed out for a stroll and was mercifully able to rescue before it was too late: I kick myself for not taking photos of each mosaic with its maker but I was too engrossed in the excitement of the occasion to even think of it. Nevertheless, here are a selection of photos from the weekend.

Hard at work:

weekend of mosaics
Thinking about designs. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Alison (on left) and me on Saturday afternoon with the mosaics before they were grouted:

weekend of mosaics
Helen and Alison with student’s work. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Bill and his mother, Anne, grouting on Sunday morning:

weekend of mosaics.
Two generations grouting. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And a special mention goes to Johnnie who started the mosaic course a little later than the others after a hard morning playing tennis in Athens and who sat on to finish his crab well after his friends had left and then turned up again in the morning to grout it:

weekend of mosaics
Johnnie, aged 9, grouting. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics