Byzantine mosaics

Mosaics in the history of art (or not as the case may be)

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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

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Detail from the Zeus and Ganymede Mosaic, Metropolitan Museum, NYC. Photo by kind permission of www.sedefscorner.com

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Byzantine mosaics of Daphni Monastery, near Athens.

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Christ with Peter and John. Photo: www.haidari.com

There are plenty of maddening things in this world. People pushing in front of you in queues is probably top of my madden-making list. Reaching into the fridge for the milk to find your sons have polished it off and not bothered to tell you is pretty annoying especially when it’s 9pm and there’s no time to buy any more before tomorrow’s breakfast. Lateness, umbrellas that won’t open, socks that vanish, towels that get left on the bathroom floor, dogs that yap, bollards that you can’t see until you hear car metal crunching….there are certainly a fair few things to get frustrated about and now I would officially like to add visiting the Byzantine mosaics of Daphni Monastery to the list.

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The Ascension of Christ, Daphni Monastery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In my humble view, either an archeological site is open or it is not. The mosaics on the walls and dome of the 11th century church just outside Athens are world renowned. This is an UNESCO world heritage site. Anyone who loves all things Byzantine or all things mosaic would have it high on their agenda alongside the churches of Agia Sophia and the Chora in Istanbul and the Greek monasteries of Osios Loukas and Nea Moni. The mosaics have been variously described as a ‘unique, fine example of classical idealism of Middle Byzantine art’ and ‘masterpieces of the golden era of Byzantine art.’ The dull drive along what was once the Sacred Way and is now a monotous strip of fast food outlets and cheap clothing shops would be deemed worthwhile in eager anticipation of the delights ahead. Except there arent any. Whatever the sign and online opening hours might say, the church is closed. Continue reading

How to make a mosaic fragment (the Greek way)

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Stork ‘fragment’. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

We’ve all heard a lot about Greece recently. About bailouts and debt restructuring and summit meetings and ministers’ sartorial preferences so now seems a good a time as any to write about how to make a mosaic fragment the Greek way. It seems particularly appropriate because political events of recent weeks have highlighted the fact that the way things are done here is sometimes a little unexpected to put it politely (verging on the bonkers would be another way of putting it) and this mosaic making method is equally unexpected if not downright baffling.

In a nutshell, the way I was taught to make mosaics here in Greece was more or less the classic reverse method except that the tesserae are laid on cotton, not paper, and the finished piece is cast.  Not just when the mosaic is intended for a floor or stepping stone, but always. Most people who make mosaics in reverse do so using paper which strikes me as infinitely more sensible, less fiddly, and about twenty times more practical because it’s twenty times lighter. Look at the work in progress posted by the Southbank Mosaics, the Hackney Mosaic Project (scroll down to ‘Works in Progress’) or Gary Drostle. They all use paper and there’s not even a suggestion of the messy, grusome business of casting.  Who wouldn’t? Well, the Greeks obviously. But why? That, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you. Continue reading

Visiting the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics, Macedonia

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Central urn bordered by deer, peacocks and an acanthus wreath. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

When I made plans to go visit the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics in Macedonia with Tessa Hunkin I was slightly concerned that the mosaics would play second fiddle. Tessa Hunkin is my mosaic heroine. In case there’s anyone out there who thinks you dont know her, you do. She’s the one that set up Mosaic Workshop in London’s Holloway in the 1980s with Emma Biggs. I bet you have at least one of her many books on various mosaic subjects from making techniques to garden mosaics and mosaic patterns. She won the 2014 British Association of Modern Mosaics Mosaic of the Year award for the Shepherdess Walk Mosaic that she created with the Hackney Mosaic Project and has designed and made a string of mosaics for public and private spaces which consistently make my jaw drop.

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Leopard gorging on a fallen deer. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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The Byzantine mosaics of Osios Loukas, Greece.

Monastery of Osios Loukas, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Monastery of Osios Loukas, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas, Greece.

It’s been a long time since I first saw images of the mosaics of Osios Loukas in Greece. Of saints in softly gathered robes with their solemnly composed faces, heavy lidded eyes, downturned mouths and combed beards. Of domes covered in fractured gold and the usual assembly of Biblical figures and familiar scenes. I have always had a particular fondness for photographs of the mosaicked monks, ascetics looking grim and emaciated, but somehow I never quite got around to visiting the Byzantine monastery which is tucked discreetly into the slopes of Mount Helicon, two hours north of Athens.

Osios Loukas interior. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Osios Loukas interior. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

But one clear day in October I finally got my act together and pulled up at the car park above the monastery dedicated to St Luke, a 10th century hermit with an eye for a beautiful spot. The saint, who was reputed to have miraculous and prophetic powers, chose this place with its magnificent views over Mount Parnassos to spend the last few years of his life and as soon as you get out of the car, you are struck by the perfection of his choice – the total silence (the road ends here), the absence of the usual garlands of electrical wiring, the sense of self contained order and delicious calm. If only normal life were ever thus. Continue reading

The mosaic of St Dimitrios of Thessaloniki…

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…and a curious coincidence

Coincidences are fun. Their unlikeliness – the meeting of an old school friend on a hiking trail in Papua New Guinea or realising your fiancé also took the 7.13 to Paddington from Brighton every day in 1982 – is so delightfully impossible that it seems charged with an extra meaning which remains stubbornly indefinable.

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So it is with the book my father made me for my first birthday in Glasgow more than 50 years ago. It is a spiral bound picture book made on hard card with photographs that he must have painstakingly cut out of magazines and arranged in improbable juxtapositions to amuse me.

DSCN6603Among the pages is this one – a spoon, an egg, a bunch of grapes and – what’s that? – a mosaic head of St Dimitrios of Thessaloniki. Continue reading

The Rotunda mosaics, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Ceiling mosaics, Rotunda, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Note the use of interlocking swastikas – a common feature in Greco-Roman designs

I don’t want to get carried away, but I think the Rotunda mosaics in Thessaloniki, Greece, might be it. It as in the beginning. Not the beginning of mosaics as we know them (that happened down the road at Pella), not even the beginning of Christian mosaics (although that’s possible) but the beginning of the use of mosaics in Byzantine architecture to dazzle and awe. If not the actual beginning, then as close as damn it, to the first use of gold and brilliance, of life like mosaic portraits, intricate architectural designs, soaring, glittering ceilings made to draw the eye upwards and induce a feeling of humble wonder at this earthly reflection of heavenly glory. Continue reading