Mosaic: craft or art?

Looking at the floors of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. I sometimes come across fierce debates on the internet about whether mosaic making is an art or a craft. Think of Andy Goldsworthy’s works in stone versus Maggy Howarth‘s pebble mosaics. But does it really matter? Drifting around St. Mark’s in Venice recently, captivated by the stone floors while the great Byzantine mosaicked ceilings soared away above my head, too far away and too gloomily lit to be appreciated, I really felt that it didn’t. The floors are just pieces of coloured marble, purely decorative and entirely functional – isn’t that what craft is all about? – and yet heart-stoppingly intricate and beautiful. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. These pavements were made in the 12th century and, eight hundred years later, we are still walking on them. The guidebooks don’t dwell on them so that’s all people were doing – walking and looking up and taking photographs and the floors were just there, doing what they were meant to do and few people pay them much heed but, it seemed to me, if we were just told to look down rather than up, these floors would inspire as much wonder and awe, as much astonishment at the ingenuity and sheer brilliance of the workmanship as the ceiling mosaics do. We don’t know the names of the craftsmen who made these floors or those who executed the glass mosaics overhead and indeed few mosaicists in antiquity or later times were ever identified, but the point is that their work endures and that it is still admired. Isn’t that the point of all creative endeavour, be it art or craft? To make the beholder pause, to instil that fleeting moment of delight or curiosity or puzzlement, before being swept up again in daily affairs? Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.

Beautiful pavements

Celebrating crafts

Woodwork, textiles, ceramics and knitting – all crafts, of course (we say) but often visually appealing and deeply satisfying, so, again, I wonder does it matter if something is called an art or a craft and does being a decorative art somehow elevate it to a different, more admirable order, as if, moving into a grand mansion, we become instantly better than we were? Here are some examples of modern crafts, for no particular reason, except that I like them and they have a lot in common with mosaics:

Kaffe Fassett quilt
Kaffe Fassett quilt
Kaffe Fassett blanket.

Kaffe Fassett blanket.

And a few more St. Mark’s floor mosaics to finish off:

Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Floor, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. (Excuse the quality of the photographs – those determined hordes of tourists would persist in tramping over the floors!)

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.

Mosaic faces of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.

Visiting St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

If you go to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice – or rather if you go and have the patience or dogged energy to join a queue that snakes across the square, inching forward in the relentless sun, and don’t decide that a cappuccino in the shade would be a  preferable option, then summon the last of your waning determination and head up the precipitous flight of stairs on your right just inside the main door. In a city so crowded,  so clogged with tourists, it is astonishing that all you have to do is hold on tight to the handrail, not look down, and before long there you are virtually alone in a deep balcony over looking the nave, with the mosaicked gold domes of the church ascending in front of you, one after the other, each implausibly, superbly decorated, like a fantasy film set allowed to go musty and stale in the back of the studios. Apparently, they turn the lights on from time to time which must be a wholly different thing, but in the natural gloom, toned down by centuries of accumulated dust, they have the dull glow of treasure found in a tomb.

Outside St. Mark's Basilica, Venice Outside St. Mark's Basilica, Venice

Byzantine mosaic fragments

You are not allowed to take photos of the interior mosaics, but carry on a little bit along the balcony and around the corner, past the actual bronze stallions looted from Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century (we stood there, alone for whole minutes, we marvelled and pondered and still we were quite alone) and there is a small museum of Byzantine mosaic fragments from the church which is truly marvellous. It’s not often you can get up close and personal with 14th century mosaics as works from that period tend to be church decorations and therefore high up on ceilings, so these mosaic faces, fragments of clothing and Biblical scenes, were particularly exciting.

There were plenty of the usual bearded suspects:

Wonderful melted faces:

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.

An obligatory gory scene:

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice

Plus an array of saints, kings and warriors:

A happy hour or so was spent with these mosaics – notice how stone are smalti are mixed, how the curves of flesh and drapes of cloth are created with depth and shadow and appreciate these gorgeous flowing tresses:

Hair of St.John, 14th century mosaic. St. Mark's Basilica, Venice.



Visiting Bologna

Visiting Bologna

Or: Mosaic spotting in Bologna – even when there aren’t any.

Meet the mosaic spotting team (from left to right): Resigned, Keen, Reluctant. We (The Team and I) were on our way from Athens to Kirkmichael (a wee bitty of a place in Perthshire, Scotland) by car and on Day One we were visiting Bologna  – fresh off the boat, guide book in hand, much to see, and raring to go (or not) – but lost.

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Not that that mattered much. With site-seeing son in charge, one only has to twiddle one’s thumbs for a moment or two, and he’s off like a racehorse towards the first post which was, in this particular case, the Archiginnasio – Bologna’s medieval university.  I was already two weeks into the summer holiday by this stage which means I had staggered through two weeks of enforced mosaic shut-down so I was suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. On arrival in Italy, however, everything seemed to look like a mosaic, reminded me of mosaics or inspired me to think of mosaics.

Take these 16th century William Morris-esque frescoes on the university ceilings – what beautiful mosaic borders they would make:

 In fact, the Romans had already thought of something similar hundreds of years before. These come from the Vatican Museum in Rome:

Visiting BolognaVisiting Bologna

Visiting Bologna

Brick, glass and wood – mosaic inspiration

At various points while we were visiting Bologna we stopped at the churches of Santo Stefano, which offered some wonderful brickwork…

Spotting mosaics in BolognaSpotting mosaics in Bologna

…and the church of San Domenico which had astonishing 16th century marquetry choir stalls (or, as I would see it, opus sectile in wood):

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

We  saw stained glass…

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

…posed for a new album cover….

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

…and (I, at least) relished the city’s covered walkways :

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Then, when we were so exhausted by our cultural overload, that even the thought of a real Bolognese in Bologna couldn’t keep us from crawling back to our hotel, we saw this:

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Yes, even the birds in Italy behave like their mosaicked counterparts:

Ravenna birds






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

Ravenna mosaics: taking a closer look

Ravenna Mosaics: Rhapsodies

Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

What was I on about? How on earth could I have thought, even for one milli second, that Ravenna wasn’t the place for me? That the acknowledged Mecca of mosaics with church domes and walls heaving with the most astonishing brilliance and detail, should somehow leave me cold because of my professed preference for the more sombre and intimate pleasures of Roman floor mosaics? Stuff and nonsense! I was enraptured by the Ravenna mosaics. Entirely smitten.

Neonian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy.
Neonian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy.

I walked into the church of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo alone one Friday morning, impatient to get going while the boys and David savoured their eggs and bacon at the hotel buffet, and just stood there in total astonishment. These mosaics, which I have seen so many times in books and on internet searches, were entirely different in reality. Of course, you fool, of course. A camera just cant do justice to the scale of the decorations, the quality of the colours and the liveliness of the images. I found that there were whole segments of the Ravenna mosaics that I had never seen or failed to notice, dwelling as the camera tends to do, on the well known and familiar.

Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

And to cap it all, I had set off expecting to either get a terrible crink in my neck or to be forced to play the loony English woman card and lie shamelessly on my back on the hard stone floor, only to discover that I could see everything perfectly well just by looking up.

Ravenna mosaics: details

Take the photograph at the top of this page of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian with Bishop Maximian and his retinue in the presbytery of the Basilica di S. Vitale. We’ve all seen it. Nothing new there although of course it doesn’t diminish the wonder of really seeing it. But then there’s this:

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Theodoric Palace.
S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Theodoric Palace.


A detail of Theodoric’s palace in the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo. Those curtains – the tassels, the folds in the cloth, the casual way they are knotted as if to keep the hems out of the suds on cleaning day. Or this, and this, and this:

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The Magi's leggings.Neonian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy.Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

The magis’ gorgeous spangled leggings at the Saint Apolliinaire Nuovo; a detail of an arch in the Neonian Baptistery and Abraham offering a roast pig to some pilgrims in the presbytery of the Basilica di S. Vitale while Sarah, wrapped in her shawl, looks on from a hut roofed with rushes.

Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

As it happens, we’d downloaded the complete 18-hour audio book of Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius to while away the hours as we drove from Athens to Perthshire and back, so by the time we got to San Vitale, the characters immortalised in smalti were as familiar to us as sit com personalities. There was the hood-eyed, ruthless Empress Theodora, the former child prostitute, dripping with jewels. Next but one, standing among the Empress’ female attendants, I almost did a double take when I thought I recognised Theodora’s closest friend, the beautiful, scheming, faithless Antonina. Opposite, is Justinian whose face, when you know his history, reflects his jealous, greedy, misguided, power hungry nature.


Ravenna Mosaics: floors

And then when you cant take it any more, when you’re gorged on mosaic gorgeousness, you sit down limply in a pew and look down and there are even more mosaics as surprising in their own ways as the ones of the walls. These are in the Basilica di S. Vitale:

Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Floor panel in the Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Floor panel in the Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

There’s plenty more to say about the Ravenna mosaics. I could bore you and even myself on the subject, but I better keep a check on it.  Just as a place, mosaics or no, I loved it.  It’s an exquisitely beautiful city in that inimitable Italian way – calm, slow moving, mostly pedestrianized and perfect for walking around. Tourists come but they don’t take over and amazing food can be easily found… and then, when you’re all mosaicked out, the best ice cream in the whole world – ever.


The Summer: looking at ancient mosaic art

birds and leaves, Aquilea

The summer is coming

Something in me shrinks when the summer comes. It sort of withers, gets smaller, and constricts. Not because it’s summer but because it’s bags and packing and being away and trying to remember everybody’s things and being polite in other people’s houses and talking and talking and most of all, not making mosaics. It is just so very discombobulating and very, very long. Two and half months to be precise, not counting the run up when one tries to jam all the things that one wont be able to do in the next two months into a few weeks and it never works.

The thing that is particularly irksome about the summer is that I want to do all these things – at least the being in other people’s houses and talking bit. I like nothing more. What I don’t like is that there is no pause, no moment to relish or regroup. It’s relentless. This summer my break is six hours in Paddington Station between one visit and before another. I will be entirely alone and I will have a book and nothing to look at and nothing to do. Bliss. Even more blissful to be at home making mosaics, but its second tier bliss. I will have the dumpling soup in Eat and read my book without stopping.

If I was in the UK, would it still be like this? The school terms are longer and there seems to be a network of available and dependable visits and camps and plans for the children. Not like here, where if plans are made at all, they are made at the last minute. Parents in the UK don’t (as a rule) up sticks and move around for ten weeks a year. It’s just not practical. It just doesn’t work. But its the way things are for expat mothers (mostly) all over the world and for a lot of Greek families who go back to their islands or country houses. I know my sister in law, Cathy, who lives in Beijing and writes novels, feels the same.

Time to go

So off we go. I have done a pretty good job this year of making sure that the itinerary includes plenty of mosaic visiting. I am driving back to Scotland with the boys from Athens in July – sprinting across Europe, not stopping at all, except for a day in Bologna. A day to look forward to but the site-seeing son says that there are at least 120 things to see in Bologna so I suspect the regime will be fairly punishing. It’s the homewards journey which will be the fun part, when David will be with us and we will drive in a slightly more leisurely fashion, through Germany and northern Italy, and stop (yes! oh yes!) in Aquileia.

face, aquileahare, aquilea

To think that I didn’t even know that Aquileia existed until a few years ago. I saw some photographs of the mosaics there and was completely smitten and then I realised that, without knowing it, the photos I have chosen for my work room wall are largely from the Aquileia site. Short of going to Jordan or Libya, these are the mosaics that I most want to see.

snails, aquilea

We are also going to Ravenna. My heart should be pounding at the very idea and I greatly want to go, but while I know that the mosaics will be magnificent and breath taking and all that they should be, the sheer scale and remoteness of them (up on walls and domes in imposing ecclesiastical spaces) will mean they wont have the immediacy and intimacy of the Roman mosaics.

ravenna mosaic2ravenna mosaic1

I can bet you anything, for example, that this wonderful stork and frog mosaic will be entirely invisible (unless you have a long and powerful lens) in some soaring nave. I’ll let you know if I find it.