mosaic faces

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

Seeing eye to eye: ancient mosaic faces (and one of my own)

Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

You know what it’s like. I know you know. That moment when you open the oven and find your lovingly prepared cake has failed to rise, peer into the washing machine to discover the white wash has turned an alarming shade of pink, or herd a bunch of fractious children up a hill in the sizzling heat with the promise of an ice cream at the end, only to find you’ve left your wallet in the car. Well, I am sure you also know that mosaic making has it’s own such moments. Except they are not really moments. They are long wasted hours when you look back and think: darn, drat and bother it (to put it politely). So it was when I had a go at making a mosaic face.

Taking inspiration from ancient mosaic faces

I know I’ve told you that my thang is ancient mosaics but, hey, lets say it all over again. I cant get enough of them in all shapes and forms from vast basilica floors to little fragments behind museum glass, but I have a particular fascination for ancient mosaic faces. One reason I like  them is that sometimes they are a bit wonky which is charming and gratifying at the same time. But for all the wonky faces, like the one above, there are others which are stunning in their precision and authenticity. This melancholy woman from Pompeii is a case in point. Continue reading

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.