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.
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 →
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.
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.
The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)
The conversation went a bit like this:
D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?
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!
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 →
It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.
And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading →
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.
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:
What is this?
a) a precusor of Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum in Ravenna?
Many years ago, when I lived and worked in Egypt, I spent a week in the Cairo museum researching an article about it’s 100th anniversary. My apartment was close by and I would nip in through a side entrance bypassing the crowds and spend hours wandering through it’s musty, less frequented galleries. I was allowed to go into the conservation room and try on ancient pharaonic jewellry and I had all the time I wanted alone with the spookily alive Fayoum portraits.
Such delights are hard to forget but it was in the Tutankhamen exhibition that I remember having that feeling which ancient things can give you – of hopping over a barrier of time and seeing, not the objects themselves or their beauty or oldness, but the people who used and held them. It was the hinge of Tutankhamen’s folding bed that did it for me. A hinge: utilitarian, practical, simple and unchanged over thousands of years. No more or less a hinge than all the hinges we use in our daily lives. Never mind all that gold – it was the hinge that I loved. Continue reading →
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.
Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here. Here, in Greece, I mean. I miss my family and old friends back home. I miss casual conversations and little quips with strangers in queues. I get tired of living in rented houses with their pocket hankerchief kitchens and fake gold bathroom fittings. I long for a job with a desk and a salary and colleagues. I miss book shops, newspapers, cows in fields, daffodils, and being able to vote. I fantasise about online supermarket shopping and staying firmly wrapped up all year around instead of having to expose my pallid body on the beach in ungainly swimming costumes.
At other times (or even at the same time) I feel quite the opposite. I take delight in all manner of things here. My new friends, my new interests, walking the dog in the dawn light in the park, the flower soaked hillsides of spring, the fruit and vegetable street markets, unravelling the knotted frustrations of the language and of course sliding into the warm blue loveliness of the summer sea. Continue reading →
(formerly Athens, Greece)
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Helen Miles Mosaics
I learnt how to make mosaics with Greek masters of the craft in Thessaloniki and Athens who taught using traditional methods with a focus on Byzantine iconography. Later, I become fixated with Roman designs and now my aim is to preserve the simplicity and directness of early mosaics while creating pieces which suit our modern lives.