Vatican Museum

Making Roman mosaic copies

roman mosaic copies
Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

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.

Heraclea Lyncestis
Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

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

The modernity of ancient mosaics

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Man hugging his dog. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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.

Bardo Museum. dog and worker.
Dog and worker. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

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

How long does it take to make a mosaic?

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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

Little mosaic birds from ancient sites

Irresistible mosaic birds

I cant resist little mosaic birds from ancient sites. They keep popping up all over the place, looking a bit goofy, prone to gangliness,  unsure of themselves, and often with a neglected, somewhat forlorn air which only adds to their charms.

Andulusia, Spain.
Black and white bird from Andalusia, Spain.

Take this fellow below. You walk into the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna expecting to spend the next few hours with a crink in your neck marvelling over the Byzantine mosaic wonders overhead and the first thing you see on the threshold is this bird. Just sitting there minding it’s own business, knowing that no one is going to pay it any attention, but cheerful none the less. One’s heart melts.

Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

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: https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/118307925674576063201/118307925674576063201/posts

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.  http://hackneymosaic.tumblr.com/. 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: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaic-photo-galleries/pomegranate-mosaics/Horse 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.  http://www.emmabiggsmosaic.net/

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.

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