Mosaic patterns and the ancient mosaics of Tunisia.

@Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic patterns: how it all began

Kaffe Fassett tumbling blocks jumper
Mosaic patterns. Kaffe Fassett tumbling blocks jumper inspired by Roman mosaics. Knitting: Jean Miles @Helen Miles Mosaics

My aged mother is a prolific and brilliant knitter who writes an almost daily knitting blog with a devoted following.  At some point she must have been thinning out her knitting books because I ended up with several by the renowned knitting designer (and sometime mosaicist) Kaffe Fassett which I keep in my studio. One of the books, full of glorious colour plates, is propped up on a shelf. The pages are held open with a bull clip and every time I see it I am reminded of Fassett’s perfect control of colour and extraordinary mastery of pattern.

Mosaic and knitting are not such distant disciplines. They both share the slow and careful adding on of parts to create a whole, the fundamental reliance on the build up of lines and both have a deep connection with pattern, leading to mutual borrowings and cross overs. Just think of Fassett’s famous ‘tumbling bricks’ pattern above and you will know what I mean.

mosaic of the rape of ganymede
Rape of Ganymede, 2nd C AD. Sollertiana Domus. El Jem. @helenmilesmosaics

However, despite often thinking about the connection between mosaics and knitting (I knit in stone), it wasn’t until a recent trip to Tunisia that the central importance of pattern in the history and evolution of mosaics really took hold of me. I’m a details person and expected to spend a happy few days at the Bardo Museum surrendering myself to the minutiae. But from the moment I walked in something different happened. It was as if I had laid out a table for guests – arranged the cultery with extra care,  polished the glasses, put flowers in the centre – only to catch the table cloth as I turned and see the whole thing come crashing down.

Mosaic Patterns at the Bardo and El Jem Museums*

Being brutal, you could almost say that the motifs at the Bardo and El Jem museums are formulaic. There are lots (and lots) of Dionysian scenes, seascapes a plenty, gods galore, hospitality tableaux, depictions of hunts. You know the score.

Diana hunting a deer
Diana, goddess of the hunt. Late 2nd – early 3rd C. Bardo Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Formulaic? Are you mad? Of course I am not denying that there are plenty of mosaics capable of wrenching the heart strings and turning the stomach but I expected that. After all, that’s why I went there in the first place. The scale, vitality, and originality of the designs is undeniable.

But the thing that really took my breath away was the unexpected exuberance of the mosaic patterns. They were just so lush.

@Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic patterns: vegetal designs

Lush. Quite literally. It was as if the mosaic patterns were bursting with some sort of organic, seething, sprouting energy. There was no attempt to sanitise or tame nature for these domestic interiors. Quite the opposite, nature was invited in and flaunted in all its vegetal luxuriance.

mosaic of urns and vegetation
Mosaic patterns. T shaped triclinium decorated with vines and stalks of millet. 3rd C AD. Bardo Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

It makes sense. This part of northern Africa was the bread basket of the Roman world. It was immensely fertile and land owners grew rich on the proceeds of the soil. The bounty of nature was quite understandably  celebrated in the private spaces of the prosperous merchant classes. However, the mosaic patterns aren’t just verdant. There is more to it than that. The geometric mastery of composition and space is breathtaking.

geometric mosaic
Geometric mosaic with shells and birds. 3rd C AD. House of the Silene. El Jem. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic patterns: borders

And the fascination with pattern is irrepressible. Everywhere you look there are softly shaded curls and whorls, repeats, optical illusions and details crammed into unobtrusive borders.

mosaic border detail
Nilotic mosaic, border detail. @Helen Miles Mosaics

mosaic border detail
Border detail from Sea fishes and Nereids riding monsters. 2nd C AD. Bardo Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

What is remarkable about the mosaic patterns in the North African mosaics is the sheer amount of experimentation. It could be that the museums choose to display only those mosaics which have something unique about them but the variety in the patterns and designs suggests that whoever commissioned them wanted their particular mosaic floor to be different from all the others. They weren’t afraid to stand out.

mosaic of dolphins and swans
Mosaic patterns: House of the Dolphins. 3rd C AD. El Jem. @helenmilesmosaics
@Helen Miles Mosaics

Even a quite ordinary sea scene like this one made for bottom of a basin in the 3rd century has the loveliest of borders, a variation on the ubiquitous wave pattern.

Semi circular mosaic of fish.
Mosaic patterns. Bottom of basin, 3rd C. Bardo Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic patterns: an explanation

Mosaic patterns - border detail

According to Mohamed Yaccoub, author of The Splendors of Tunisian Mosaics, one of the earliest mosaics in Africa is a vast 2nd century pavement made for the Trajan Baths of Acholla now at the Bardo Museum. This mosaic, writes Yaccoub, is the ‘work of a team of artists…no doubt from Italy, who….sought to innovate by adapting to pavements the tendencies normally associated with paintings.’  Certainly, an attempt to replicate the delicate tracery of Pompeiian painting explains the unusual attention to detail in the borders of this mosaic which is surrounded by a freize of little creatures and animals nestled admidst curling foliage and stylised flowers.

@Helen Miles Mosaics

Look at this image below of the frescoed ceiling of Nero’s pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea, in Rome and you can immediately understand Yaccoub’s point. What could be more mosaic like?

painted ceiling
Mosaic patterns. Painted ceiling, Domus Aurea, Rome. Photo @Wikicommons

Perhaps a trend for floors reflecting ceilings was thus set by the early mosaic masters arriving in north Africa which then spread out to other settlements in the region. This would explain why so much attention was given to mosaic patterns and borders. Having made a mosaic of a sheaved carafe and a wine glass, as close to life as tesserae allow, the first impulse would be to frame it simply. But not if you wanted to mimic and reflect the paintings in the room.

Mosaoc of carafe and glass
Mosaic patterns. Carafe and glass. 3rd C. Bardo Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Interestingly there are a number of mosaics in the Bardo Museum which explicitly imitate architectural materials. Here,  now embedded in the floors for us all to walk over, is one of a brick wall next to a what one assumes must be a pool:

Another, which I find fiendishly clever in the mosaic pattern scheme of things is a cross sectional view of polished alabaster:

Mosaic of a cut alabaster stone
Mosaic patterns. Cut alabaster pattern. Bardo Museum floor. @Helen Miles Mosaics

 

 

 

 

These relatively humble mosaics reinforce the point that  mosaics were designed as part of an architectural scheme and were not just pretty things added on to embellish a room.

In conclusion, it seems that the profusion of  extraordinary mosaic patterns in Tunisia’s museums with fresco-like detailing and three-dimensional illusions woven into borders is a consequence of the Romans in north Africa being geographically removed from the centre of power. Trends which were inherited from Rome, such as the love of optical illusions and painterly effects, developed differently in a different context.

Mosaic patterns
Hospitality mosaic, 2nd C, Bardo Museum @Helen Miles Mosaics

Without the stultifying influence of imperial taste, the mosaics beloved by the newly enriched aristocracy in Africa, grew ever more sophisticated and complicated, vying to exceed each other in intricacy and cleverness.

@Helen Miles Mosaics

I could go on for ever. There is so much to show you, but I will have to rein myself in and leave you with a few more to savour.

@Helen Miles Mosaics

*Some of these photographs of mosaic patterns don’t have captions. That is because I took almost 1,000 photos while I was there and the captions weren’t always easy to keep track of….

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