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Little mosaic birds from ancient sites

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.

These birds, so inconspicuous and often incidental to larger, more ornate designs, seem to me to be the mosaic equivalent of the rough, neglected verges you find when you stray away from the formal grounds of country houses and take a turn down a wooded path. Neither mown nor cared for, but speckled with ordinary wild flowers, whose ordinariness seems more extraordinarily beautiful next to their fancier, cultured counterparts.

Bettadine Palace, Lebanon. Courtesy of heatheronhertravels, Flickr.
Beit el Dine Palace, Lebanon, Courtesy of heatheronhertravels, Flickr

When I look at these little birds I get the feeling that they were made with as much joy as they give. They weren’t made to show off or attract attention. No tyrannous ruler was going to throw a wobbly if the mosaic team got a piece of stone out of place on these creatures, they were just simple decoration intended to be trodden upon, rarely noticed and even more rarely appreciated. Here’s another from the San Vitale floor:

Another bird from the floor of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

Made by minions?

I suspect that it was the mosaic minions who made them. Maybe the apprentices; young, eager workers who created them freehand, playing with colour and movement. In the mosaic above the circle around the bird has three different patterns – one with a central band of brown (lower left), one with three strands of colour (upper left) and one with just the extra thick black band (right) . Experimentation? Sloppiness? Or just working as the mood took them on a lowly floor while the great masters got on with their magic on the ceilings above.

And a final one by me:

A backward looking bird in black and yellow. Helen Miles Mosaics


  1. Jyoti

    Happy to have found this post. I’m going through all posts of interest as per the mosaic topics on the right band… So the birds. I do like the look and idea of small birds and I find many in your mosaics. I’ve been collecting ideas on what I’d like to recreate from ancient mosaics just as a few experiments and upon looking at roman bird mosaics that Google highlights, I like very few. Most birds were crudely made and had large, ugly feet 🙁 And yet, what you make of them lends them a different, nicer personality! I do like this backward looking bird 🙂

    1. I know what you mean about their crudeness but I rather like that! There are many many examples of fancy, beautifully made birds but it’s the little chaps that got left behind that I have a fondness for 🙂

  2. Jane Powell
    Hi Helen, I just saw this picture of a lone duck like bird in a border. A Roman mosaic I believe. Maybe it’s because he is positioned at the bottom of the frame and looks sort of lonely but I found the picture very attractive and appealing.I came across your site and thought you might like it too. I couldn’t agree more about the wonderful appeal of the little bird mosaics. Just in case my link doesn’t work I found it on a site called Green Frog Mosaics.. Thank you for this lovely post…

    1. Thank you for this, Jane! I quite agree that this duck has a special appeal. I love the way he looks as if he has unfinished business. 🙂 He’s at the amazing Palazzo Massimo in Rome in case you happen to be passing…

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