A history of mosaics

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Vessel (?) Fragment (1st century B.C.–1st century A.D.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The art of puzzles

Mosaics have brought art and color to the walls and floors of Europe for thousands of years. Here are seven amazing mosaics that demonstrate how they have evolved from symbols of wealth and power to a way of ‘hacking’ public spaces in the 21st century.

Very little has changed in the creation of mosaics since they first arrived in Europe from Mesopotamia around 4,000 or 5,000 years ago.

Their hard-wearing nature has earned them the nickname ‘eternal pictures’ and we can still see some of the earliest examples today, like these vibrant Eastern Mediterranean fragments glass tesserae from around the 1st century BCE.

Mosaic fragments (From the collection of The J Paul Getty Museum)

The Roman Empire carried the art form from Greece across the whole of Europe, where it found its way onto walls, ceilings and walkways, depicting everything from simple patterns to stories of daily life and heroic myths.

A surviving how-to manual by the Roman architect Vitruvius explains how particularly complex designs were made off-site in panels known as emblemata, using trays which were then turned directly into position before the border designs were laid around them.

A vivid example of the technique is this story of the fight between two famous gladiators, which was found in the ruins of baths on the Caelian Hill in Rome. In the bottom frame, the entangled warrior awaits a deadly blow from his opponent’s trident.

Gladiator mosaic (3rd century)Museo Arqueológico Nacional

Gladiator Mosaic (From the collection of Museo Arqueològico Nacional)

The birth of Islam in the 7th century AD brought a new meaning to mosaic art in Europe, particularly in Spain. There, almost 800 years of Moorish rule gave rise to the awe-inspiring mosaics of the Grand Mosque at Cordoba, painted here by the Spanish artist Ricardo Arredondo Calmache.

Planta de la bóveda y cúpula del mihrab (Mezquita de Córdoba). (1875/1879) by Ricardo ArredondoReal Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Planta de la bóveda y cúpula del mihrab (Mezquita de Códoba) (From the collection of Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando)

The Quran forbids pictures of God as sacrilegious. Mosaic artists rose to the challenge with intricate geometric and abstract designs of breathtaking beauty and perfection, which they created as expressions of their faith.

Mosaics declined in popularity across Europe during the Renaissance, when frescoes were preferred for walls and ceilings, before the art of mosaic making blazed back into life during the Enlightenment.

Some of the fabulous works from this era were so detailed they looked like paintings, such as this depiction of an archangel from Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in Lisbon created in 1750 by the painter Agostino Masucci and mosaicist Mattia Moretti.

Detail of the archangel at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel, Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (1746/1750) by Agostino Masucci (painter) and Mattia Moretti (mosaicist)Museu de São Roque

Detail of the archangel at the Baptism of Christ mosaic panel by Agostino Masucci and Mattia Moretti (From the collection of Museu de São Roque)

During the Art Nouveau movement, from the late Victorian period to early 20th century, artists explored new forms and new technologies to create mosaics inspired by the elegant curved lines of plants and flowers.

This is one of eight Art Nouveau ‘cartoons’ created by the great artist Gustav Klimt in 1910 that were turned into mosaics for the dining room of Stoclet House in Brussels. The image supposedly depicts Klimt himself in an embrace with his lover, Emilie Flöge.

Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels: Part 8, Fulfillment (Lovers) (1910–1911) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Lovers part of Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels by Gustav Klimt (From the collection of MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts)

The archive picture below, dating back to 1914, depicts the dining room where the mosaic appeared.

View of the Dining Room at Palais Stoclet (1914)MAK – Museum of Applied Arts

View of the Dining Room at Palais Stoclet (From the collection of MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts)

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, artist Antonio Gaudí dismissed the painstaking perfectionism of earlier artists for a new style. In his radical new trencadís technique, traditional tesserae were laid alongside pieces of broken ceramics to cover structures of all shapes and sizes in brightly colored jumbles of ceramic and glass, often recycled from local factories.

His vibrant, abstract work still inspires artists today, as with this bench created by students at the Universidade Santa Ursula in Brazil.

Gaudi Bench (2014) by Moema BranquinhoRio de Janeiro Department of Conservation

Gaudi Bench by Moema Branquinho (From the collection Rio de Janeiro Department of Conservation)

Today, the French street artist Invader is exploring yet another new direction by using them to ‘hack’ public spaces, spreading what he calls a “virus of mosaic”. His art is inspired by the space invaders of 1980’s video games, their mosaic tiles lending themselves perfectly to recreating old school 8-bit graphics.

Octopus (2011 - 2012) by InvaderRainlab

Octopus by Invader (From the collection of Rainlab)

Like the Romans, Invader carries his mosaics ready-made and puts them up on public walls under the cover of darkness, incognito behind a mask.

Unlike the Romans however, his mosaics aren’t meant for the homes of the wealthy and powerful, but for everyone. They are part of the constant evolution and reinvention of mosaic across Europe that is destined to last as long as the art itself.

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