Editorial Feature

12 Mosaics to Marvel At

From Ancient Mesopotamian masterpieces to contemporary street art

Mosaics are pictures and patterns made from arrangements of smaller pieces of material such as colored glass, stone, beads or shells - known as tesserae. They've been used in decor since Mesopotamia in the 3rd millenium and became widespread around the Middle East and Europe. Take a look at these incredible examples of mosaics from art history:

Mosaic Bowl, by Unknown, 1st century B.C.

Luxury mosaic glass bowls were a status symbol for wealthy Roman families, as they were expensive, complex and labor-intensive to make. This bowl was created by making rods of blue, yellow and white glass and then stretching them out and slicing them up. These slices would then have been arranged in a circle, melted together and sagged over a mold to form the shape.

Mosaic with hunting scene, by Unknown, Early IVth century AD

The floors of Roman buildings were often decorated with intricate mosaics that captured scenes of history and everyday life, meaning they provide an invaluable record of the activities and culture at the time. This large polychrome Italian mosaic depicts a detailed scene of wild animals being captured for the circus games. It measures in at 1500x900cm and is part of the remains found in Rome of the residence of the emperor Licinius Gallieno.

Mosaic of Eros, by Unknown

As producing sophisticated mosaic pictures was difficult work, often the designs would be made up of a centerpiece known as an emblemata, made remotely in a workshop and transported when completed. Simpler pattern work was then added around it and the emblemata could also be removed for reuse elsewhere. This emblemata from some 1st century A.D. ruins in Spain depicts the cycle of life in its corners, different pictures of animals and hunting and scenes from various mythical stories. Click to zoom in and see them in detail.

The Medusa Mosaic, by Unknown

It was common for Roman mosaics to follow the Hellenistic style and depict scenes from Greek mythology. This floor mosaic depicts the head of Medusa, the snake-haired mythical creature who would turn people who met her gaze to stone. It was discovered in 1845 in the Catalonian town of Tarragona, in what was the residential zone of the Roman city. It would have been part of a "domus", an upper class home.

Centaur mosaic from the Villa Hadriana, by Unknown

Over time, craftsmanship improved and mosaics became even more realistic, and more detailed portrayals became more common. This sprawling floor mosaic is another example from a luxurious Roman villa, this time owned by the emperor Hadrian on a site near Tivoli, Italy. It will have formed part of the decoration of the dining room in the complex's main palace and depicts a dramatic fight between two centaurs and some wild cats.

Mosaic Column, 2500 BC

The earliest example of mosaic in our list, this column was excavated from the small site of Tell al-'Ubaid, close to the remains of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. It dates back to 2500 B.C., which makes it clear why mosaics are often called 'eternal pictures.' It had fallen from the front of a temple dedicated to the Sumerian goddess Ninhursag and is covered with tesserae of mother-of-pearl, pink limestone, and black shale.

Mosaic Panel, by Unknown, 15th century AD

This panel is from Central Asia from the time of the Timurid Empire, which lasted from around 1370 to 1507. The Timurid dynasty originated from a Mongol tribe who were the remnants of Genghis Khan's army who went on to adopt Islam and Persian literary and high culture. On this panel you can see a verse of the Qur'an written in white Kufic script, surrounded by blue cobalt, turquoise, emerald green, white and amber tesserae.

Mihrab (prayer niche), by Unknown, Late 15th century - 16th century

According to Muslim faith, art that depicts the human form is disrespectful so the mosaic art form is widely found in religious buildings in the Islamic world due to its geometric and abstract nature. This is a mihrab, a niche in the wall in a mosque that faces Mecca. In the 15th-18th centuries, mihrabs in Iran were decorated with mosaics, often with inscriptions from the Qu'ran integrated into the pattern. This example is from a late 15th or early 16th-century mosque in eastern Iran or central Asia.

Gaudi Bench, by Moema Branquinho, 2014

In the early 1900s, the Catalan modernist architect Antoni Gaudí was a pioneer in the trencadís technique, where tile shards and broken chinaware are cemented together to be artistically recycled as a mosaic. He often used discarded pieces of ceramic tile collected from a Spanish factory, or discarded by other manufacturers. This bench from Rio de Janeiro is inspired by his methods.

Hanging Head Dragonfly Shade on Mosaic and Turtleback Base, by Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1906

Mosaics aren't just for vast floor and wall coverings, and can also extend to more modest and small-scale artistic efforts. This Tiffany lamp comprises of a mosaic base with a graduated color pattern of delicate glass shards. Tiffany Studios mass-produced these bases and dragonfly shades, but varied the color scheme of each object to make each one individual.

Stirry Stirry Sky, by Rohan Wealleans, 2009

This artwork by New Zealand painter Rohan Wealleans is a new take on the ancient medium: the tesserae used in this mosaic are actually small pieces of hardened paint. In his work, Wealleans builds up thick layers of colors, which he carves and manipulates, leaving many off-cuts of paint. He recycled this material from his studio floor - and you can also see a dissected slab of a ball of pure paint that he built up over a year.

Octopus, by Invader, 2011-2012

This is an example of a modern-day mosaic by French urban artist Invader. His work uses square ceramic tiles to create the effect of the crude pixellation from 8-bit video games of the 1970s and 80s. His video gamecharacter creations can be seen in more than 65 cities in 33 countries.

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