What can ancient mosaics teach us?

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Pictured above: Mosaic in Bardo Museum, Tunisia

Helen Miles explores why there is much to be learned by studying ancient mosaics. She believes this to be an essential part of contemporary mosaic practice. And, through her writing, she hopes you’ll look at ancient mosaics anew.

By Helen Miles

Let me start with a question: how often do you stop and look, really look, at ancient mosaics? 

I don’t mean how often do you visit a museum and stare earnestly at decontextualised fragments attached to the walls. As instructive and interesting as that experience can be, what I really mean is how often do you set out to spend time in the company of ancient mosaics: looking at online images, reading books about them or planning a visit to some of the great ancient sites of the world from North Africa to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel and beyond? 

Both/And by Julie Sperling

It seems to me that there is a strange disconnect between the current practice of mosaic and the ancient art form from which it came. No, it is more than a disconnect. There is an active turning away from ancient mosaics as if they were somehow not relevant to contemporary mosaicists; as if they were ‘merely’ representational, perhaps even formulaic, images whereas we are the true expressive artists. That they are not able to teach us much that we cannot find in modern books. 

I beg to differ. From my vantage point as an ardent lover of and looker at ancient mosaics I believe that they are an important, relevant and essential part of our contemporary mosaic practice. There, right before our eyes, in those museum fragments and Pinterest thumbnails, is so much that can inform us about how mosaic works. How we can take hundreds if not thousands of dancing bits of stone, glass, tile or found material, and transform them into a coherent work that allows the eye to settle and the heart to sing. 

Judgement of Paris, Louvre Museum
Judgement of Paris, Louvre Museum

I will break it down into three ways (there are more, three will suffice for now): 

  1. Andamento. The all-important, oft-neglected, meat and bones of mosaic. Andamento is another word for the rules or principles that underly the making of a mosaic, whether deeply ancient or thoroughly 21st century. We might call it something else or might even be unaware that we are using it, but once you understand andamento then everything else falls into place. And who better to teach you than these silent, beautiful, non-judgemental instructors? 

    Take the principle of sdoppiamento (line convergence, line splitting, two-into-one, one-into-two, the terms hardly matter). Look at this leg muscle in the second-century mosaic of the Judgement of Paris at the Louvre Museum (pictured above left). I have highlighted the places where it occurs. When the space expands (or contracts), the line splits (or converges). Above is a piece by the Canadian mosaic artist Julie Sperling. There you see it again, the lines are splitting. Technically, both artists are using the same principle. The Romans started it, we follow. 
  2. Contrast. This is another of the key principles of mosaic making. It comes back to those dancing tesserae. When we pick up a piece, we have multiple things to consider: size, shape, texture, colour, tone, reflectiveness, placement, substrate etc. Each piece plays its part in the whole, each piece is there for a reason. But how do we control them? How do we stop the dancers from just running amok? How do we make sure that the individual pieces are understood by the viewer and can play their part? 

    Contrast is one way. This can be achieved with the effective handling of light and dark elements within the work as the Romans did. This is a seemingly simple approach but not when you consider the limitations of their materials and the task that their work had to perform within the setting of the rooms they were made for. Look at the detail within the border of the Judgement of Paris mosaic (above right). The face emerges from the dark background with just the right amount of emphasis. Clearly readable but not dominating. Look at the carefully placed lighter tesserae on the nose, brow, cheeks and chin as against the mid and darker tones. It is brilliant. 

    As contemporary artists we are doing the same thing but with a much wider range of options. Below is a piece by Scottish artist Rachel Davies called the Weight of Words. The contrast used in this piece is clearly one of dark slate/light glass, but also of colour, size, direction and cut. Collectively, the different aspects of contrast work together to create the power of the piece. 
  3. Placement. By placement I mean the judicious consideration of where to place one tessera in relation to another. It is fair to say that a couple of handfuls of pieces at most when carefully placed can be enough to express an entire mood, idea or emotion within a larger mosaic. You only need to look at Roman mosaics, especially faces, to see what I mean. The one pictured at the top of the page from the Bardo Museum in Tunisia of a fisherman about to cast his net is a good example. There is no fussiness to the placement of the tesserae in the eyes and mouth and yet everything is there that needs to be. We can read the man’s concentration and focus. The three diagonal lines on the left of his neck are all that is required to express movement but that takes me back to andamento (above) a subject too rich and fascinating to cover fully here. 
Weight of Words by Rachel Davies

Without paint to slosh around or clay to mould, contemporary mosaic artists also use placement to express their intentions. I love the piece below by Anabella Wewer called Organised Chaos. Those few wayward tesserae at the top of the work, drifting off into the black expanse of the background, convey an enormous amount about uncontrollability. Rein ourselves in as much as we will, there will always be stray elements, dark intentions, hidden desires, things that refuse to fit the mould. 

Organised Chaos by Anabella Wewer

I hope that this brief taste of what Roman mosaics can teach us about contemporary practice will make you look at them anew. That you will start following #romanmosaics,  add a day or so onto any holiday that takes you near the Mediterranean and put books about Roman mosaics onto your wish list. They will enrich and enhance your own mosaics, I promise.