A List of Ancient Mosaics that are Still Beautiful Today
Mosaic have been considered one of the most astonishing forms of art. Their colors are vivid and eye-catching, and they have quite an interesting history. Mosaics are an assembly of small colored tiles, usually made from nature-based materials, stone or glass (being known as “tessera”). Before being used as a mosaic piece, these materials are generally cut into square shapes. These fragments are then used to create pictures or patterns, being held together by grout or special adhesive.
Short Mosaic History
Mosaics date back to the 3rd millennium B.C., when they were part of a Mesopotamian temple. They were made with stones, seashells and ivory and used to decorate floors found in the Roman Empire or Ancient Greece. Later on, classical artists started creating motifs and pictures with their mosaics. Right before the Renaissance period, you could see mosaics in a lot of Catholic basilicas in Italy. They were the centerpieces of floors and ceilings, depicting biblical figures.
In the 7th century, they started making their way into Islamic cultures, where they were used to create geometrical shapes that were often found on building fronts. In the Middle Ages, they became a great piece of Byzantine art, being used to create detailed portraits. Renaissance artists were no fans of mosaic art, but their attempt to kill it was abolished by modernists, who revived the practice of mosaics thanks to artists like the great Antonio Gaudi.
Probably some of the most imposing and magnificent mosaics are those related to biblical scenes. They were often found as wall and ceiling decorations in churches, mostly throughout Italy. Santa Costanza is such a mosaic, built to serve as the tomb of Constantine’s daughter. It depicts pagan themes that decorate the tomb’s vault. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the richest Christian mosaic-bearing places in the world. Pope Sixtus III has commissioned the creation of mosaics to decorate the walls. They showed scenes from the Old Testament, but the true masterpiece is the mosaic of the arch. It shows the Virgin Mary in different stages. You can see her before the Annunciation.
This was a very rich time for the art of mosaics to flourish and spread from the Eastern Roman Empire. Mosaics that date from the Byzantine period were found in Ravenna, several old parts of Istanbul, cities from Italy and Greece. They are mostly characterized by religious scenes that feature a golden background. They are illustration from both the Old and the New Testament. Aside from being beautiful, these mosaics are also educative, showing important biblical moments and saints that we can learn so much about. They provide a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Bible’s teaching.
Back in the 4th century, the history of Greece was more active than ever. That’s when stone mosaics became popular, held together by stipes of clay that were meant to also separate the colors. They were rich in emblems (the mosaic part that’s featured in the center of floor mosaics). This emblem was actually a detailed picture that was created with very small material fragments.
Roman mosaics are characterized through a very simple style: one that blends black and white tiles to create basic geometrical patterns. With these patterns, Roman mosaics recreated plant or animal shapes. Just as the Roman empire expanded, so did the art of mosaics. By using small square pieces of natural materials, Romans formed lines of different colors. Images were not excessive in details, while the background and frames were mostly in neutral colors. This helped underline the basic theme. Amongst some of the most popular themes of Roman mosaics, we have to mention: gladiators in their fights with animals, animals fighting amongst themselves, scenes that depicted the every-day Roman life, mythological figures and creatures, seasons, etc.
Beautiful Ancient Mosaics
Some of the world’s most amazing mosaic pieces have withstood the test of time, so we wanted to show and talk about true masterpieces of the miniature tile world.
Villa Romana del Casale – Sicily, Italy
Built back in the 4th century, the Villa Romana del Casale gathers some of the most beautiful ancient roman architecture that combines mosaics as part of its décor. Back in 1929, excavations revealed more than 3,500 square meters of mosaic floor that were excellently preserve during this entire period. Although it sports an impressive mosaic collection, two of them stand out: “the Little Hunt” (which shows a series of hunters and their dogs in an attempt to capture various game) and the “Bikini” mosaic (found in a room called “Chamber of the Ten Maidens”, showing women performing a series of sports such as running, discus throwing or weight lifting).
Jāmeh Mosque of Yazd – Yazd, Iran
Dating back to the 12th century, the Jāmeh Mosque of Yazd is a beautiful piece of architecture with very rich mosaic patterns. By passing through the courtyard, you will reach the sanctuary chamber, which is greatly decorated with faience mosaic. The prayer zone which is located under the dome, also features some elegant mosaic tiles.
The Great Pavement – Westminster Abbey, London, England
This is probably on the most famous pieces of mosaic artwork that dates back to the 13th century. Henry the third was the one who commissioned this floor when the Abbey was rebuilt. He was a king with a reputation for having great taste in both architecture and art. The mosaic is formed from pieces of marble, precious stones, glass and metal. The inscriptions indicate that the mosaic depicts the order of God in nature.
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenna, Italy
Disclaimer: there will be quite a few Italian mosaics in this list, because the Roman Empire made great use of this art form and it passed on so much information about their culture, one can’t simply ignore it. The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is an Italian church that dates back to the 6th century. Legends says that Pope Gregory the Great wanted the mosaics to be blackened, because their shine distracted people who came into the church to pray. The mosaics inside this basilica depict the life of saints and Jesus Christ through images from the New Testament. This basilica is most likely one of the greatest examples of how religion blended with art in the form of mosaics. The left lateral wall shows 13 miniature mosaics with Christ’s miracles, while the right wall shows another 13 that depict the passion and resurrection.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere – Rome, Italy
Built way back in the 5th century, this church was meant to honor the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia. Mosaics can be found in the church’s courtyard, but also in the apse that has mosaics dating back to the 9th century. The mosaics are some of the centerpieces of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, alongside the frescos and the underground ruins.
Mosaics of Huqoq – Galilee, Israel
Back in July of 2012, a series of excavations revealed a synagogue that dates back to the 5th century. Parts of an extraordinary mosaic were revealed, that showed colored stoned cubes preserved in impeccable quality. The scene of the mosaic shows Samson putting torches between fox tails, but also human faces that circle a medallion with a Hebrew inscription. The words talk of rewards for people that do good deeds. In the summer of 2013, more excavations revealed yet another mosaic of Samson, which was in an ever-better condition that the first one. 2018 diggings revealed more mosaics in pristine conditions, this time with men carrying grapes, as well as a child leading an animal.
Mosaics of the National Bardo Museum – Tunis, Tunisia
This museum is host to a lot of ancient mosaic masterpieces that have been collected from Byzantine and Roman sites in Tunisia. They are extremely well-preserved and take up more than half the space inside the museum.
Inside this museum, one can find amazing mosaic artwork, such as the “Triumph of Neptune” a piece that goes back to the 2nd century, depicting the God of the sea in the middle of the four seasons.
The museum is also host to the “Seignior Julius” mosaic that was discovered in Carthage, dating all the way back to the 5th century. The mosaic shows a seigniorial domain surrounded by workers, as well as the seignior Julius and his lady, as they are reaping the estates wealth.
One of the centerpieces of the mosaic collection found inside this museum depict the Roman poet Virgil, as he is writing “The Aeneid”. He is surrounded by the muse of tragedy (Clio) and the muse of history (Melpomene). This is the only known Virgil mosaic in the world.
Another ancient, but very well-preserved mosaic that dates back to the 3rd century, depicts a scene from “The Odyssey”, in which the great Ulysses tries to avoid the enchanting Sirens.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum – Istanbul, Turkey
This museum hosts mosaics that date back to the Byzantine period, as they were recovered from the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople. These mosaics were used in the decoration of the court, dating from the era of reign of the emperor Justinian I. the mosaics were found during excavations between 1935 and 1954 and depict several stances of people’s live. One particular floor mosaic shows a woman carrying a pot, while another shows a young boy feeding a donkey.
Zeugma Mosaic Museum – Gaziantep, Turkey
This is the biggest mosaic museum in the world, housing over 1,700 square meters of stunning artwork that’s filled with beauty and history. The museum opened its gates in September 2011 and has since received an enormous flux of visitors. Inside this museum, you can find an impressive collection of mosaics that are focuses on Zeugma (an ancient city located in the Gaziantep province of Turkey). Back in its days of glory, Zeugma was a very important military center that gathered tolls from travelers and merchants. During those days, the city flourished to a point where beautiful and imposing villas were built. The treasures from within this city were undiscovered for centuries. When the Turkish government decided to sponsor excavation in the area, they revealed the richness of the Zeugma life, together with important collection of Roman mosaic art. Due to the rich discovery, a mosaic museum was built and is now home to some of the most impressive mosaics in the world.
What is most amazing about the delicate at if creating mosaics is not how well most of them were preserved, despite their age: it’s the fact that excavations are still revealing amazing pieces of art that tell us so much about the history of our planet. In order to see some of the world most beautiful mosaics, one must travel in places with abundant related history, such as the beautiful country of Italy. Most great mosaic are not preserved in museum from all over the world.
Mosaics have a very rich history that impressed people through the ages. They required the uttermost patience to build, as part of the process itself was the gathering of raw materials used to create these forms of art, as well as shaping them into very small geometrical pieces, which were then assembled according to the vision of the person who create the mosaic. From Sumerians to Greeks, from Romans to modern day citizens, mosaics are a truly magnificent form of art that has taken various themes over the centuries. In the 1,700’s micro mosaics started rising in popularity, showing scenes from Europe. During their development, mosaics have turned into a regular hobby, being crafts that have found their way in the most modern homes. Today, people turn to mosaics as a form of decorating their own homes, as there are even old pieces of furniture that can be beautifully restored by applying mosaic tiles and using special adhesive to put them together. Kitchen glass tiles mosaics are popular in many modern homes, especially since the great Antonio Gaudi has integrated them into the Barcelonan architecture that gathers so many visitors from around the world to admire their beauty.