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Painting in Stone – Beautiful Examples of Opus Sectile

The art of mosaic is usually understood as the art of small cubes – tesserae, arranged in a particular way. However, mosaic is a much broader term, a method that encompasses several techniques, all of them ancient and specific. One of the mosaic techniques that give the most intriguing results is definitely opus sectile, in which pieces of stone (sometimes mother pearl, shell or other material) are cut in shapes that fit the exact parts of the design, thus creating an image from less individual parts than when tesserae are in use. Also, opus sectile often gives more elegant results in comparison to tiled mosaic, because the method emulates the art of drawing or painting in stone, but it is also the predecessor of all inlay-based art techniques.

The first appearance of opus sectile dates back to the Hellenistic period when it was first used for decoration of walls and floors. Receptive of novel ideas in the art as in everything, Roman culture adopted the traditional mosaic along with opus sectile, making today’s Italy one of the most fruitful lands when it comes to the most beautiful examples of this technique. However, age and destruction Roman lands suffered over time did contribute that there aren’t many of inlay mosaics left. Further, the glorious Byzantine empire was keen on tesserae, often adorning its temples in gold ceiling mosaics, but when it comes to floors – opus sectile remained dominant. In the east, inlay was not known opus sectile, but in reality – it is the same technique and it decorated some of the most magnificent monuments to date.

Because of its immense decorative potential and proven durability, opus sectile remained a favorite approach in interior decoration for centuries. Available only to those with the means, we can find it in churches across the west, scarce temples, and villas, while the modern times gave room to alternative ways in floor and wall tiling. Unfortunately, few superb examples remain, but we look forward to seeing this marvelous mosaic technique revived.

Looking into the ancient past, we’ve uncovered some of the most beautiful examples of opus sectile that serve as an inspiration to interior designers even today.

Tiger Assaults a Calf (2), 4th century – Musei Capitolini – Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT 

Opus Sectile Mosaics from the Junius Bassus Basilica

Probably the most famous source of opus sectile mosaic in the entire Rome are the remains of  Basilica of Junius Bassus. Dating back to the 4th century AD, the basilica was built by Junius Annius Bassus, a praetorian prefect of the Roman Empire. In the late 5th century, the basilica was transformed into a church and dedicated to Saint Andrew, but the structure did not survive untouched for long. Its remains were again discovered in the early 20th century and finally demolished in 1930, although the spectacular examples of opus sectile mosaics were taken out and preserved. Today, the space of the basilica is occupied by the Seminario Pontificio di Studi Orientali, located in via Napoleone III, 3, where many of these mosaics are on display.

One of the most famous images from the basilica is the one in which a tiger (a tigress, to be exact) assaults a calf. There are two versions of the same scene, probably arranged to frame a particular space in the basilica, but both are exquisite examples of opus sectile. Observing the image, we can conclude that the artist who inlaid the mosaic was exceptionally talented. He managed to achieve a living dynamics of the attach only by playing with form, while the tones remain in the black, white and ochre domain, showing an elegance that must have dominated the entire building.

From Junius Bassus Basilica – A procession for the appointment of a consul, Photo credit www.ancient.eu

Another panel from the basilica represents a procession for the appointment of a consul, which was another title assigned to Junius Bassus at the time. Simple parts of stone describe a centralized group of horse riders, with Bassus in focus, riding a two-horse chariot. He is followed by four horsemen, symbols of the factions of the circus, all set in a rather abstract black environment.

Panel with Hylas and the nymphs, 4th century – Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (2011)

Finally, the panel representing the rape of Hylas by the Nymphs is perhaps the most intriguing of all the remaining opus sectile mosaics from the basilica. It shows a centralized male figure surrounded with female figures, one of which features an alexandrine vellum – a common symbol of the late antiquity. The colors of this work are unusually bright, showing the pale skin tones, the color of the drapes and the blue of the water with select stones. This ancient piece shows how even such a playful composition with many colors and elements can be tied into a harmonious unit, something every mosaic creator considers before laying the pieces into an image.

Glass opus sectile panel with griffin. Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. May come from the villa of Lucius Verus in Acquatraversa

Roman Griffin Mosaic

Another beautiful example of Roman opus sectile predates Junius Bassus basilica by 2 centuries. A composition showing a red griffin with blue wings is dated to 2nd century AD, and it probably comes from the villa of Lucius Verus in Acqua Traversa. Although the execution is not as fine as in the previous examples, we have to acknowledge the affinity of the artist towards color and contrast, while there is something oriental in this composition combining profile and ornament. This mosaic can easily be recreated and restored in the process to decorate any Mediterranean-inspired outdoors while maintaining its original power and symbolism.

Detail from stone inlays in Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal and the Garden of Eden

Everybody is familiar with the probably the most famous monument in India – the Taj Mahal. This spectacular mausoleum in the city of Agra is not only a testimony of one great love but also an example of one of the most complex and most wonderful opus sectile decorations in the entire world. Although this term is rarely used in the context of Mughal art and architecture, the inlay technique is what was used to decorate both the exterior and the interior of this posthumous palace. Combined with stucco, tiles, and carvings, they gave one immense, yet harmonious whole, emulating the abstract idea of Paradise found in the holy book. It would be extremely expensive and labor-intensive to recreate such a mosaic today, but by using modern materials and a bit of imagination, Taj Mahal can serve as an inspiration for home decor, despite its original purpose.

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Ana Bambic Kostov

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