Growing up in a small village in New Zealand in the 1950’s provided no opportunity for exposure to great art of any kind, let alone mosaics.
A visit to Italy, in 1995 provided an introduction to, and immersion in religious mosaics. From Rome, Florence and Venice to Southern Italy and Sicily, I became somewhat obsessed about seeking out the churches which held the most splendid examples – old testament stories, new testament stories, angels and cherubs, saints and sinners – all were represented.
St Prassede, a 9th Century basilica in Rome contains the most glorious Byzantine mosaics, and were among the very first religious mosaics I saw.
The Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily was built between 1170 and 1189. It contains Byzantine mosaics created by craftsmen from Constantinople. Visiting the cathedral was a golden experience – as in it was as if I was in a golden cave. The featured imagine of Noah’s Ark is in Monreale, as are the following.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has had a chequered history. A church, a mosque and a museum – and perhaps a mosque again. Mosaics from the church period were covered during the time it was a mosque and uncovered again when the mosque became a museum. On my first visit, all of the mosaics were visible. On later visits, some were inaccessible due to renovations.
The Chora Church in Istanbul also contains some interesting mosaics – my favourite being a representation of Jesus turning water into wine when the wine ran out at a celebration.
Religious mosaics were my introduction to this art form, but it was just the beginning of my journey. On a visit to Cyprus, I visited the Paphos mosaics, and discovered mosaic floors. These floors were in the homes of the wealthy, and were from the mid Roman period. Myths and legends came alive for me in the floors. Narcissus, looking at his reflection in a pool of water, the triumph of Dionysos and Ganymede and the eagle for example.
The National Archaeological Museum of Naples contains mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including panels from the House of the Faun at Pompeii. These mosaics were created by Alexandrian craftsmen, who worked in Italy around the 2nd and 1st century BC. The most famous, the Alexander mosaic, which was found in October 1831 in the House of the Faun, depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III.
Some of the mosaics recall scenes from Egypt – not surprising since the mosaics were created by Egyptian craftsmen. Ducks with lotus flowers in their beaks, hippopotamus, snakes and crocodiles are examples.
I would recommend a visit to the museum prior to visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum – the images of the mosaics on your mind will bring the cities to life in a manner not possible otherwise.
Cave canem – beware of the dog, from the Casa di Orfeo, Pompei.
The Mosaics of Zeugma are on display in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in the nearby city of Gaziantep, in Eastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border. Zeugma was founded by a general from Alexander the Great’s army in 300BC and conquered by the Romans in the 1st Century AD. The mosaics are from the Roman period, and feature exquisite mosaic floors and panels. The mosaics, which were threatened by the building of a dam across the Euphrates in the 1990’s, were rescued and restored, and the museum was built to house them.
The mosaic above, known as the Gypsy Girl, is a Maenad – a follower of Dionysus and was a part of a floor mosaic. I had difficulty in prising myself away from the compelling eyes, which seemed to follow me – imploring me to stay.
The Zeugma mosaics depict characters from Greek mythology, flowers, birds, animals and fish. Pictured above top left is the central panel of a mosaic. The figure in this mosaic is “believed to have been a personification of the Euphrates as a river-god”. The mosaic in the top centre is the Abduction of Europa.
This mosaic shows Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell. The inscription says “Master Zosimos of Samosata made this mosaic. The fishtailed centaurs are identified as Aphros (foam) and Bythos (the deep).
Aphrodite has been a favourite of mine since I became interested in Greek Myths and Legends. I visited her “birthplace” near Paphos in Cyprus. It took a lot of imagination to see Aphrodite rising from the sea froth – a glass of champagne helped. I also visited her bath place, near Paphos – sadly, no Adonis turned up. I prefer this depiction of Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell by centaurs to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in which she is arriving on the shore on a cockle shell with not a centaur in sight. My imagination is stimulated by centaurs.
I hadn’t expected to see any mosaics in Egypt. A visit to an archaeological park in the Kom el-Dikka neighbourhood of Alexandria, which contains one of the few surviving examples of mosaics from the Roman period, was a bonus. The Villa of the Birds contains a mosaic floor depicting numerous species of birds.
The Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan has a floor mosaic created in the 6th century for the Byzantine Church which stood on that site. This was a different kind of mosaic than any I had seen. The mosaic is the oldest known map of the holy land and depicts an area from Lebanon to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean sea in the west to the Eastern desert. The Dead Sea, Jericho and Bethlehem are shown, along with more than 150 towns, villages and places of interest.
The archaeological site of Umm ar-Rasas, near Madaba, contains some wonderful mosaic floors. In the church of St Stephen mosaic floors date back to the 8th century. The mosaic floors depict numerous different cities from the East and West of the Jordan River, and cities of the Egyptian Delta. I was thrilled be given the opportunity to brush away the sand covering mosaics of lions yet to be protected. Even though I was not “discovering” the mosaic, in my imagination, I was.
An impressive collection of late Roman mosaic pavements can be found in the Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. The villa was constructed in around the early 4th century AD. The mosaic collection is said to be the richest, largest and most varied in the world. Whether this is true or not, the mosaics were certainly the most varied I have visited. One of the most interesting pavements is in what is referred to as the Corridor of the Great Hunt, which depicted scenes of hunting, capture and transportation of exotic animals.
One of the rooms in the Villa displays several girls in bikinis. They appear to be engaged in sporting activities – including discus throwing and ball games. Clearly bikinis were around long before they became favoured swim wear in the 20th century.
Myths and legends are well represented. Eros and Pan engaged in a battle, Ulysses and Polyphemus, Dionysus and a splendid mosaic depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules. There are mosaics representing flowers plants, birds and animals and scenes of day to day life, including scenes from the coliseum
The beauty of mosaics, and the archaeology and history involved lure me everywhere I go. There are so many more sites and museums I have visited not referred to, and there are still more to visit than I will ever get to see, despite my best efforts.
The additional benefit of my obsession with mosaics, is that I am continually learning and relearning the various myths and legends, bible history, battles and history of the times the mosaics were created. I also love the animals, birds and flowers of the times.
Often when I am in a remote part of the world viewing mosaics, I think of that child growing up in the depths of country New Zealand, and reflect on how very fortunate the adult that child became has been.
4 thoughts on “An Obsession with Mosaics”
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Love the dog too!
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More mosaic love here … https://writingroma.wordpress.com/2019/08/02/rome-forecast-snow-on-august-5/?fbclid=IwAR1GMXmQKQqcjo1Yo_gOQ_IclNHB7K2hahMyBV3ymNPyt1EXmyhjGhdO5Cg
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