14 Jul 2015

The Tile Files: Mosaics

Welcome to Mirabelle's monthly design series, The Tile Files. So far, our celebration of enduring tile design has taken us to the south of France (Tomettes), Portugal and Spain (Azulejos), and finally north of the old continent, to The Netherlands (Delftware). This has been quite a journey of stylish discoveries!

The Cul-de-Four Mosaic, Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica (Marseille, France)

For this month's article, we need to delve deep into the arcana of Antiquities - to the second half of the 3rd Millenium BC - in order to track back our very first Mosaics. The decorative impact of those versatile and hard-wearing tile pieces belies no diminutive potentiality! In other words, the face of Antiquity would be disfigured if stripped off them! And it appears that from Empire to technique, Byzantine rules the finesse of the art!

Mosaic tiles (Tesserae) owe their perennial popularity to ceramic (clay that is glazed or unglazed). However, earlier mosaics referred to roughly cubic, terracotta brick, cut-stone (marble, limestone, granite or onyx) or cut-glass tiles, of irregular finish. Mosaics were sometimes made out of other materials such as natural pebbles, seashells, gemstones, precious stones, or ivory fragments.

Mosaic, c.200-100BC, discovered in 1993 during the construction of the new Alexandria Library, Egypt

Mosaics are assembled together with many more in order to pave a floor, a ceiling or a wall. Their small size enables them to cover curved and/ or uneven surfaces like columns or basins. Yet mosaics do not only lend themselves to the practicality of surface covering, they also hold a high ornamental value. To do so, they are combined together according to a specific colour pattern in order to create a repeated decorative motif (tessellation) that will define a border, or create a figurine or landscape element that will be part of a 'bigger picture', a mural, medallion, or bas-relief. As mosaics tell a story, they may even incorporate a name, a date, a motto, a sacred text, or a few descriptive words and other symbology.

Manufactured processes include gold glass, that is produced according to the Byzantine mosaic technique. The latter is applied to stone, gemstone, ceramic, seashell or glass, and brings together irregularly-shaped and handcut mosaic pieces of different geometric shapes that follow the artwork lines. Stone Glass Byzantine Mosaic murals are either made out of Smalti (hand-poured and hand-cut opaque glass) or manufactured glass tiles (of uniform shape and size). Both types of glass may be cut into irregular shapes for Byzantine mosaic.

Parque Güell, Sala Hipstila (Barcelona, Spain)
Parque Güell, Sala Hipstila (Barcelona, Spain)

Mosaics have been precious visual story-tellers, not only to archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and ethnologists, but to anyone appreciative of their testimonial accounts, as they document passages of history, capture rites of passage or moments of daily life. Through their iconographic representations, those murals have contributed to relate the history of ancient civilisations, and the making of humanity.

The ancient decorative art of mosaics has transposed well into the present day, owing to their durability, which results from their individual compact size. This confers them that extra strength, and a certain fluidity of movement (under the duress of substrate shifts) when combined with other tesserae, making them less prone to breakage and cracks. To that effect, let's note the well-preserved three-millennia old cone mosaic courtyard (made out of polychrome terracotta cones), from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, and the glazed brick mosaics of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC).

The Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy)

More recent mosaic artwork is found in the ancient city of Ravenna (Italy), former last capital of the Western Roman Empire (5th Century AD) and headquarters of Theodoric's Ostrogothic Kingdom. The Basilica of San Vitale is part of an ensemble of Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna, described as being one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art in western Europe, especially noted for its remarkable mosaics. The monument is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Mosaics have remained popular to the present day. The specs and technique have overall remained the same, despite being updated to fit mass-production criteria. The use of the cheaper vitreous glass (i.e. cast glass), mirror, ceramic materials with or without photoluminescent effects, all cater for mass-market fads. Other substrates include aluminium or wood. New effects are achieved thanks to a wider range of geometrical shapes. Cast or hand-cut options are available, according to the finished look sought out (sleek and modern or artisan). The pre-assembled (mesh-backed) mosaic sheets have streamlined the tiling process considerably.

Inspiration Green

Mosaics not only transcend the timeline from Antiquity to the present day, but also faith, creed and cultures, as their popularity, harked back from the cradles of civilisation of the Middle East (Mesopotamia) and the Mediterranean basin (Ancient Greece and Roman Empire), has since encompassed the whole world, to decorate sacred buildings, public places, and private residences alike.

In the course of the 20th century, mosaic popularity has been illustrated all the way from major design projects (the mosaic-inspired pique-assiette technique by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona's Parque Güell springs to mind), to the more 'mundane' panels that take pride of place in commercial or domestic kitchens or spas. Meanwhile a tile company by the name of New Ravenna will - if only by name association - ensure that the mosaic grandeur of Ravenna remains in the collective psyche, and not only so... Countless other tile companies have too capitalised upon the versatility and durability of mosaics, Porcelanosa, Agape Tile, or Original Style, to name but a few.

'Jacqueline Vine' by Sara Baldwin for New Ravenna Mosaics

This article has only scratched the surface of tesserae. You might wish to scratch it a little deeper and unveil new treasures. A quick browse through the 1000+ eclectic mosaic collections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art will reveal more about mosaic versatility. Meanwhile Agape Tile has an interesting potted history section on Ceramic Tiles, and so does Designboom.

In next month's episode of the Tile Files, we will be gazing at the wondrous world of Majolica, in all its Florentine grace and Victoriana, and unfold more visual treasures along the way! Be there or be square!

'Avila' by Paul Schatz for New Ravenna Mosaics

Sources: (1) 'Mosaïque du Cul-de-Four de l'Abside', detailed iridescent Byzantine mosaic in the apse of Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica, Marseille France. Photography by Robert Valette, via Wikipedia. More from Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. The Basilica stands out in its hilltop Neo-Byzantine grace, that so befits the muted exoticism that exudes from its hometown of Marseille, known as the doorway to the Orient (la porte de l'Orient). Despite the church edifice dating back to 1864, the religious history of the place originates back to 1214, where a chapel once stood. (2) An antique advertisement for His Master's Voice or Tickle's ancestor? Mosaic floor depicting a dog and a knocked-over gold vessel, via Urge to Create. The c.200-100BC mosaic was discovered in 1993 during the construction of the new Alexandria Library, Egypt. It now sits in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. The tiny size of the tesserae (only 1-2mm across), allows great detailing and a painting-like effect. The technique was known in Antiquity as opus vermiculatum (‘worm-like work’). The photo originates from a book by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From History to Myth, Princeton University Press (2001). (3) Sala Hipstila, Parque Güell, Barcelona Spain, via Europaen Fotos. (4) id., via Park Güell. (5) 'Interior of San Vitale' (Ravenna, Italy), photography by Lawrence OP, via Flickr (July 2013). The Basilica of San Vitale is a jewel of early Christian art, featuring rich mosaic frescoes. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is equally sumptuous. More from Ravenna, Turismo e Cultura (Ravenna's official tourism website). (6) Cob bathroom, via Inspiration Green. (7) 'Jacqueline Vine', a jewel glass waterjet mosaic shown in 'Amethyst', part of the Silk Road Collection by Sara Baldwin for New Ravenna Mosaics. (8) 'Avila', a natural stone waterjet and hand-cut mosaic shown in 'Gold glass honed', 'Afyon White polished', and 'Cloud Nine honed', part of the Miraflores Collection by Paul Schatz for New Ravenna Mosaics.

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