Mosaic

Introduction

Graphic art (aka pictorial art) can be defined as "two-dimensional visual art". Painting, with its unrivalled flexibility of expression, has generally been considered the supreme graphic art throughout history. Other forms of graphic art include drawing, etching, printmaking, photography, and mosaic.

Western Mosaic

The art of mosaic in Europe initially flourished in Classical Greece. At first, Greek mosaics were limited to decorating floors, and were composed of pebbles. Over the centuries, mosaic decoration spread to walls and ceilings, and pebbles were succeeded by tesserae (singular tessera): neatly cut blocks of stone (or, eventually, coloured glass). Stylistically, Greek mosaics (like Greek painting) became increasingly realistic, especially in the Hellenistic period.1

Deer Hunt Mosaic
Deer Hunt Mosaic (overhead view)
Head of Medusa Mosaic
Consultation with a Witch Mosaic
Musician with Tympanon Mosaic

The pursuit of realism, however, caused mosaics to become less "mosaic-like". The distinctive mosaic aesthetic arises from using visible blocks of material in a relatively small range of colours. Realistic mosaics, on the other hand, are produced by using very small blocks of material (such that the eye cannot easily discern individual pieces) in a large range of colours (allowing for smooth gradients). The greater the degree of realism, the more "painting-like" a mosaic becomes.

Mosaic experienced a trend toward realism as the Greek age drew on, then away from realism again as the Middle Ages approached. The pinnacle of "mosaic-like" European mosaic was attained during the medieval period; indeed, among the Byzantines, mosaic served as the primary form of visual art (see Medieval Painting). From the Renaissance onward, mosaic stagnated as it became extremely imitative of painting (i.e. extremely realistic, with tiny tesserae and very smooth gradients), as well as losing popularity generally. The art of mosaic hibernated until the modern period, when artists once again embraced its unique aesthetic qualities.1

Roman Mosaic
Roman Mosaic
Roman Mosaic
Roman Mosaic
Byzantine Mosaic
Byzantine Mosaic
Byzantine Mosaic
Medieval Western European Mosaic (Cologne Cathedral)
Medieval Western European Mosaic (Cologne Cathedral)
Renaissance Mosaic
Modern Mosaic
Modern Mosaic
Modern Mosaic

World Mosaic

Apart from Europe, the most renowned traditions of mosaic art developed in Mesoamerican and Islamic civilization.

In addition to architectural surfaces, Mesoamerican cultures applied mosaics to a range of practical and ceremonial objects, including shields, masks, statues, and knife handles. A wide variety of stones were used (as well as other materials, such as gold and shell), with the most prized and distinctive being turquoise.1

Mesoamerican Mask
Mesoamerican Ceremonial Shield
Mesoamerican Statue (double-headed serpent)
Islamic Mosaic
Islamic Mosaic
Islamic Mosaic

The Islamic world, which absorbed the art of mosaic from the Byzantines, used it primarily for gracing architectural surfaces with intricate patterns. These patterns were usually limited to abstract and floral designs, given the general Islamic prohibition of figures in visual art.

1 - "Mosaic", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 2010.