Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.
Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.
From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus
Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:
The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.
From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.
The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.
Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.
Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:
These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.
The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.
This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.
Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.
From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)
I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.
Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan