Mosaics: just a few coloured stones laid on the ground?

Roman mosaic Nennig, Germany

Vibrantly coloured Roman floor mosaic, Nennig, Germany, 3rd century AD

In my recent travels, mostly exploring Mediterranean history (including Romans and Greeks) I’ve seen an awful lot of mosaics like the ones in Italica. I’ve even watched curators working to restore a mosaic in Pompeii.

But I’d never thought much about the fundamentals of creating a mosaic.

Mosaics are just a lot of coloured stones laid on the ground in a clever pattern, aren’t they?

Nope. There’s much more to it than that.

Engineering mosaics to last

If the coloured stones (tesserae) were simply laid on the ground, even if they were grouted together with mortar, they wouldn’t have lasted long. And many of them, as we know, have lasted for thousands of years. They had to be hard-wearing. They were going to be walked on.

semi-dome, christ pantocrator, capella palatina, Palermo

Capella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily

Not all of them, of course.

Some mosaics were for wall decoration as you can see in my earlier blog showing some of the incredible religious mosaics in Sicily.

Like this one here where the colours and all that gold really sing.

Hidden layers

Floor mosaics have lots of hidden underpinnings. (Wall mosaics probably have a lot less. Not sure on that, but it sort of stands to reason, doesn’t it?) In the museum in Ecija near Seville (called Astigi by the Romans) there are wonderful floor mosaics plus an explanation of how they were made. In pictures, I’m glad to say.

These are the 5 layers of a floor mosaic:Ecija, mosaic structure showing 5 layers

If you look closely at the image above (click to enlarge) you should be able to see small coloured markers on the layers: light blue at the very top, then red, then green, then yellow, then finally dark blue.Ecija, mosaic's 5 component layers

And the next image (right) explains them for us:

  1. light blue: mosaic tiles (tesserae)
  2. red: bedding layer
  3. green: nucleus, a fine mortar of sand, smashed tiles and bricks and lime
  4. yellow: mortar of gravel, terracotta** and lime
  5. dark blue: pebbles and rocks

** You may remember from my blog about olive oil that oil amphorae couldn’t be used in mortar because the oil reacted with the lime to produce soap. Not great in mortar. So the broken terracotta pots would have been from some other commodity, like wine or grain.

It was vital to get the underpinnings right or the mosaic would not last. The image below shows a mosaic in the Lebrija Palace in Seville (properly Casa Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija). In the early 20th century, the Condesa spent a fortune saving mosaics and other relics from Italica and other places. She transported them to her palace in Seville and rebuilt her house around them. But this particular mosaic didn’t survive too well. If you look closely you can see signs of heave.Lebrija palace floor mosaic, heaved, Seville

Treasures of the Lebrija palace in Seville

The Condesa got a lot right, though. The courtyard of her palace contains a fabulous mosaic of the god Pan (in the central medallion), shown here in an image I took from the balcony above. Lebrija palace courtyard mosaic floor, SevilleThe individual parts of the mosaic are amazingly clear. And they’re just the kind of images you would expect in a Roman mosaic. Here are a couple of them in close-up. They both involve Zeus doing what he so often did. On the left is Leda and the Swan; on the right, Europa and the bull. Yes, quite. Rape or seduction? You decide.

.Lebrija palace courtyard mosaic floor Leda swan, Seville Lebrija palace courtyard mosaic floor Europa bull, Seville

The palace has a lot more than mosaics. It has sculptures, and tiling, and wooden ceilings that are absolutely beautiful. This blog is about mosaics but I’m going to include a few extra images from the Lebrija palace, just because I can!

Lebrija palace tiled walls staircase, Seville Lebrija palace staircase ceiling, Seville

On the left is the wooden staircase with tiled walls (including trompe l’oeil). The stairs lead to the Condesa’s private apartments. On the right is the ceiling at the top of the tiled staircase. She also saved a huge octagonal mosaic (shown below) and built an octagonal room round it.

Yes, she was very rich and saving the antiquities was her passion. So she indulged it. Without her, many of these artefacts might have been lost for good. Farmers used to find them while ploughing. They knew the Condesa would pay for their finds so they didn’t destroy them which they might otherwise have done.

Never mind Zeus. What about Bacchus (Dionysus)?

Back to Ecija and its wonderful floor mosaics. Quite a few of them depict Bacchus. There is this splendid late 2nd century mosaic of the Triumph of Bacchus, shown below. Bacchus is riding in the chariot, top left, drawn by male and female centaurs. And the colours are still vibrant. (I’m also pasting in the legend to the mosaic so you can identify some of the other figures. Zeus is there again with Leda at #7.)Ecija, triumph of Bacchus mosaic Ecija triumph of Bacchus mosaic legendBut that’s not Bacchus’s only appearance in the Ecija museum’s collection. He appears again in the late 2nd century mosaic of The Gift of Wine, shown below. It depicts the myth that Bacchus/Dionysus donated the secrets of vine-growing and winemaking to humanity.

Ecija, Bacchus mosaic, The Gift of WineBacchus is the child riding on a panther at the bottom of the mosaic. The other figures are all enjoying the fruits of the vine, as many of us may still do 😉 The shepherd, bottom left, is feeding grapes to his goat. Top left, two more shepherds are toasting with a wine cup. Above Bacchus are a bacchante and a goat-legged Pan with more grapes. And the satyr on the right is treading grapes to make more wine. The message, I’d say, is clear.

So mosaics depict male gods and male pursuits (like women)?

Not entirely, to be honest. For example, the corner medallions in the Lebrija courtyard mosaic shown earlier in this blog depict the four seasons. Some beautiful female faces there. And some female gods and demi-gods did get a look in. Like this 4th century semi-circular pavement of Thetis the sea-nymph from the museum in Jaén. Can’t say she looks too happy, though.

Jaen, Thetis floor mosaicAnimals got a look in, too, some more predominantly than others. In the Thetis mosaic above, she has sea monsters on either side of her. Maybe she’s worried they’re going to eat her?

But then you get something as gorgeous as this 2nd century mosaic of Pegasus, the winged horse, in the museum in Cordoba. Look closely and marvel at how 3D his body is and how his muscles are sculpted by the artistic wizardry of the unnamed mosaic artists.Cordoba Pegasus mosaic

And they were artists. Obviously the grunt work of laying the bottom layers didn’t require such skill and was probably done by less valued slaves but only a real artist could create marvels like Pegasus. Sadly, it’s all too likely that even the greatest mosaic artists were also slaves.

Highly valued, yes. But free? Probably not.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


6 thoughts on “Mosaics: just a few coloured stones laid on the ground?

  1. Kate Johnson

    When I was about 14 I went to the mosaic school in Spilimbergo (I think! It was a long time ago) in northern Italy. I remember that they had a huge mosaic all laid out, ready to be shipped all the way to Las Vegas; and I also remember seeing there were mosaics the size of a coaster that were the work of third-year students. Three years—and still so tiny!

    1. Joanna Post author

      That’s fascinating, Kate. Never heard of Spilimbergo. Have heard of micro-mosaic, though, and am wondering if that’s what your coaster-size ones were.

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