History of Mosaics
Piecing it All Together
By Susan Berkman
Mosaic is one of the oldest art forms known to human civilization. Small pieces of material cut to uniform size and shape, called tesserae, are fitted together on a surface to make a pattern. Mosaic designs were first created with small clay cones which were pressed tightly together, point first, into columns and walls coated with wet plaster. Triangles, zigzags and geometric shapes were the main design elements. This ancient cone mosaic art began in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C. and was a predecessor to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines.
The Egyptians were the first to use fused glass and decorated everything with it including palaces, temples and ships. Small pieces of dull-colored glass were used to make mosaic jewelry and mosaic stones. Greek mosaics were designed using worn down black and white pebbles. One of the most famous mosaic tile locations was Pergamum (now Turkey), where the first school of mosaic tile was born under the master artist Sosos. The Romans transformed mosaic from an art to a common decorative medium, covering the walls of their houses, temples and baths. Marble tiles became a popular material for floors. The Byzantines made intricate patterns with scenes of people and animals inspired by ancient myths, religious scenes, hunting scenes, faces, and portraits of emperors and empresses. They also used special glass tesserae, called smalti, made from thick sheets of colored glass, sometimes backed with reflective silver or gold leaf. These mosaic tiles were set at slight angles to the walls of palaces, churches and temples, so that they caught the light in different ways.
Ancient Mosaics Span The Globe
Mosaic art has a long and varied history. While it was widely popular in Europe and the Near East, ancient mosaics have been found in China and South America. Besides being decorative, mosaics protected walls and floors from wind and water. As civilization advanced, so did the materials and techniques. Today, mosaic art is even more specialized with various materials such as stone, ceramics, shells, art glass, mirror beads and even odd items. While ancient mosaics tended to be architectural, modern mosaics cover everything from flowerpots to guitars to park benches.
Queen Esther Byzantine Style
By Lilian Broca, mosaic artist
Throughout my career, I have explored relationships and the nature of the human condition through symbols and metaphors. The Queen Esther Mosaic Series deals with sacrifice. I chose the biblical Queen Esther as a prototype for the courageous, selfless heroine who wins against all odds. As a young woman, Esther fulfilled her role as leader at a time of crisis with intelligence, persistence and dedication. Today we view her as a role model and, as such, she contributes significantly to the status of women in society.
The Mosaic Art Form
The bright, seductive colours of Venetian glass and smalti that I used in creating mosaics many years ago suddenly beckoned me. The coincidental fact that mosaics were first mentioned in the biblical Book of Esther (within the description of King Ahasuerus’s palace) contributed to my decision to further explore this unique art form. In our present Post-Modernist society,
executing the Esther Series in an ancient method with added contemporary symbolism seemed most appropriate.
Why Queen Esther?
Esther was totally disinterested in becoming a candidate to be crowned Queen, and the text emphasizes that she was taken to the palace against her will. Like all obedient women of antiquity, Esther complied with given instructions and continued doing her uncle Mordechai’s bidding, even after being crowned Queen.
As Queen of Persia, Esther was as inferior in status as any other woman. Her life at court was luxurious, but since she was completely isolated in the King’s harem amongst women of a different culture and customs, she must have felt lonely and sad. Esther first sacrificed her maidenhood; later she was obliged to put her life at risk when ordered to go before King Khashayarsha and reveal the treacherous plans Haman had designed without the King’s knowledge. She knew the danger to her was great and immediate, for anyone who
approached the court uninvited was liable to be condemned to death. She wisely designed a plan in which she played King Khashayarsha and evil Haman against each other. It is my
intent to portray Esther as a glorious winner, despite all the demands and sacrifices required of her in a patriarchal culture of antiquity.
Broca’s Mosaic Process
I use the Byzantine style of creating mosaics. After sketching numerous ideas, I paint the final choice as a guide. These designs are created in reverse as mirror images that later get transferred to the panel used as the final substrate. While looking at the painted design, I then cut Venetian glass tesserae imported from Italy into tiny pieces and glue them on a temporary surface of brown paper the same size as the final mosaic panel.
Smalto glass, a combination of opaque glass and enamel, is also being used along with 24 carat gold sandwiched between two thin layers of transparent glass. Four or five shades of each colour are employed to enhance the visual effect; the surface itself becomes a field of attention and more emphatic in its overall unity. Figure and ground merge into one another.
In a successful mosaic, the manner of the laying of tesserae and the intended image must function interdependently; each individual piece of glass retains its individual identity, yet the eye assimilates the pieces into a whole image. It is very different from my previous body of work – paintings and drawings – where the medium was subservient to the image. The mosaics’ dramatic subject matter, emotive with vibrant colours though laid out in an orderly and rational fashion, reflect the present stage in my artistic development.
For more information about Broca’s mosaic work, go to www.lilianbroca.com.