Study Of Art – Mosaics

Mosaics consist of small pieces of marble or glass fitted together to form a pattern. In Roman times, mosaic was made with colored marbles on a white ground and was used almost exclusively for floor decoration, rarely appearing on walls or ceiling.

Glass mosaic became the great Christian art of the Middle Ages in Italy, forming a permanent and brilliant decoration for the tribune arch and apse of the great Roman basilicas, and for the domes of the Byzantine churches.

During the fourth and fifth centuries the background was often a brilliant blue, gold being used in the pattern. By the sixth century the gold background became universal, putting an end to the pictorial tendencies seen in a series of mosaic pictures of the fifth century on either side of the nave of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome. From this time mosaic becomes more completely decorative, using conventional pattern and human form alike to make more splendid the building and to define more perfectly the shape of apse or dome.

The chief centers and periods of Mosaic Art in Italy are: Rome, fourth to thirteenth centuries; Ravenna, fifth century; Sicily, Palermo and Cefalu, twelfth century; Venice, tenth to sixteenth centuries.

Kugler, I, 11—71. Lowrie, 292—333. Powers, M. M. A., ch. 2. Sturgis, The Artist’s Way of Working, II, 348—358. Vasari on Technique (Brown), 251—257. W. and W., I, 92—98; 165—187; 335—346.


The Church of San Marco, Venice. Ongania; Robert-son; Ruskin, Stones of Venice, ch. 4, 5.

Ravenna, the deserted city. Symonds, Sketches; Blashfield, Italian Cities, I, 14-37.

The Cosmati Family and their work. C. and C., I., ch. 3.


No. 14. The Battle of Issus. National Museum, Naples.

This great floor mosaic was found in Pompeii in the so-called ” House of the Faun,” in 1831. It represents the battle fought in 333 B.C. in which Alexander routs the forces of Darius. The Persian king is seen in his chariot looking back in anxiety toward his fallen general, while Alexander rushes impetuously forward on his war-horse. It is without doubt a copy from an ancient painting, and is far more appropriate for the wall than for a pavement. The tesseræ are very small and very carefully fitted.

The onward rush of the horses is held within the frame by the direction of the king’s attention and by the lances. Cf. Velasquez’s use of lances in E 219, the Surrender of Breda. Ref. Powers, M. M. A., pp. 12-17.

No. 15. Doves at the Fountain.

Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Marble mosaic from Hadrian’s Villa, copy of a work by Sosos of Pergamum, described by Pliny (Nat. Hist., 36, 184).

No. 16. Aquatic Birds.

S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome.

Marble mosaic, Roman work.

The tesserae in both these examples are very small and admirably fitted. Study with a glass the method of laying the cubes to secure the high lights, the appearance of ruffled feathers, movement of the water, contour.

B 16 was perhaps used in a water basin, the impluvium of the Roman house. Note the very decorative pattern of the lines which does not seem to detract from the vitality of the birds. Cf. Japanese prints of birds.

Nos. 17 and 18. Sections of Vaulted Ceiling.

S. Costanza, Rome.

Fourth century mosaic. Dark colors on white ground.

These mosaics are found in the vaulted ceiling of the circular ambulatory of the domed building erected by Constantine in memory of his daughter Constantia, converted into a church in 1256. See Series G. The porphyry sarcophagus which originally stood here is now in the Vatican Museum. The mosaics cover eleven sections of the barrel vaulting, with alternating free design and set pattern. The vine pattern of No. 18 may suggest Christian symbolism, but the others are in color and design such as had long been used for Roman pavements.

Study the adaptation of the designs to the surface to be covered, the appropriateness of the representations to the use of the building. Note the technical quality of the work and estimate the artistic status of the period, remembering that this was done for an emperor.

No. 19. Semi-dome of Apse.

S. Pudenziana, Rome.

Glass mosaic, fourth century. Naturalistic colors on sober background.

Traditionally the oldest church in Rome, founded by St. Peter in the House of Pudens and his daughters (2 Timothy iv : 21). The mosaics date from the restoration under Pope Siricius (384–398) and are the earliest glass mosaics in Rome. The original proportions have been hurt by later alterations, cutting off the design both above and below. Christ is seen enthroned with Peter and Paul, Pudenziana and Praxedis, the daughters of Pudens, on either side (sometimes interpreted as the Church of the Jews and of the Gentiles, cf. 26). Other heads are perhaps portraits, some being modern. Above are symbols of the evangelists on either side of a richly decorated cross.

The truth and dignity of these figures and the quality of the work places this very high as representative art. For its decorative value compare B 31, 33, 35, 37.

No. 20. Apse Decoration.

Baptistery, S. Giovanni in Laterano, Rome.

Fifth century glass mosaic, gold arabesques on blue ground.

The Baptistery, founded by Pope Sixtus III (d. 440), was long the only one in Rome, these mosaics being in the original vestibule. They illustrate admirably the use of conventional patterns in filling a space satisfactorily. The only distinctively Christian symbols are the doves and the lamb in the beautiful half circle above.

The stucco angels are disfiguring additions of the baroque period.

No. 21. Triumphal Arch and Apse.

S. Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome.

Fifth and thirteenth centuries. The church was founded in the fourth century on the spot where, according to tradition, St. Paul was buried. The mosaics of the triumphal arch were given by Galla Placidia (440-461), but have been much restored. Angels appear here for the first time in Christian art. On either side are the ” four-and-twenty elders,” above are the symbols of the four evangelists. Contrast the gloomy ‘countenance of the Christ with the face in S. Pudenziana’(B 19).

The mosaic of the apse is of the thirteenth century. Compare with 35 and 37. Notice the fine conventional patterns on the circle of the arch.

No. 22. Semi-dome of Apse. SS. Cosma e Damiano, Rome. Sixth century. Blue background.

This is perhaps the last example in Rome of the use of a blue background. Peter and Paul present to Christ the two saints, Arabian physicians who suffered martyrdom under Diocletian. The figure of Pope Felix carrying a model of the church is modern. Below and partly obscured are sheep, symbolizing Christ and the disciples.

Compare with the mosaic of S. Pudenziana, B 19, noting faces, drapery, and decorative effect.

No. 26. Allegorical Figure.

S. Sabina, Rome.

Fifth century. Figure on gold background; inscription gold on blue; dark green in border.

The church was erected in 425 and still retains the stately character of its interior, with its double row of antique columns.

This figure, representing the Church of the Jewish Christians, is at one end of a broad band of mosaic inscription on the west wall of the church. A similar figure, representing the Gentile Church, completes the decoration which is extremely effective, although so simple.

Study with a glass the workmanship, especially the way in which the tesseræ are set.

Under Augustus, Ravenna, now five miles from the sea, was the naval base of the empire for the eastern coast of Italy, Classis (the fleet) being the name of the maritime quarter of the city. The lonely church of S. Apollinare in Classe is now the only memorial of that once thriving section. In 402 Ravenna became the seat of the Western Empire under the Emperor Honorius, and under Justinian an exarchate subject to the Eastern Empire. For two centuries it was, next to Rome, the most important city in Italy. Its great buildings, with their rich mosaic decorations, belong to two periods, that of Honorius and his sister Galla Placidia, 402-450, and that of Theodoric and Justinian, 493-540.

No. 23. Decoration of Arch.

No. 24. Baptism of Christ.

S. Giovanni in Fonte, Ravenna.

Fifth century. Gold and light colors on blue.

The Baptistery of the Orthodox is an octagonal building, originally a Roman bath, according to Ricci, converted to religious uses by the requirements of the new faith. Others believe it a Christian building of 396. The mosaic decorations date from 449-452.

The medallion of the Baptism of Christ occupies the center of the cupola. Beneath a festooned border are standing figures of the apostles, tall and austere, defining the curve of the dome. Columns below support richly decorated arches. Colored marbles cover the walls.

These mosaics are Roman rather than Byzantine in character. Compare the conventional pattern of the arch with that of the semi-dome, No. 20; with the scroll from the Ara Pacis, A 333.

In the medallion, study the effort of the artist to adapt the scene to the round frame. Compare the Christ type with No. 19 and with others. Note the introduction of the river god to represent the Jordan.

No. 25. Christ the Good Shepherd.

Tomb of Galla Placidia, Ravenna.

Fifth century. Light colors on blue background. This small church, now called SS. Nazzaro e Celso, was built about 440 as a mausoleum by Galla Placidia, daughter, sister, wife, and mother of emperors. The mosaics which completely line the ceilings and walls are of fine workmanship and great charm. A complete and careful restoration was carried out in 1899-1902.

The lunette of the Good Shepherd recalls both in attitude and surroundings the favorite classic theme of Orpheus. Similar examples have been found among the paintings of the Catacombs.

Notice the youthful and beardless face of Christ. Compare with earlier and later representations in beauty and sentiment. Study the decorative quality of the scene.

No. 27. Interior.

No. 28. Procession of Female Saints.

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

Sixth century. Light colors, green predominating, on gold background. This basilica church was built about 500 A.D. by Theodoric. The marble columns were brought from Constantinople. The double or impost capital is very characteristic of Ravenna. Above the colonnade a band of mosaic runs the length of the nave; on the left a procession of maidens come from Classis to worship the Virgin; on the right, holy men advance from the gates of Ravenna toward the enthroned Christ.

Notice the harmonious effect of the upright figures of the procession seen through the colonnade; the decorative character of the palm trees and the halos, and the rhythm of the constantly repeated lines of the draperies. See Series G for another view of the interior.

No. 29. Emperor Justinian and Courtiers.

No. 30. Empress Theodora and Court Ladies.

S. Vitale, Ravenna.

Sixth century. Bright colors on gold background. The church of San Vitale is an octagonal-domed structure begun by Theodoric and completed in 547 with contributions from the emperor and empress. (See Series G.) These mosaics in the choir apse are interesting as examples of contemporary ceremonial scenes. Justinian appears with his offering of gold, at his right his treasurer, at his left the archbishop Maximian with clerics. The labarum or sacred monogram of Constantine on the shield appears in art here for the first time. (Lowrie, pp. 239-243.) Raised from the position of dancing girl in the circus of Constantinople to that of empress, Theodora, wife of Justinian, distinguished herself by her courage in the great crisis of his life, the insurrection of 532. She ruled with oriental tyranny and splendor.

The Byzantine character of these mosaics is very marked. There is no suggestion of classic influence as in the Baptism and the Good Shepherd. Faces are uniform and there is no attempt at modeling. Draperies are suggested by heavy perpendicular lines. There is much dependence upon rich and varied color, and a constant tendency to repetition of line for decorative effect. These two mosaics, done by imperial decree for a church under especial court favor, represent undoubtedly the best ability of Justinian’s time.

No. 31. Semi-dome of Apse. S. Agnese fuori le Mura, Rome.

Seventh century. Gold background. St. Agnes appears between Popes Symmachus (498) and Honorius I (625-638), under whom the mosaics were made when the church was restored. Byzantine influence is suggested.

The elongated figures have an architectural value and in their placing help to define the contour of the half dome. The figure of St. Agnes in richly-colored stole is very beautiful.

No. 32. Semi-dome of Apse.

S. Marco, Rome.

Ninth century. Bright color.

This mosaic dates from the rebuilding of the church under Gregory IV in 833, when art in all its branches was at lowest ebb. The pope is seen at the extreme left with the square halo which denotes a living character.

Compare with Nos. 22, 29, and 31.

No. 33. Tribune Arch and Apse.

S. Clemente, Rome.

Twelfth century. Gold background. On the tribune arch are evangelists, saints, and prophets bearing scrolls. In the apse a crucifix, with Mary and John on either side, rises from a rich cluster of foliage, from the base of which flow the living waters at which two harts are drinking. A conventionalized vine pattern fills the field, with symbolic figures framed in its convolutions. It is impossible for any reproduction to give an adequate idea of the decorative beauty of this work.

The church of San Clemente is one of the most interesting in Rome. See Series G.

No. 34. Transporting the Body of St. Mark.

Façade, S. Marco, Venice.

Thirteenth century. Gold background. This mosaic from the semi-dome above the first door at the left of the façade is the only example of early mosaic left on the façade of the church. It represents the bringing of the sacred relics of the patron saint from Alexandria into the church, and may be regarded as a fairly truthful picture of the building as it then stood. Allowance must be made for the foreshortening due to the curved surface.

No. 35. Tribune Arch and Apse.

Twelfth century. Brilliant colors on gold back-ground.

No. 36. The Nativity.

S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome.

Late thirteenth century. Naturalistic colors.

The church contains a fine marble pavement of Cosmati work dating, as do the upper mosaics, from the rebuilding of the church in 1140. The mosaics are perhaps the most effective in all Rome; the colors are brilliant and the workmanship of the best. Christ and the Virgin are enthroned with saints and popes on either side. The conventional borders and the semi-circular rosette are very handsome, and with the arrangement of the figures and the band of sheep below emphasize the form of the apse. Compare in these respects with the apse of S. Pudenziana, No. 19.

The lower band of six pictures in mosaic are ascribed to Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1291), a friend of Giotto.

A comparison of these upper and lower mosaics shows the far greater decorative value of the conventionalized figures of the twelfth century, and the new movement toward narrative which was to result in the abandonment of the refractory medium of mosaic and the development of painting.

To judge these stately mosaics according to later canons of naturalistic painting is quite to lose sight of their true value. The splendor of these mosaic apses has seldom been equaled by the art of any period.

No. 37. Coronation of the Virgin.

S. Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Thirteenth century. Gold and rich color.

One of the largest and most splendid churches in Rome. Above the colonnade of fine antique columns runs a beautiful vine pattern in mosaic, and still above, on the clerestory walls, are mosaic pictures of the fifth century. The mosaic of the apse is by Jacopo Torriti (1295). The rich conventional designs are especially worthy of notice.

Study the course of Roman mosaic from classic times through the thirteenth century, noting the development from pavement designs, the use of conventional ornament, borders, etc., the natural and conventionalized use of the human form.

Consider the advantages and limitations of mosaic as a medium for wall decoration, and its most effective form.

No. 38. Saints.

Cathedral, Cefalu, Sicily.

The mosaics of Cefalu, the oldest and perhaps the best in Sicily, date from 1148, the period of Norman success. On the walls of the choir, local saints and Bible characters are arranged in courses, one above the other. The names beside them show them to be of Greek origin. The successful war waged by Roger II against the Greeks brought to Sicily artists from the East for this work.

No.39. Tribune. Cathedral, Monreale, Sicily.

This church was built by William II, the Norman king, in 1178-1189, the mosaics being completed in 1182. The upper walls are entirely covered with this rich decoration, employing more than one hundred artists. The lower walls are paneled with colored marbles, bordered with Cosmati work. Bible scenes, crude and provincial in character, are arranged in double courses on the walls of nave and aisles. The figures of the tribune are austerely impressive.

No. 40. Christ. The Virgin. Side aisles, S. Marco, Venice.

Fourteenth century. Christ wears a gold robe against a blue background.

Despite the total disregard of anatomy and the clumsy and overwrought drapery, these mosaics illustrate admirably the decorative effect sought by mediaeval artists. They are among the most beautiful of all the mosaics of San Marco.

An interesting comparison may be made with the Orante, No. 374, and also with the figure from S. Sabina, No. 26.

So youthful a Christ is rarely found after the early Christian period. The halo is that of the risen Christ. The fingers are held in the form of the Greek benediction.