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Mosaic: Piecing it All Together

Mosaic is an art form made of fitting together small pieces of material on a surface to make a pattern. Throughout history, mosaics have been used to decorate architectural elements such as floors, walls and ceilings. They have also been used in fountains and pools as well as furnishings such as tables and household objects such as vases.

It appears that the art of mosaic did not originate exclusively in any particular culture in history but developed simultaneously in various cultures. Some of the earliest examples of mosaics have been found in Babylonia, Sumer and Egypt at around 2000 B.C. The use of mosaic rose to great popularity in ancient Greece where even modest homes were adorned with it. In the second century B.C., the artist Sosos established the first known school for the art of mosaic in Pergamum, an ancient Greek city located in what is now Turkey.

The pieces of material that are used to make a mosaic, called tesserae (singular: tessella), are usually colored glass or stone but other decorative materials such as seashells, terracotta or enamel have also been used. More durable materials such as marble are more suitable for floor mosaics while more fragile materials can be used for walls, ceilings and more portable objects. The tesserae can be used in their natural form as with seashells or pebbles or they can be cut into geometrically precise shapes to fit the desired decorative pattern and can be as small as a few millimeters in size. The precise arrangement of tesserae to form a distinct shape with no overlaps or gaps is called tessellation and can be accomplished by eye through trial and error or with the use of complex mathematical calculations. A skilled artisan can create a mosaic with such subtle gradations in color and precise arrangement that it has the appearance of a painting when viewed from a distance.

There are several methods of arranging and attaching the tesserae to the surface. The most obvious method is to directly place the tesserae on the surface that is to be decorated. Since this method is impractical for large projects outside of the artistís studio, the tesserae can be placed face down on an adhesive backing and then transported to the surface and attached at a later date. But this second method doesnít allow the artist to view the work as it progresses. Therefore, a third method in which another adhesive backing is attached to the front of the tesserae after they have been placed face down on the first backing; the first backing is then removed and the tesserae can then be adjusted visually as necessary and directly applied to the surface. The mosaic pieces are kept in place with an adhesive such as clay, cement or plaster. The artist can choose how much of the adhesive is visible between the tesserae by how closely they are placed together.

The patterns produced with mosaics vary from purely decorative patterns and designs to scenes, emblems, portraits and even still life. Some of the most beautiful mosaics are often thought to be those created during the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century. The tesserae used in these mosaics were composed of thick sheets of colored glass called smalti. Used primarily for wall decoration, the smalti were often ungrouted, positioned at an angle, and backed with gold so that light could reflect and refract within the glass, creating a sparkling effect. To see an example of a beautiful mosaic at the Hagia Sophia, formerly an Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul, please click here. Islamic mosaic, primarily geometric in nature, is highly prized for its mathematical perfection. A beautiful example of a mosaic in Alhambra Palace, built around the fourteenth century, can be seen by clicking here.

To see a beautiful selection of Roman mosaics, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at