Qantara Qantara


In Byzancium

Byzantium inherited mosaic art from the Roman Empire, where mosaic-making techniques had been especially developed for the decoration of thermae, nymphaea, mausoleums, and lavish dwellings. The abundance of mosaic floors that have survived to the present day around the Mediterranean Basin and the inscriptions they bear would suggest that there was a systematic and well-organized production of mosaics in local workshops, which were based in urban centre and operated within limited areas[1]. Wall mosaics, which are less common, were widely used until the sixth and seventh centuries. Because of the lack of inscriptions like those on the mosaic floors, there's very little information about the techniques used and the cost, which was much higher than that for floor mosaics [2].

Apart from famous decorations dating from the sixth century—the Church of San Vitale (Ravenna), the aniconic vaults in Hagia Sophia, and the Transfiguration in the apse of St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai—, the mosaics conserved in Cyprus and the tesserae discovered in archaeological digs attest to the diffusion of mosaic art in more modest dwellings. The mosaics in the Rotunda of St. George in Thessaloníki—which are of an unusual finesse and whose iconography is unique in Paleo-Christian decorations, but whose date and interpretation have for a long time been the subject of debate—are a superb example of mosaic art at the end of Antiquity, and of the transition towards a specifically Byzantine set of aesthetics. Dependant on episcopal and imperial patronage, mosaic art seems to have flourished in several urban centres across the Empire.

The use of Opus sectile and paving gradually developed in the ornamentation of floors, but mosaic remained the favoured technique for wall decorations. During the iconoclastic dispute, mosaics were the favoured medium for aniconic and secular compositions: apart from the image of the cross that still ornaments the apse in the Church of St. Irene in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and the geometric panels on the vault above the bema in Ayía Sofía in Thessaloníki (the monograms date them between 780 and 788), texts mention hunting scenes and bucolic images that replaced the religious images in the churches and palaces. Descriptions of the Kainourgion Palace and the Nea Ekklēsia (Greek: Νέα Ἐκκλησία, ‘New Church’), founded by Basil I, and the apse and tympana mosaics in Hagia Sophia attest that mosaic art flourished in the capital just after the iconoclasm. However, apart from the panels representing the emperors in the galleries of Hagia Sophia, the only preserved examples of Meso-Byzantine decorations are located far from Constantinople in three famous monastery churches:Hosios Loukas in Phocis, Daphni near Athens, and the Nea Moni on Chios. The only positively confirmed imperial foundation, the Nea Moni was built by Constantine IX Monomachos, who authorized the use of the layout in the Monastery of St. George at Mangan and sent mosaicists. The quality and lavishness of the decorations in the other two churches may indicate that they benefited from imperial patronage. It’s an irony of history that the most extensive preserved examples of Byzantine decorations are located outside the Empire: in the Great Mosque of Damascus and Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Many other decorative works, which are mentioned in various sources or have survived to the present day, were also influenced by Byzantine art, such as the Palatine Chapel under the Norman King of Sicily Roger II, the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, and the Gelati Monastery in Georgia.

Mosaic making was for a long time considered an exclusively Byzantine and Constantinopolitan art that spread throughout the Mediterranean world from the Empire’s capital. There are now serious doubts about this and the belief that certain decorations, particularly in Sicilian monuments, were the work of Constantinopolitan mosaicists. 

Preserved monuments from the Palaeologan era (1261–1453) attest to the continuous prestige of mosaic art and its use by the ruling classes: the patriarch Nyphon commissioned the decorations in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloníki, while the intellectual Theodore Metochites, who was promoted to megas logothetes (‘grand logothete’, or ‘chancellor’), directed the exquisite mosaic work that ornaments the Chora Monastery, where he spent his last days. During this period, mosaic decorations seemed to become more limited, such as in Árta, Greece (Church of the Theotokos Paregoritissa, 1295), and in the Pammakaristos Church (Constantinople); they were sometimes associated with frescoes, as in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloníki and the Chora Monastery. The fifty or so preserved mosaic icons attest to the adaptation of this prestigious medium to portable mosaics—sometimes these were very small—for personal devotion. Exported in considerable numbers to the West, where they became part of the prestigious collections of the Italian elite, these miniature mosaic icons were highly prized in the West, as attested by the stories that were invented about their authenticity[3].

Techniques and production

Composed of coloured tesserae—usually in glass and sometimes embellished with a thin layer of gold or silver leaf, whose glittering reflections in the light produced a wonderfully rich and sparkling effect for the viewer—, mosaic is the most prestigious medium for wall decoration. The finesse and quality depends on the materials used: the dimensions of the tesserae, the regularity of their shapes, the type of tessera (glass, precious metals, marble, stone, etc.), and the quality of the preliminary drawing (sinopia), which was executed on the mortar and was often detailed and with the main colours suggested. Associated with the costly process of marble facing, the mosaics were located in the upper areas of the edifices, which further complicated the transportation of materials and allocation of the work (the tesserae were sorted out according to colour and size before they were embedded in the mortar). Two mosaicists could work side by side on the same section of scaffolding, each completing 4m2 of mosaics per day  [4].

The production of tesserae equalled the production of glass. It seems that glass produced in huge quantities in the eastern Mediterranean near raw material sources was exported as raw glass and reworked in the local glassworks for use in the production of tesserae and crockery. The tesserae were produced by adding opacifying agents and colourants from glass in use at the time. Analyses of tesserae from different periods have shown that the raw material wasn’t recycled or reused glass, but contemporary glass that had been used for decorative purposes [5]. To compensate for the shortage of coloured glass tesserae, mosaicists sometimes used glass or stone tesserae dipped in paint. The cost of the mosaics also depended on the precious metal used; it is estimated that in Hagia Sophia more than 4 kg of metal were needed for the apse and 356 kg for the sixth-century mosaics, but this figure may have been lower, according to recent calculations [6]. Apart from the cost of the materials and their intrinsic value, the value of the mosaic also lay in the painstaking process of constructing a mosaic, the perenniality and splendour of the works, and, no doubt, the prestige associated with the art.

I. R.

In Islam

Mosaic is an art form dating from the first few centuries of Islam. It is largely inspired by Roman and Byzantine techniques and patterns, with the range being simply adapted to the taste of the new Muslim buyers. The first caliphs used this decorative technique originating from the classical world and already present in local artistic traditions (there were major mosaic schools throughout the Middle East from the fourth century onwards: Gaza, Antioch, Madaba, and so on). The Umayyad used the existing tradition to exploit its artistic possibilities. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the first Islamic monument, used the mosaic technique, but this typically Roman-Byzantine art did not survive the fall of the Umayyad. As for the Abbasid, they tended to ignore classical traditions and preferred to turn to Middle-Eastern/Oriental traditions. During the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba, mosaic enjoyed a resurgence and a last gasp took place and there was a brief revival during the Mamluk era. Hereafter mosaics disappeared for ever from the Islamic art repertory.

We will only examine the opus sectile and tesselatum, not the North African zelliges since that technique is closer to ceramics.

Floor Mosaics

Chronologically speaking, floor mosaics are the oldest kind of mosaics. We know that the Byzantine churches used during the Umayyad era had mosaic floors. In the Muslim world these floors were only found in lay buildings. The so-called “desert castles” were the first example of Islamic architecture to boast  paved floors. There are numerous examples, from the baths in Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan), known for their figurative designs, to Qastal (Jordan) where archeological digs have exposed figurative animal mosaics. The most representative example is the unfinished palace complex in Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestine, where the entire floor of the baths is covered by dozens of mosaic rugs. The best known of these rugs in the diwân depicts two gazelles on one side of a tree, and on the other side a lion attacking a gazelle. Other sites have mosaic floors, for example Khirbat al-Minya (Palestine) whose mosaic features the only known example of Qur’anic inscription on this type of surface. Most of the designs used are well-known old local designs, but one can observe a preference for textile designs, complicated knotwork that prefigures the advent of arabesque patterns. The presence of animal or human figurative motifs in places like Qasr al-Hallabat (Jordan) shows that the interdiction of figurative representations in Islam is limited to religious buildings.

Wall Mosaics

Although all the floor mosaics were found in lay contexts, wall mosaics were discovered in religious surroundings. There are four examples of wall decoration made out of tesserae (cubes of glass, gold, silver, hardstone, etc.): the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691), the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (705 - 715), the Great Mosque of Cordoba (785 à 987) and the Mausoleum of Sultan Baybars in Damascus (1277). The Dome of the Rock, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik, was the first large-scale building of the Muslim world. It is a sanctuary, not a mosque. The octagonal interior, Byzantine influenced, is entirely covered in gold-based mosaics whose design clearly shows Byzantine and Sassanid inspiration. The second example, Damascus’s Great Mosque, was built by al-Walid I on the former site of the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist. Originally the courtyard and the inside of the prayer room were clad with gold and silver, though this decoration disappeared after several fires. The precious materials and the wide range of designs used make this an ensemble beyond compare. Trees, architecture, various plant elements and natural elements create a continuous frieze of buildings lost in a lush natural setting with a river running through it. One panel discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century represents, according to specialists, the Barada river (the main river of Damascus) along with symbolic representations of cities of the empire or remarkable monuments of the day.

After the fall of the Umayyads in Damascus, the advent of the Abbassid Caliphate marked the end of the use of the mosaic technique in the Middle East. The Umayyad caliphate re-established itself in Cordoba after 756 gave the world a new example of wall mosaics in the Cordoba Great Mosque. There, the mihrab and the central cupola, as well as the space around it, were decorated with mosaic tiles with a gold background of remarkable iconography and technique. They were probably produced under the guidance of a Byzantine master. As is the case with the Dome of the Rock, the designs are essentially stylized plant patterns with Qur’anic inscriptions and mentioning the name of al-Hakam II (961). The stylized floral designs are typical of the Spanish Moorish style as seen in the stucco works in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. The Mausoleum of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars, built in Damascus in 1277, represents the last use of the technique of covering walls with gold tesserae and the architectural iconography of the Great Mosque of Damascus, thus paying tribute to the past glory of the Umayyad Empire. It is one of the last examples of tessera mosaic in the Muslim world.

Tesserae mosaics, whether on the walls or on the floors, stem from an ancient Greco-Roman tradition that has known varying degrees of popularity in the Muslim world. At first, during the Umayyad era, this technique was much admired, but when the Abbasid decided to refocus Islamic culture on its own traditions, it was deemed too close to Byzantine style. Here and there this art form was revived, but it was never again as popular as it had been in the Byzantine Empire and the Christian world (Venice, Ravenna). Floor mosaics, sometimes figurative, were used solely in secular buildings, and wall mosaics were exclusively found in a few religious buildings. In the thirteenth century mosaic disappeared completely from the Middle East, the region where it had first entered the Islamic world.

B. T.


In Byzancium

The mosaics and frescoes of St. Mary Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) at Istanbul, H. Belting, C. Mango, and D. Mouriki, Washington, D.C., 1978.

Messages in mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187), E. Borsook, Woodbridge; Rochester, 1998.

‘The Industry of Art’ in The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Century, A. Cutler, A. Laïou (ed.), pp. 555–582.

Byzantine mosaic decoration, aspects of monumental art in Byzantium, O. Demus, London, 1947.

The Mosaics of Norman Sicily, O. Demus, London, 1949.  The mosaics of San Marco in Venice, O. Demus, Chicago, 1984.

‘Pottery and glass in Byzantium’ in The economic history of Byzantium: from the seventh through the fifteenth century, V. François and J.-M. Spieser, A. E. Laiou (ed.), Washington, D.C., 2002, Vol. II, pp. 593–609.

‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’ in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 30, L. James, 2006, pp. 29–47. La mosaïque gréco-romaine. Colloque international pour l'étude de la mosaïque antique et médiévale [series of publications, ed., various dates and places of publication], from 1963.

Old Russian Murals & Mosaics: from the XI to the XVI Century, V. Lazarev, London, 1966.  The Mosaics of Nea Moni on Chios, D. Mouriki, Athens, 1985.

Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine mosaic pavements in Israel, A. and R. Ovadiah, Rome, 1987 (Bibliotheca archaeologica; 6)

Suntagma tôn palaiohristianikôn psêfidôtôn dapedôn tês Ellados (Corpus of Greek floor mosaics), Thessaloníki, I, 1974, II, 1987, III, 1998 (in Greek).

The Kariye Djami, P. Underwood, New York, 1966.

The Kariye Djami. Vol. 4, Studies in the Art of the Kariye Djami and Its Intellectual Background, P. Underwood (ed), Princeton,


[1] ‘L’artisan-mosaïste dans l’antiquité tardive’ in Artistes, artisans et production artistique au Moyen Age, C. Balmelle and J.-P. Darmon, X. Barral I Altet (ed.), pp. 235–237

[2] ‘The Industry of Art’ in The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Century, A. Cutler, A. Laïou (ed.), p. 557. More recently, L. James, underlined the technical aspects that remain obscure (centres of production of tesserae and raw glass) while questioning others, particularly the excessive cost of metallic (gold and silver) tesserae and the exportation of tesserae.

[3] ‘Images of Personal Devotion: Miniature Mosaic and Steatite Icons’ in Byzantium, A. Effenberger, H. Evans (ed.). Faith and Power (1261–1577) (Metropolitan Museum exhibition catalogue), New Haven, 2004, pp. 209–212.

[4] ‘The Industry of Art’ in The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Century, A. Cutler, A. Laïou (ed.), p. 559.

[5] ‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’ in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 30, L. James, 2006, p. 41.

[6] ‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’ in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 30, L. James, 2006, p. 46.