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The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Sean LeatherburySean Leatherbury


An art form in which artisans used small pieces (tesserae) of stone, glass, and other materials to create geometric and figural images. Tesserae typically were applied on top of a preparatory drawing which had been sketched onto a prepared setting bed. While floor mosaics were first made by the Greeks, the Romans greatly expanded their use, applying the medium to walls and ceilings, especially curved spaces such as vaults and apses.

For durability, floor mosaics (opus tessellatum) were primarily made of stone tesserae which were quarried near the site of the final work, while wall mosaics (opus musivum) were made mainly of glass, including gold and silver sandwich-glass. Raw glass was produced in large tank furnaces in Egypt and the Levant before being shipped to secondary production sites at which elements were added in order to achieve the colours desired. Other materials used included brick or terracotta, semi-precious stones, and mother-of-pearl.

Mosaicists were organized into workshops, and occasionally signed their compositions with inscriptions. While most workshops were based in cities or towns, some may have been itinerant. Craftsman who travelled include those from Carthage who made the floor mosaics of the 4th-century villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. According to the Tetrarchic Prices Edict of 301 (7, 6–7), musaearii (most likely wall mosaicists) were paid 60 denarii a day in addition to their board, while tessellarii (probably floor mosaicists) were paid 50 denarii. Multiple craftsmen worked simultaneously on larger mosaics. Apse mosaics in churches were produced by two mosaicists who worked from the centre out, one in each direction.

While motifs were transmitted around the Mediterranean by pattern books and travelling craftsmen, workshops in different regions favoured different iconography and produced work in varied styles. In Italy, the wall mosaics of churches in Rome, Ravenna, and Poreč in Croatia were produced with large quantities of coloured and gold-glass tesserae. There were also workshops in the Western Empire, for instance in Britain at Dorchester in Dorset (mosaics at Hinton S. Mary and Frampton) at Cirencester (the Woodchester villa mosaics), and at Brough-on-Humber in the East Riding of Yorkshire. In Spain distinctive schools created polychrome floor mosaics of mythological and hunting scenes, e.g. the 4th-century mosaic of Dulcitius hunting in his villa near Tudela. In south-west Gaul artisans preferred elaborate foliage motifs. There were also mosaicists in Germany near Trier. Many of these schools, especially those in Aquitaine and Spain, were influenced by African workshops which produced vividly coloured mosaics incorporating flowers and foliage, as well as scenes of *hunting, marine life, and figures from myth, including Bacchus (Dionysus), Venus (Aphrodite), and the Amazons (e.g. the 5th-century mosaics of the House of the Hidden Statues at Carthage), and the life of country house otium (e.g. the Dominus Julius mosaic). Workshops at Cuicul (mod. Djemila), Hadrumetum (mod. Sousse), and Thabraca also created unique Christian funerary pavements which combined Epitaphs and images of the deceased.

In the Balkans, mosaicists in Thessalonica, possibly sent from Constantinople, produced the 5th-century dome mosaics of the Rotunda of Galerius (later the Church of S. George), as well as the wall and apse mosaics of the churches of S. Demetrius and the Latomus Monastery (Hosios David). Workshops in Greece and Cyprus made the pavements of both villas and churches, indicating that there was no functional division between Christian and secular domestic production. The Cypriot workshops also created the apse mosaics of the Virgin and Christ in the churches of the Panagia Kanakariá at Lykanthromi (500–50) and the Panagia Angeloktistos at Kiti (late 6th or 7th century). Apart from these two churches, the only mosaics to survive from the Late Antique East are those of the 6th-century Katholikon of the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai.

Workshops from Constantinople produced the mosaic ceiling decoration of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the now-lost 6th-century mosaics of Justinian and Theodora triumphing over the Vandals and Goths in the vault of the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace, described by Procopius (Aed. I, 10, 16–18), as well as the 6th-century (?) floor mosaics of the Palace which depict animals and a staged hunt (venatio). Elsewhere in Asia Minor, churches and houses were adorned with mosaics, including the Terrace Houses at Ephesus which feature floor mosaics and a vault mosaic dated to c.400. The apse mosaic commissioned by Anastasius I for the church at the Monastery of Mar Gabriel on the Tur ‘Abdin on the Persian frontier depicts foliage but no figures. In Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan, the strength of the Hellenistic tradition of framed ‘pictures on the floor’ (emblemata) persisted in domestic decoration, including in the houses at Daphne, a wealthy suburb of Antioch in Syria, and at Apamea, where workshops favoured mythological and allegorical images. In the late 4th and 5th centuries, mosaicists in this area developed the carpet mosaic style, creating unified pavements decorated with geometric, floral, animal, and inhabited scroll designs. Carpet pavements were popular in the churches of the region into the 8th century at sites under Umayyad control, including those in the Church of S. Stephen at Umm al-Rasas in Jordan, produced by artists from nearby Madaba. Umayyad rulers employed mosaicists to decorate their desert palaces with elaborate geometric pavements and their mosques with scenes of Earthly Paradise, including those in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus, possibly produced by Byzantine artisans.

Sean V. Leatherbury


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