Tag Archives: san marco

Things in which I delight: Mosaics

A lot of people feel that 2016 was a terrible year, largely because of the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump, and the untimely deaths of several celebrities. Some of my friends also had personal sorrow and loss. I do not wish to downplay the bad stuff in the world, and I think we should think hard about how to make 2017 better.

In the spirit of making 2017 awesome, I’m going to post about things in which I delight every once in a while. Whenever the fancy strikes me, about whatever thing that grabs me.

Today: Mosaics

I’ve chosen mosaics because on Monday, I gave the introductory lecture to first-year Roman imperial history. As part of the lecture, I listed reasons to study the Roman Empire, including this mosaic:

IMG_2192This is an early second-century mosaic of doves from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The tesserae (the little bits of glass/tile/stone used to make a mosaic) are very, very tiny, often only a few millimetres in length. From a distance, it can be mistaken for a painting, so fine is the handiwork.

I delight in mosaics.

They have a particular aesthetic that other forms of art do not have. Now, I like other visual arts, other media of beauty. Maybe I’ll share some stained glass one day soon. Each has its own particular way of displaying beauty. Few mosaics look quite as much like a painting as the doves above (although there is only one painting in San Peter’s, Rome!). The bringing together of many small items, each unique, to create a larger whole, results in a different feel.

I’m not very good at writing about art, so let’s just move on to the pictures. If you want a set of 105 mosaic photos, I’ve got one of those on Flickr.

Here are some of the mosaic photos that I’ve taken. (Not, however, photo mosaics.)

The walls of the Vatican museum are full of mosaics, the provenance of which I don’t know. But I like the mosaics. Some of them are also on the floor, come to think of it. Here’s one on the wall:

14324068596_a409c855cb_oI like this next in particular; also from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, it’s similar to the doves in size, both its own and its tesserae. It features goats, which are something else in which I delight:

14323870206_d48757db82_oThis next mosaic is from the Vatican’s floor, depicting Achilles dragging Hector around:

14160544047_57589817ec_oYou can also find ancient mosaics at the Louvre in Paris:

9739292243_e77aef4002_oThis one is part of the Mosaics of the Seasons, c. 225, from Daphne a suburb of Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Elsewhere in Paris, you can see medieval mosaics, such as this one from the 12th-c floor of the double ambulatory of St-Denis. It is also about the seasons — in October, the vintner puts wine in his barrel:

7796704496_6968b492a7_oGoing back in time, the first ancient mosaics I saw were in Cyprus when I was there 2005-06, such as this one in situ in a villa at Kourion:

114095207_4ec73ac5a7_oMost mosaics I’ve seen, however, have been in Italian churches…

IMG_5381This is a vaguely blurry image of half the triumphal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore as well as some of the apsidal dome. The mosaic on the arch dates to the papacy of Xystus III (432-440). At the bottom is Jerusalem (parallelled by Bethlehem on the right side of the mosaic. Above it we see stories from Jesus’ life, such as the massacre of the innocents, Jesus in the Temple as a boy, and an event at the top that I can’t place. The glistening gold of the apse is 13th-century and features the Coronation of the Virgin; all of my photos of it are extraordinarily blurry.

IMG_2879This 11th-century mosaic is on the apse of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Christ, throned in glory, is flanked by angels. In the lower corners of the semi-dome you can see some of St Ambrose’s miracles.

Speaking of St Ambrose, here is my rather lacklustre attempt at a photo of the fifth-century mosaic in the side chapel of San Vittore in the same basilica.

6804126324_0054676f10_oStaying in the fifth century, let’s zip back down to Rome to San Paolo fuori le Mura to nod our heads in admiration of this big mosaic of Jesus dating to the papacy of Leo and lifetime of Galla Placidia (440-50):

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I could fill this post with images of Roman church mosaics, but won’t. I’ll give two more, though. First is Santa Prassede, which is Rosamond McKitterick’s favourite Roman church:

IMG_2755Second, St Paul’s within the Walls (the American Episcopal church in Rome):

14121281141_9958bb96b7_oAs with many 19th-c images I love, this (sadly, blurry photo) is Pre-Raphaelite — Edward Burne-Jones.

In a vain attempt to keep Rome under control, here are camels on a dome from the porch of San Marco, Venice:

12743169073_9138f75184_oI think I’ll end here. Sorry that some of these are blurry. I do like a mosaic, though!


Everywhere I go on research trips in Europe, there is some art or architecture that grabs me. In Milan, the Gothic Duomo and Romanesque Sant’Ambrogio; in Paris, the Gothic Everything-Omygosh; in Florence, early Renaissance painting (esp. Fra Angelico); in much of Germany, the mediaeval houses and Baroque churches and palaces (both exemplified in Wolfenbüttel, as I’ve noted).

In Venice, it’s Veneto-Byzantine.

And I don’t mean ‘Byzantine stuff looted in 1204 and after.’

That’s here, too. It’s worth looking at.

Veneto-Byzantine is Venice’s answer to the rest of western Europe’s Romanesque. It was popular in Venice throughout the Middle Ages, right up into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although you’ll find a few Gothic things in Venice, they’re usually isolated architectural elements — even in the altarpieces. Mostly, things move into Early Renaissance, even the altarpieces (okay, maybe some of that qualifies as Late Gothic).

What makes it Byzantine? Well, just take a look at it:

The image pictured above, one of the mosaics in San Marco basilica, is not a western Romanesque motif. My guidebook to San Marco says it is of Christ in Limbo, but the title gives it away, ‘? ???? ???C??C?C’ — The Holy Resurrection.

What we westerners call ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ is the Byzantine representation of the Resurrection, and this mosaicist knows it.

And you can’t go telling me this is a typical western Blessed Virgin Mary:

This mosaic, from the apsidal dome of the cathedral on the island of Torcello is of Maria Theotokos — the inscriptions on either side of her head say so.

Of course, beneath Theotokos you see some bits of Latin. But the artistic style is decidedly Byzantine.

Both times I’ve gone into San Marco, I’ve been stunned almost to stumbling by the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics therein. They are stunning. They are more powerful than any of the beautiful frescoes I saw in the painted churches of Cyprus. They are worth a visit.

Little bits of Byzantine and Veneto-Byzantine religious artwork and devotion are scattered about Venice if you know what you’re looking for. And even if you don’t, this icon of Cypriot bishop St Spyridon, in Museo Correr, requires no training to identify.

Of course, some Byzantine nods are harder to spot. For example, if you visit the church of Vivaldi’s baptism, San Giovanni Battista in Bragora, you are unlikely to realise that the little side chapel dedicated to San Giovanni Elemosinario is not only adorned by modern Byzantine-style icons and what looks to be an altar-cloth embroidered with Armenian is, in fact, dedicated to a seventh-century Byzantine saint, St John the Almsgiver, Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria. That same church also has a Veneto-Cretan icon in it — the result of Crete remaining a Venetian possession after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.

In the Galerie dell’Accademia — which I recommend — you will find some very lovely examples of Veneto-Byzantine icons, including the Madonna and Child to the left, by Veneziano (c. 1325). This piece is strikingly Byzantine — however, some aspects feel distinctly western. The Theotokos is not gesturing at the Christ Child, and he is leaning out quite dramatically to bless the viewer. Yet the flatness, if you will, and the perspective, and the colouring, and the inclusion of the rosettes on the Theotokos’ garment, all resonated more with the Byzantine than the Gothic.

And even when Veneziano painted Gothic, there were traces of Byzantine in him. In the Accademia, further along, there is a polittico or polyptych (in this case, looks to be a Gothic altarpiece) by him — the ‘Lion Polyptych’. The figures all have that airy quality associated with the Gothic, and Sts Dominic and Francis are there to greet you. But then you are struck by the miniatures along the bottom — Sts Savvas, Macarius, Paul of Thebes, Ilarius (Hilarion?), Teodorus. And St Antony in the large figures. Not as western as first glance would have you believe …

Why does Venice have such strong eastern ties? Much of the Veneto-Byzantine art, indeed the greatest of it (San Marco’s mosaics, the Last Judgement in the cathedral on Torcello) pre-dates the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, after all.

Well, by 1204 Venice was already thoroughly ensconced in a literal and mercantile empire that was primarily focussed on the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, easterners and their goods were constantly coming through Venice. There was bound to be some impact on the place as a result.

But that clearly isn’t a good enough explanation, given that other cities and countries did similar things without developing their own version of Byzantine art. Venice, you see, has been a fiercely independent city for her whole history. She resisted the onset of Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Franks who came through northern Italy. And part of this was done by allying herself with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, who viewed herself as the rightful ruler of Italy.

This alliance meant that from the outset, Venice’s vision turned East to the Adriatic coast and beyond for trading opportunities — to the Byzantine Empire and those within her sphere of influence.

As a result of this two-pronged political and mercantile focus on the Byzantine East, Venice’s art was drawn East as well — or rather, stayed that way. Given what we see much earlier in Ravenna, it is safe to say that Byzantine was the style for northeastern Italian cities at the time. And given what we see around the same time in Milan, Byzantine and Romanesque are not so far off.



It is glorious and beautiful. You can’t miss it if you go to Venice, unless you neglect to visit the Basilica, in which case you are a fool.