from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

Mosaic is an art in which small pieces of colored materials are placed in cement or plaster to form a picture or pattern. The pieces are called tesserae. They can be made of practically anything, including marble, glass, tile, minerals, shells, seeds, or pebbles. They can also be any shape, such as round or square, octagonal (eight-sided), hexagonal (six-sided), or irregular. Mosaic is most often used to decorate floors, walls, ceilings, jewelry, and furniture. Tesserae for floors are usually flat. Those used on walls are often cone-shaped so that they can be pushed into cement.

As early as 3000 B.C., the Sumerians, Egyptians, and other ancient peoples decorated walls with colored tiles. These were arranged in simple geometric patterns. In the Americas, Aztec and Maya artisans covered objects such as masks, shields, and religious statues with closely fitted pieces of turquoise, shell, and other materials.

The first true mosaics were floors made from colored pebbles. Floor mosaics dating from the 700's to the 300's B.C. have been found in Turkey, northern Greece, and on the island of Crete.

Pebble mosaic spread throughout the Mediterranean world. In time the Greeks and, later, the Romans began to use small cubes of cut stone or glass for floor mosaics. At first these mosaics had simple abstract patterns in just a few colors. Later, artisans imitated painting techniques. They created detailed and realistic images in many colors. Panels of mosaic were also used like paintings to decorate walls.

Mosaic technique was an important element of early Christian art. Beginning in the A.D. 300's, mosaic was used to decorate church interiors. The use of mosaic in church decoration reached its height during the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Elaborate mosaics depicting biblical subjects cover the walls and ceiling vaults of many Byzantine churches.

The use of mosaic declined greatly after 140. However, it was used in Italy during the Renaissance (1400-1600) and through the 1800's. The art of mosaic was revived in the 1900's. It was used most notably by Mexican artists. Mosaic technique continues to be used today to decorate religious and public buildings.

Reviewed by Charles McClendon
Yale University

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