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In ancient times mosaics were a form of floor decoration made of small pebbles and later of cut or shaped pieces of marble, hard stone, glass, terra-cotta, mother-of-pearl, and enamels. The shaped pieces, in the form of small cubes, are called tesserae or tesselae. The tesserae are embedded in plaster, cement, or putty to hold them in place. Techniques for arranging the components in a design include opus tesselatum, simple geometric patterns; opus vermiculatum, small stones arranged in patterns of curved lines, including pictures of objects; opus musivum, mosaic decorations of walls; and opus sectile, a pattern composed of larger stones of varied shapes.

Greece 1970. Mosaic. Duck.

The art of laying mosaics was cherished by the ancient Romans, who were true masters in creating beautiful images and ceramic items for daily use.  During the despotic reigns of the Roman emperors it was strictly forbidden to oppose the system. If one did it anyway, one's life would be at stake. 

The Roman population therefore developed the art of mosaics where they could express freely and anonymously their opposition against the rulers, and general dismay of corrupt politicians, without the risk of death penalty for being "dissidents". Only later the Art of Mosaics developed into creating religious images, which is shown elsewhere on this site.  

  • Greece 1970. Mosaic. "Duck". 5th century, late Roman Period.

In Early Christian mosaics of the 4th to the 6th century, decorative borders frame human figures, animals and birds, and frequently hunting scenes. In Venice the mosaics of San Marco cover a wide range of periods -- 13th century in the right transept, 14th century in the baptistery, and 17th-century baroque designs throughout the basilica. Rome is rich in mosaics of various periods, including mosaics in the churches of Santa Maria in Trastevere (1130-43) and the basilicas of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (1218), San Giovanni in Laterano (1291), and Santa Maria Maggiore (1295). 

Dahomey 1972.  Mosaic. "Roosters carrying a fox" Dahomey 1972. Mosaic. "Stork and Snake". United Nations (New York) 1969. Detail of mosaics from the 3rd century, found in Tunisia. Stamp #1. United Nations (New York) 1969. Detail of mosaics from the 3rd century, found in Tunisia. Stamp #2.

Islamic artists produced outstanding monuments with mosaics, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Ummayad Great Mosque in Damascus. The Dome of the Rock was built in the late 7th century and is decorated with floral mosaics depicting acanthus leaves, palm trees, cornucopias, vases, and tree-of-life motifs. The tesserae are set against gold backgrounds in dominant shades of green and blue, with accents of red, silver, gray, mauve, black, and white. The Ummayad Great Mosque in Damascus was finished in the early 8th century. It has mosaics on both the exterior and the interior of the building that depict floral and tree motifs as well as buildings and an imaginary city. 

 Albania 1974. osaic from Butrint in the Macedonian part of Albania. San Marino 1971.  Etruscan Ceramic Jug "Duck".  Pre Roman Period. Albania 1974. Mosaic from Pogradec in the Macedonian part of Albania.

In spite of the general restrictions during the Second World War the internationally renowned artist, Pablo Picasso's fame grew particularly during this period.  In the United States he was acclaimed as the most important artist of the 20th century, and after the war he was suddenly considered a public person, also in France. He was much criticized for joining the Communist Party in 1944, but his political involvement remained always very limited. Only his lithograph of a dove, created for the World Congress for Peace, held in Paris 1949, gained world fame in political respects, and his dove design was later pronounced the international symbol of peace. 

Soviet Union 1981. Peace Dove designed by Pablo Picasso. United Nations (New York) 1994. Roman mosaic of a dove of peace.

Peoples Rep. of China 1950. Peace Doves designed by Pablo Picasso.

  • China (People's Republic) 1950. Set of three Peace Doves, designed by Picasso. Scans taken from a Chinese colour catalogue for illustration.  
  • Canada 1999. "Millennium Dove". The stamp shows the timeless message of Peace found in the dove, printed from a classic steel engraving by Jorge Peral. This sheetlet is a true masterpiece, and is one of the Canadian "Millennium-Trilogy" of commemorative sheetlets. The other two sheetlets show a child holding a dove, and the Canadian Holographic Stamp.  

Canada 1999. Millenniium Dove.

Canada 1999. First day cover "Canadian Rooster" by Jean Dallaire.

Knowledge of mosaic techniques is mostly derived from direct examination of specific examples; damaged mosaics in Istanbul provide explicit information. Walls to be covered with mosaics received a triple coat of plaster. The first layer, of lime, sand, and brick dust, was applied over the masonry to produce a smooth surface. The intermediate layer -- 1.25 to 5 cm (0.5 to 2 in) thick -- was made of lime, sand, and chopped straw. This surface was scratched or tooled to receive the third coat, called intonaco, of plaster of lime and marble dust, which was applied over a small area, as much as could be completed in one day. It was then painted in detail in true fresco and immediately set with colored cubes to match the painted surface. 


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Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
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