THE ART OF MOSAICS

BY GEORGE KEPOLAS

The earliest mosaics to be discovered by archaeologists to date are those found in Mesopotamia and it is estimated that they originated from as far as 3,000 B.C. They are relatively small in size and appear crude by today’s standards. Other mosaics estimated to be from the same period are those encountered in Egyptian and Persian monuments. We can, however, suppose that there exist even older mosaics, dating from the time when Man first emerged from caves and started building houses and roads.  From the very beginnings of civilization.

It seems though that it was Greeks, around the fourth century B.C., who first developed the mosaics into an art and gave them a different dimension. It also appears that, during the Classical era, this art was not appreciated in the same way that architecture and sculpture. After the fourth century B.C., however, it became the most widespread decorative method. Mosaics of this sort were discovered in Pella, Rhodes and Dhelos. The artists of that period, in spite of limited resources, produced works of great value. These artists were substantially influenced by Classical and Hellenistic elements: austere designs and colourations’ on the one hand, meticulous execution of the work on the other.

The art of mosaics was used by the Romans to a great extent. Workshops abounded and the artisans were strictly organized in various unions through which they would undertake the decoration of the floors of both public buildings as well as the elite’s private homes. One encounters such mosaics throughout the ancient Greek world while in Cyprus they can be found in Paphos, Kourion, Salamis, etc.

Mosaics reached their heyday during the Byzantine years. Following the prevalence of Christianity (fourth century A.D.) and its establishment as the official religion of the State, we find large churches being erected throughout the Empire and decorated, by and large, with mosaics. Ranging from Ravenna to Constantinople and from Thessaloniki to Cyprus ( Panayia tis Kanakarias, Panayia Angeloktisti, Panayia tis Kyros in Lavadhia, etc) the Byzantine emperors encouraged the artisans to create works which today hold an important place in the History of Art on a worldwide scale.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire from the thirteenth century onwards brought about a parallel decline in the art of mosaics. The remaining artists left for Italy in search of jobs where, even if on a smaller scale and the decoration of churches using mosaics continued for a few more centuries.

Subsequently, the art of mosaics faded into obscurity for about three centuries. Various attempts at reviving the art, made in Europe, did not bring about any results until, during the first decades of our century, a fervent use of mosaics occurred in churches and monuments of Paris. At the same time, a centre for the study of mosaics is opened in Ravenna, where great artists both studied and carry out works worthy of mention.

In the Greek world, the revival of Byzantine by Photis Kontoglou, primarily after 1950, brings about the establishment of a few workshops which attempted to study and create works of art using mosaic techniques. One of these workshops, indeed the only one found in Cyprus, is the Byzantine hagiography and Mosaic Workshop, run by the Kepolas Brothers.