What Makes Mosaics So Special

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

- Lao Tzu, 450 BC


There is something very personal and intimate about working with mosaic. Nerves are always on edge as the first small tessera (individual mosaic tiles) are set into place when beginning a large mosaic, but it doesn’t take long before you become fully immersed, and the project takes on a life of its own. Mosaic artists often describe this as their Zen moment, where there is just no question as to the strong relationship between creative expression and personal well-being.


The larger Rainforest Art Project creations feature over thirty-thousand individual tesserae, meticulously shaped and adhered using many of the same tools and techniques which have been employed by mosaic artists for thousands of years. You just can’t help but to feel a kinship across the millennia with these ancient artisans, whose enduring works clearly reveal their passion for this remarkable craft.


The first known examples of mosaics made of different materials were found at a temple building in Abra, Mesopotamia. They date back over five-thousand years and were crafted from colored stones, shells and ivory. The art form grew throughout North African and Asia, and gained a new level of sophistication with the refinement of the Greeks around the fourth century BC.


Perhaps the most celebrated mosaic of all time is The Battle of Issus in 330 B.C., which commemorates the victory of Alexander the Great over Persian King Darius III. This spectacular floor mosaic (or pavement) features nearly two million tesserae, and was commissioned around the second century BC for the House of Faun in Pompeii. It was subsequently buried in ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, and was revealed to an astonished world in the nineteenth century when it was excavated by a team of German archeologists.

Alexander the Great, detail of the Alexander Mosaic, circa 100 B.C, now preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.


The Greeks and Romans introduced glass tesserae (or smalti) to the art form with an unlimited spectrum of color, and a whole new array of technique and style. This vastly expanded and refined the art of mosaic making, and to this day the vernacular of the mosaicist is in Latin. In 320 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians, and ushering in the era of great religious works of art. These were the glory years for mosaic, as great cathedrals and churches were established throughout the Roman Empire.

Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built around 547 A.D.


Although traditional mosaic techniques remain with us to this day, it is the brilliant innovation of architect Antoni Gaudi who stunned the world with radical projects such as Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia Basilica (Begun in 1882, and expected to be completed within the next ten years) in Barcelona, Spain. Inspired by designs within nature, Gaudi relied heavily on organic, flowing sculptural mosaic to fulfill his revolutionary new vision.

Dragon at Park Guell in Barcelona by Antoine Gaudi


Gaudi appears to be a strong influence in the phenomenal career of Niki de Saint Phalle, whose courageous and emotionally complex creations are seen in parks around the world. One of her last major works was Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, which is located in Escondido, about twenty miles north of San Diego.

Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, by Niki de Saint Phalle


Mosaics of Mexico

One of the most fascinating things about the story of mosaic throughout human history is the fact that it has evolved independently within cultures completely isolated from one another. Mosaic art was highly valued by ancient Americans, and as with Europe, Asia and Africa, they commonly adorned luxury items designed to glorify the supreme power of the gods. The Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs were known to create luxurious mosaic objects, combining such things as turquoise, obsidian, mother of pearl, coral, and even gold.


In 1949, the Perdomo family of Cuernavaca became the first ones in the Americas to bring the ancient glassmaking technology from Venice, and began producing splendid mosaic murals. They remain the only major producers of mosaic glass tile (smalti) in the Americas, and working with pioneering Mexican artists, their bold original mosaic murals have brought them recognition from around the world.


At the Rainforest Art Project, we enjoy telling the history of mosaic because in so many ways it is the enduring reflection of civilization and humanity itself.

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