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Marvel of mosaic 

Mosaic is an image or a pattern created by arranging small coloured pieces, such as stones or glass. ‘Mosaic’ originates from the Greek word ‘mousaikos’, which refers to the work done by the Muses.
Last Updated 23 February 2024, 22:49 IST

Mosaic is an image or a pattern created by arranging small coloured pieces, such as stones or glass. ‘Mosaic’ originates from the Greek word ‘mousaikos’, which refers to the work done by the Muses. These are goddesses of literature, science, and arts in Greek mythology.

During a visit to Jordan in 2019, my tour guide Yusuf Jaber walked me through the history of mosaics. During the Roman (509 to 476 AD) and Byzantine periods (330 AD to 1453 AD), mosaic flooring was the primary flooring material used in public spaces like churches, bathhouses and merchant shops. As time wore on, mosaics doubled up as decorative pieces on the wall.

Long history

Jaber took me to the 6th century Madaba Mosaic Map at St George’s Church. It is said to be the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history, made with 2million coloured stones. It vividly depicts the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

Shedding light on other nuggets of history, he said, “The ancient mosaic flooring in Turkey (1500 BC) utilised unpainted natural stones. In Ur, Iraq, mosaic wall art from 2600 BC was made from Lapis lazuli (deep-blue metamorphic rock), shell, and red limestone. The Greeks upgraded pebble flooring (a flooring type that uses small, smooth pebbles or stones set in a matrix of grout) to mosaics that portrayed scenes from daily life. This was later adopted by the Romans for hero tributes. In the Byzantine era, mosaics gained prominence in churches.”

Byzantine mosaics featured small glass, stone, or ceramic pieces, selected for visual impact and symbolic meaning. They adorned curved walls, incorporating delicate materials like mother of pearl, gold and silver leaf, and various coloured glass. Placed at angles, these materials trapped and reflected light, creating a sparkling atmosphere. An exemplary mosaic at Hagia Sophia, dated to the 9th century, depicts the enthroned Virgin Mary holding Jesus (as a child) on her lap.

Mosaic art at Jordan At the Memorial Church of Moses in Mount Nebo in Jordan, detailed mosaics adorn both the flooring and walls. The intricate detailing can be attributed to an abundance of stones in the region, such as ma’an stone (an ivory-white dotted limestone), Ajloun stone (a beige shaded stone), limestone, granite, sandstone, and basalt. These stones were meticulously shaped into pieces as small as 1 cm x 1 cm, known as ‘tesserae’, using tools like hammers.

The foundation for the mosaic flooring, as Yusuf pointed out in a chapel near the Church of Deacon Thomas ruins, was constructed with broken bricks, pottery, and lime, providing a sturdy base. The top layer was a dense mixture of lime and brick powder. “Systematically and precisely, artists divided the flooring into sections using strings and nails. Each section was outlined with pigments. These acted as a guide for intricate designs and were later concealed by small tesserae,” he adds.

Over months, artists crafted designs in a room depicting Jordan’s daily life or nature. Some mosaics featured geometric patterns aligning with Latin Bible quotes. After completion, the mosaic was levelled by rubbing it with pumice stone.

Floor to keepsakes

Today, many workshops in Madaba specialise in crafting mosaic artifacts, preserving a tradition that once covered expansive 20’x10’ floors and is now cherished as an artform to make souvenirs.

At Jordan Jewel Art and Mosaics workshop in Amman, Abida Hassan, a diploma graduate from MIMAR, intricately crafts mosaic art like tabletops or wall hangings. Her current project involves Madaba’s signature design, the ‘Tree of Life’. She explained, “The ‘Tree of Life’ mosaic in Madaba reflects the community’s beliefs and connection to the natural world. Found in the Church of the Virgin, it symbolises the connection between heaven and earth, representing knowledge, love of god, abundance, and harmony.” As times change, artists are adapting accordingly. Abida said, “Earlier, artists used natural stone blocks. Now, many buy stone bars of 6” length and less than 1 cm thick. This way, the material can be easily cut using pliers.”

Different techniques

Two mosaic-making techniques are popular in Madaba — the Jordanian and Syrian.

For making a Jordanian tabletop mosaic, for instance, one starts by reproducing the design on fabric with a carbon paper. Mosaics are then laid using a mix of flour, water, and vinegar. Nadira Massarweh, owner of Arabella Workshop for Mosaics in Madaba, refers to it as “a natural glue”. Next, a wooden or metal frame that will go around the mosaic art is kept on a table and filled with a mixture of white cement and white glue. A trowel is used to give it a flawless finish.

The next stage is tricky. Nadira explained: “The mosaic art needs to be carefully placed on the cement mixture, with the fabric facing top. The mosaic pieces jut out of the top cement layer just 1 or 2 mm. The top fabric is then slowly removed by applying a little water.”

In the Syrian style, a mesh is placed above a paper bearing the design. The mesh grids serve as guidelines, allowing learners and visitors to place small stones following the design beneath. Since the mosaic is laid on a flexible plastic mesh, you can take away the completed art by rolling it up. ‘Thalassa’ is a popular design in both Jordanian and Syrian techniques. It depicts a woman surrounded by fish in the sea. It symbolises the Mediterranean sea, says Nadira.

Commercial scene

Factory-made mosaic tiles mostly use materials like ceramics, natural stones, or coloured glass. Most manufacturing procedures are automated, employing machines to cut large slabs into various geometrical patterns, say industry insiders. The tile shapes are cut using CNC (Computerised Numerical Control). The computers precisely control machine movements to cut glass or tiles into desired shapes and sizes.

Designers speak

Renowned architect Bharathi Prem, known for her work on Pyramid Valley, a meditation centre in Bengaluru, sheds light on the versatility of mosaic. She said, “Mosaics are used for floor patterns, highlighting borders with cement or oxide flooring, wall murals, wall cladding, and even as cladding over roofs or terraces where white mosaic tiles reduce heat gain.” Their durability, ease of maintenance, and ability to withstand heavy traffic and rough weather make them a top choice, she added.

Aditya Chandrashekhar, principal architect with Bengaluru-based firm Catamaran, works with terrazzo, another mosaic flooring. “Terrazzo flooring involves mixing chips of materials with a binder, pouring it on-site, and polishing for a sleek, continuous surface. It is known for its uniformity in design,” he added. In a 60-year-old Mysuru house, he chose to restore the terrazzo flooring instead of replacing it entirely. “Terrazzo flooring was common in India from the ’50s to the ’90s. It is a type of mosaic made on-site. Washing the surface with soap water to remove the dust, followed by wax polishing, gave it a bright shine,” he shared. 

Wallet factor

Mosaic tiles are costly compared to pure ceramic and vitrified tiles. Notably, ceramic mosaic tiles are more budget-friendly than glass or natural stone mosaics. Glass mosaics incur a high manufacturing cost, and natural stones aren’t readily available. Ceramic mosaic tiles can cost Rs 80 per sq ft while glass mosaic tiles start from Rs 150 per sq ft and can go up to Rs 750 per sq ft, based on the type and pattern.

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(Published 23 February 2024, 22:49 IST)

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