A picture worth at least a thousand tiles

By | August 28, 2009

In June 2008, archaeologists found a cave under an ancient church in Jordan which they believe to be a church from the first century. The cave lies beneath St. Georgeous Church, which itself dates to 230 A.D. and contains a mosaic referring to “70 beloved by God.” It is thought that this mosaic refers to early followers of Christ who met in the cave.

In Israel, there is another early church — dating to the third century – that was discovered in November 2005 at the ancient site of Meggido. This church contains a large floor mosaic with a centerpiece of two fish (an early Eucharist symbol).

So this past July when Pope Benedict XVI presented President Barack Obama with a gift of a mosaic image of St. Peter’s Square, the gift was all part of a long Christian tradition of mosaic work.

The word “mosaic” comes from an ancient Greek word referring to the Muses, goddesses who were patrons of the arts and of knowledge. However, mosaic work dates even earlier, to ancient Mesopotamia and its third millennium B.C. temples adorned with terra-cotta cones that formed decorative patterns.

The Bible also mentions mosaics, both in Exodus (34:10) and in the Book of Esther, which speaks of a “pavement, which was of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones” (1:6). Esther was the Jewish wife of Ahasuerus, the ruler of Persia in fifth century B.C.

The Greeks and Romans brought mosaic work to a high art form that used various stones, especially marble and glass, as well as gold and silver. The Romans called the work tessarae, from a Greek work meaning “four-sided” and referring to items like dice and the tally stones used in accounting. This Roman art influenced early Christian art, and mosaics can be found in Roman catacombs of Christians dating to the second century A.D.

When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity an official state religion in the fourth century, the artwork of mosaics was used to adorn the new Christian churches he commissioned. When Constantine moved his capital to the eastern city of Byzantium (also called Constantinople, now Istanbul), buildings there saw a continued use of mosaics — unlike Rome, which went into a decline of art. Today, mosaics remain a very common art form in the Eastern churches. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Constantinople’s ancient church of Haggia Sophia had many mosaics works that were destroyed when the church burned in 533 A.D.

In the western empire, mosaics flourished for a time. The ancient Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome still contains some mosaics from the fourth century B.C. Old St. Peter’s Basilica, also built by Constantine, also contained many mosaics, including one of Constantine with St. Peter, that were lost when the old basilica was torn down to make way for construction of the present St. Peter’s, begun in 1506 (completed 1615).

As the Roman empire declined, so did its artwork. Certain places in Italy — Ravenna and Venice especially — continued the tradition of mosaic work. But it was not until the Renaissance of the 13th to 17th centuries before mosaics again flourished. Much of this newer work can be seen in the great cathedrals of Italy — especially Venice, Pisa and Rome.

Today, the basilica of St. Peter’s contains countless “paintings” that are really mosaic copies of the originals, which are stored away to prevent deterioration. Besides protecting these masterpieces, the mosaics — which cover a total of more than 10,000 square feet — were produced to allow better viewing of their artistic qualities. The detail of an oil or tempura painting would be lost in the shadows of the great nave. However, mosaics — with countless tiny edges of stone and glass as well as the gold and silver that is either sandwiched into the tiles or fitted between their edges — catch and reflect light.

The work of replicating the art in St. Peter’s began in 1727 when another Pope Benedict (XIII) inaugurated the Vatican Mosaic Studio. By the end of their first century of existence, the artists of that studio — which unofficially dates to 1506, when St. Peter’s construction began — had copied all but seven of the basilica’s altarpieces.

In the 19th century, one of the studio’s big tasks was to reproduce the papal portrait medallions that line the nave of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. That church had a devastating fire in 1823, and most of its painted medallions of the popes were lost. Today, mosaic medallions of 265 popes, with the current pope’s being specially illuminated, adorn the church where St. Paul is believed to be buried.

Giving Vatican Mosaic Studio mosaics as papal gifts, dates, according to an article in the Italian magazine “30 Days” (30 Giorni), was begun by Pope Leo XII, who gave a mosaic to France’s King Charles X in 1826. Since then, many heads of state, including Fidel Castro and the King of Morocco, have received gifts made at the studio.

All part of the jigsaw puzzle of events that shape the church’s life in the modern world.

Sources: Sacred-destinations.com; www.zenit.org; 30 Days at www.30giorni.it; The New York Post; Catholic Encyclopedia; Catholic News Service.


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