In 348 BC Philip of Macedon attacks and destroys Olynthus, whose inhabitants have been unwise enough to rebel against him. Any survivors abandon the town, which is forgotten until it is excavated in the 1920s.
The excavation reveals a fact previously unknown. Well-to-do Greeks of the 4th century have their floors covered in elaborate mosaics, consisting of pictorial scenes set within a succession of borders, much like the design of a carpet. Many of the houses in Olynthus have floors of this kind. Simpler versions of patterned floors are known from several hundred years earlier in Crete and in mainland Greece, but the Olynthus designs are much more advanced – constituting virtually a new art form.
The mosaicists of Olynthus use natural pebbles, limited mainly to black for the background and white for the figures. A few stones of different colors are included to improve the effect, but they are used completely – showing a rounded surface.
During the next century, Greek mosaicists become more ambitious. They use small cubes cut from stone, to give a greater range of colour, and sometimes they add fragments of coloured glass. These are the two varieties of small cubes, known as tesserae, which become the basic ingredients of all subsequent mosaics. As the tesserae become brighter and smaller, there is little limit to the pictorial effects which can be achieved.
Mosaic in the Roman empire: 1st c. BC – 3rd c. AD
Mosaic spreads through the Hellenistic world and is brought by Greek craftsmen to Italy – as revealed in the amazing examples from Pompeii (for example, the dramatic image of Alexander and Dariusin battle).
The Romans carry the art further afield. Soon, throughout the empire, rich villas have impressive mosaic floors. They are often laid by local craftsmen (invariably the tesserae are from materials of the surrounding district). Many of the views are charming scenes of life in and around a villa. The images are copied from existing patterns rather than being original works of art, but the results are often impressive – particularly in several north African villas, and in one spectacular example in Sicily.
The great Roman villa near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, built in about AD 300, has mosaic floors which were probably laid by craftsmen from north Africa. Originally they covered some 4200 square yards. Of their many lively scenes, none has given more delight than the group of bikini-clad maidens playing a musical game with a ball.
The mosaics of Piazza Armerina are of the early 4th century. By that time the bishop of Aquileia in northern Italy is adapting this Roman art form to his own polemical purposes. He commissions for the floor of his church a splendid mosaic depicting all the scenes in the dramatic story of Jonah and the whale. It begins with the great tradition of Christian mosaic.
The Christian tradition: from the 4th century AD
The turning point for mosaic, as an art form, is the use of it by Christians to decorate the walls of churches rather than the floor.Two of the earliest examples are in Rome. Santa Costanza, built in about AD 350 as the tomb for a daughter of Constantine, has lively mosaics on pagan themes decorating its vault. More significant, as a foretaste of things to come, is the mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana.
Dating from about 390 (though much restored), it shows Jesus on a throne. His apostles support him on either side. The regal nature of the image, very different from the good shepherd of the early Christians, prefigures the Christ in Majesty depicted so forcefully in later Byzantine tradition.
Even more significant are the mosaics in a Roman church of the following century, Santa Maria Maggiore. It is built in about 435 by pope Sixtus III, who commissions mosaics to decorate spaces on its walls. These spaces are small and far from the ground (for this is essentially a Roman basilica, with two great rows of columns providing the main feature), but the content and treatment of the mosaics prefigures much in later Christian art.
Rectangles above the columns depict scenes from the Old Testament. Such narrative panels will produce rich glories in late medieval frescoes (for example at Padua). But the triumphal arch over the altar of Santa Maria Maggiore offers an even more inspiring example for the future.
The dominant figure in the scenes on the arch is the Virgin Mary. In the top-left corner (the beginning, when reading the sequence as a narrative) she sits enthroned for the Annunciation, bejeweled and in a golden robe. Her pride of place and her regal appearance reflect the fact that the church is dedicated to her. But this is also a political gesture by the pope. The most controversial issue in church politics of this period is the nature of the Virgin Mary.
Is she Theotokos (the ‘bearer of God’)? Nestorius, who denies that she is, has been condemned as a heretic only a few years previously at the council of Ephesus.
In commissioning Santa Maria Maggiore and its mosaics the pope makes plain where he stands. A regal Mary in the first scene, surrounded by angels, receives the news that she will give birth to Christ; and the following scenes concentrate on her son’s childhood.
The sequence introduces one of the most productive themes of Christian art – Mary and the infant Christ, whose scenes form only a small part of the Gospels but who will inspire countless painters and sculptors. Here they are formal figures in the golden convention of mosaic. It remains for the painters of later centuries to develop the emotional side of this most human of Christian themes.