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Mosaics in Cyprus
Mosaics in Cyprus
The World-Renowned “Showpiece” of the Island
Evgeniya Theodorou
Author: Evgeniya Theodorou
Translation: Jordan Worsley
Photo: Daria Saulskaia

Many countries crafted mosaics in the past and still use them today for decorating residential and public interiors, with the aid of river and sea stones (pebbles) and hard-rocks (granite and marble), as well as smalt and gold. Cyprus, in this respect, is no exception: after all, through its mosaics, we can examine the history of the island, its culture and traits worthy of admiration.

This form of decorative-applied and monumental art has an incredibly long history. In the art of mosaics, a picture is created by assembling a single pattern or image and fixing it to a surface (more often to a flat plane) with the aid of limestone, cement, putty or even various wax materials — these were often in the form of soft fragments with simple (Roman, Byzantine, Venetian mosaics) or complex (Florentine tiles) shapes.

The first mosaics in the history of man were geometric patterns crafted from coloured seashells. Narrative (depicting famous scenes from history) pieces appeared later, both in black and white and colour. They were initially created with random-shaped stones and afterwards mosaicists began to use squares. The refined and expensive mosaics of later eras differ due to their softer elements, more delicate work and the complexity of their illustrations: the use of geometric patterns was succeeded by a spree of intricate scenes from antique mythology, followed by the later appearance of early Christian symbols.

Mosaics in Cyprus

So, the earliest mosaic works known to us date back to the second half of 4 B.C (although, researchers have not excluded the possibility of earlier forms existing, beginning from the time when humanity had just started to build dwellings and lay roads — i.e. the dawn of civilisation). Mesopotamians first created mosaics by laying ceramic shells in a zig-zag pattern and then colouring them in a red, black or white dye.

Other mosaics from the same period were encountered in Egyptian and Persian monuments. The years 2600-2400 B.C. attribute to the emergence of the incrustation technique (decorating various items or buildings with insertions of other materials, in this case, stone — in Latin: opus sextile), a particular precursor to the further renowned technique of “Florentine mosaics”.
Mosaics are a world-renowned showpiece of Cyprus: one of the most famous and recognised sights in the world.

In general, all the mosaic works “available” on the island, with a history spanning roughly over 1000 years, were produced in the Hellenistic, early Christian and early Byzantine (the late 7th century included) periods — right up to the Arabic invasion (650-958), which witnessed a severe decline in this art form.

The very earliest specimens uncovered during archaeological explorations belong to 1563 B.C. (based on the first references to mosaics floors in the palace of Salamis). These were geometric shapes fashioned from sea pebbles, which the constant impact of waves had rounded; often black, grey, pink, white or brown. They were not so great in size and looked a little rough around the edges, in comparison with the standards of today.

Mosaic images made of coarse pebble were discovered on palace floors in Anatoly, dating back to 8 B.C: similar paving was found in other lands of the Antique world, without any embellishments, which resulted in the Romans flippantly naming it “opus barbaricum”.

According to researchers, it was the Ancient Greeks, in particular, who in late 5 B.C., despite the experiences of their predecessors, became the first to raise the craft of creating mosaic compositions to a level of genuine art. The most renowned specimens are native to Corinth, as well as the city-states of Olynthus, Sicyon, Eretria and the ancient capital of Macedonia — Pella (all in 4 B.C.).

Moreover, the Greeks often adopted decorative motifs (human figures; images of animals and birds: lions and cheetahs, the mythical griffin, eagles and peacocks accompanied by flora: lotuses, ivy and grapevines) from the samples of their contemporaries in the countries of Western Asia — the high level of weaving in these regions was noted by the Ancient Greek geographer and historian, Strabo (64 — approx 24 B.C.), in his “Geography” (in descriptions of Asia, XI-XVI literary works).

Despite the small selection of tools and materials at their disposal, the master craftsmen of the classical (5-4 B.C.) and further Hellenistic periods (334-30 B.C.) produced truly marvellous mosaic pieces with characteristically painstaking execution and detailed planning.

In the emphasised majesty of Hellenistic architecture, mosaics tend to follow general trends — they observe its aspirations to master vast spaces, to affect the grandeur and built-in logic of constructions while focusing on the prominence of shapes, as well as the precision and mastery in the craftsmanship. Copies of such architecture, by and large from Rome (Pompeii and Herculaneum), have survived to our time, where along with the classical conception, it is possible to notice how a more expressive manner of portraying imagery developed; one characterised by its narration, decorativeness and unfinished state.

Workshops were inundated with orders and flourished, while the craftsmen themselves were strictly organised into their various artels; through them, they would receive and complete orders for finishing the floors of public buildings, as well as the private homes of the elite and the aristocracy.

Interestingly: to begin with, not all the rooms in private homes were finished with mosaics, but only the part which the owners would present — androns (the main hall in the “male” half of the house, where the owner would receive guests and hold banquets and symposiums).

Mosaic inlays were placed similarly to “carpet” in an entrance hall, with a smaller one behind at the entrance to the andron. Finally, there was the main panel, which was laid out in the centre of the room.

It must be said that aside from various types of rock originating on the island (including limestone), imported marble was used in mosaics, while at a later stage, for the transfer of rare and bright colours — smalt (pieces of coloured glass manufactured by unique technology with added metal oxides. It was first produced in II-I B.C. in Ancient Rome). The remains of ancient smalt-producing workshops were also discovered in Paphos: nowadays, in this spot, like in many regions of Cyprus, you can feast your eyes on these magnificent specimens (in Paphos, in Kourion, Salamis and so on).

Mosaics in Cyprus

As such, Cyprus, at least from the mid-Roman era (which lasted merely a little more than 400 years: 58 B.C — 395 A.D.), was one of the most important centres for mosaic art in the East Mediterranean. Though people did not value it as highly as architecture and sculpture work during the classical era, this art later became the most popular method of decoration.

The technique for crafting mosaics, as historians note, involved the following: mosaicists specially levelled the ground underneath the inlay and covered it with a rough layer of stones mixed with limestone solution. Finally, the top layer was for the mosaic itself (lime was also an adhesive agent). To strengthen the composed mosaic image, a solution of thin marble dust, small-grain sand and lime, was applied (known as grouting).

Apprentices handled the preparation of the modules (plated elements) for mosaics. The master then laid out the whole image in full, executing the most complex and crucial part of the work. Scientists believe that artists in the past would not always create the compositions of their mosaic paintings by themselves, but would often copy them based on sample images offered by customers.

Mosaics similar to the ones in Cyprus were discovered in Pella (Edessa), Rhodes and Delos.

After the spread of Christianity (4 A.D.) and its recognition as an official religion in Byzantium, grand temples richly decorated with mosaics began to sprout up across the whole empire. Everywhere from Ravenna and Constantinople to Thessaloniki and Cyprus (the best specimens were the churches of Panagaias-tis-Kanakarias, Panagia Angeloktisti and Panayia-tis-Kiros etc.), Byzantine emperors were ordering expert artisans to create works which to this day hold a significant place in the history of art on a global scale.

The Byzantine era, in particular, further witnessed the greatest heyday in the art of mosaics: works of smalt and semi-precious stones became all the more refined and luxurious. The material used often didn’t undergo any polishing, thus allowing the richness and depth of colour to remain preserved.

Byzantine mosaics could be distinguished for their delicate masonry, as well as coloured (green, light blue and golden) backgrounds and the small module of elements. The fall of the Byzantine empire in the 13th century led to a simultaneous drop in the use of mosaic decor in monumental art. Some of the master craftsmen left for Italy in search of jobs, where although on a smaller scale, decorating churches with mosaic panels continued for several more centuries.

As a result, the art of mosaics practically faded into obscurity for three whole centuries. Interestingly, “Cypriot mosaic collections” failed to be mentioned in any historical sources for a long while: until the 19th century, when in the course of some chaotic (and rather primitive) digs carried out uninterrupted across the whole island, workers uncovered unique mosaics from the Antiquity.

Various attempts made in Europe to revive this art didn’t yield any significant results; and so this continued until the triumphant return of mosaics to churches in the course of the early 20th century, as well as other monuments of culture and architecture in France (Paris).

Over time, a centre for studying mosaics opened in Ravenna (The International Mosaic Documentation Centre; see here for the website of the Art museum, where the Centre is located) — where future great artists were taught and further created their works.

In Greece, the revival of Byzantine mosaics occurred thanks to the efforts of the Athenian, Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965), a well-known writer and artist. After 1950, he created several workshops and employed several workers who went on to study the technique and create genuine works of art in the field of mosaics.

A Byzantine hagiographic and mosaics workshop also emerged in Cyprus, led by the Kepolas brothers. In 1960, notions on the art of mosaics in Cyprus and the stages of its development were subject to a cardinal revision, after magnificent specimens from Paphos, Kourion, Salamis and other city-states were discovered during regular digs.

Mosaics have also been undergoing a revival here in Cyprus. Nowadays, mosaicists work in the island’s cities and villages creating modern and traditional works of art, in addition to teaching their craft to those who desire — one of them is the icon painter and mosaicist, Constantinos Christou.

Mosaics in Cyprus

Here’s a list of websites dedicated to contemporary artisans and artists, as well as educational centres:

Nowadays, tradition and developments in the production of materials, most often used for manufacturing decorative mosaics on floors and walls in private interiors, as well as exteriors, serves to provide rooms and the external appearance of buildings with new aesthetic qualities. It also fills it with new meaning, which wholly reflects the essence of any given project.

The art of mosaics in Cyprus has no doubt once again reached a high level — one fully capable of enduring multiple eras. After all, this long-standing tradition is alive here and actively maintained; old techniques stay preserved, while new ones are developed and mastered.

In the arsenal of contemporary artisans capable of creating genuine mosaic works of art, you will find beautiful decorative materials, both artificial types and natural ones of local origin.

For those interested: the time spent creating a mosaic depends both directly on the size of the future work and your imagination. A small task, for instance, can be completed in one go.

For example, if you visit “THE PLACE” Centre of applied arts and crafts in Paphos, you can learn this captivating skill, one which offers contemporary mosaicists a large field of activity and the opportunity to craft unique pieces.

THE PLACE art-center

How to Create a Mosaic By Yourself

Use the following (of your choice)

Glues: dispersion and cement adhesives (water or latex-based), elastic or high-elastic, bi-component reactive glue (for epoxide and polyurethane bases).

Decorative material: pieces of multicoloured glass or mirrors, ready-made mosaic tiles, broken clay pieces, soft shell and ornamental stone chippings, as well as smalt, bugles and so on.

How it is done: a picture is drawn (by hand or with a stencil) onto a cleaned surface. An adhesive agent is then applied to the pieces of the future mosaic (except tile glue and mortar: here you first need to dilute and directly smear the surface underneath). Lay the intended article on the image: start with large fragments and then place the smaller elements between them. Lightly press on the surface.

After the mosaic is glued down, carefully use a rubber pallet-knife apply the chosen colour of grout and treat all the gaps (seams) between the elements.

After an hour, polish off the item with a dry cloth, then after several hours or the next day, wipe over your panels, dish, flowerpot holder or tabletop with a damp sponge, carefully rubbing off the excess grout and levelling the surface.

One idea: as a template for a geometric pattern you could use an enlarged embroidery outline; the remains of practically any decorative materials, fragments of cracked pottery or porcelain tableware with “interesting” textures etc. — all of these will serve to make mosaic compositions in the future.


Stay with us and until next time!

Mosaics in Cyprus