• Mosaics /content/dam/ngaweb/features/slideshows/byzantium/Mosaics/virgin for mosaics.jpg

    Fragment of a mosaic with the Virgin, Constantinople, 9th–10th century, glass and marble tesserae, Athens, Benaki Museum, Gift of Stefanos and Penelope Delta

    Founded before 454, the Stoudios Monastery was one of the most important in Constantinople, playing a leading role in the spiritual life of Byzantium during and after Iconoclasm. The mosaics on the walls of its church were praised by visitors in the tenth century and thereafter, but only this fragment remains. The Virgin’s green-and-gold halo is a modern restoration.

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    Mosaic of the apostle Andrew, late 11th–early 12th century, glass, gold, and stone tesserae, Archaeological Museum of Serres

    This dynamic, striding figure is the sole survivor from a mosaic of the Communion of the Apostles in the apse of a church in northern Greece that burned in 1913. His beard and unkempt hair identify him as the apostle Andrew. Early photographs show that the full composition depicted two images of Christ behind the altar, distributing the bread and wine of the Eucharist to processions of apostles approaching from either side of the apse. The subject is the liturgical equivalent of the Last Supper.

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    Mosaic icon of the Virgin Episkepsis, Constantinople, late 13th century, glass, gold, and silver tesserae, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum

    The inscription He Episkepsis refers to the Virgin’s miraculous intervention in time of need. It also appears in Byzantine hymns describing her as “the shelter [episkepsis] of the weak.” Whereas Catholics and Protestants normally refer to Mary as the Virgin, Orthodox Christians emphasize a different aspect, calling her the Theotokos (God-Bearer) or Meter Theou (Mother of God). Here, her melancholy gaze seems to forebode the fate of the infant in her arms.

Mosaic

Mosaic decoration with a fountain, mid-5th century, glass, gold, and stone tesserae, Provenance: Thessaloniki, Church of the Acheiropoietos, Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture

Mosaic decoration with a fountain, mid-5th century, glass, gold, and stone tesserae, Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture

 

Sculpture in the round, the preferred medium for images of pagan deities, disappeared in Byzantium and was replaced by its aesthetic opposite: mosaic. With figures depicted against a glimmering gold background, mosaics suggest an ethereal, heavenly realm. In antiquity, most mosaics adorned floors and so were usually made of colored stones that could withstand people walking on them. Because the Byzantines put mosaics on the walls, they could also use fragile materials: mother of pearl, gold and silver leaf, and glass of different colors. Small glass cubes, or tesserae, were placed at angles to catch and reflect the light, creating a sparkling, otherworldly atmosphere.

Portable mosaic icons are among the most luxurious works of Byzantine art. Very few examples are preserved, most of them small; the icon of the Virgin featured in the slideshow above is one of fewer than a dozen large mosaic icons to survive. Despite the areas of loss where the three wooden planks join, the high quality of this icon is clear from the use of tesserae of different sizes: largest for the background, smaller for the garments, and still smaller for the flesh tones. The costly technique and delicate modulations of color suggest that this icon was made in Constantinople.

Banner photo by Velissarios Voutsas of the Church of Hosios Loukas, Phokis, Greece, 11th century