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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History


Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This week, in honor of our June theme week, we are going to be discussing mosaics. Although this medium has been around for thousands of years, we are going to focus on some of the most famous examples from the medieval/Byzantine period.


Before we discuss the works themselves, it’s important to understand what mosaics are and a history of their use. Mosaics are pieces of art constructed of small glass or ceramic tiles called tesserae. In order to make them in different colors, gold or other pigmented plates would be pressed between the glass. Once the design was completed, the tesserae would be affixed to the walls with plaster. They would not be set flat though. In fact, the tesserae would be placed at an angle in order to catch the flickering candlelight. This would have created a beautiful atmosphere inside the building.

The earliest examples of mosaic art come from Mesopotamia and date from the 3rd millennium BCE. They gained popularity and were used extensively throughout the Roman Empire. Mosaics reached their peak in the late antique and medieval periods. The best preserved (and in some cases, restored) examples can be found in Rome and Ravenna, Italy. This is where we are traveling today to explore three beautiful buildings.


No examination of mosaics would be complete without a discussion of San Vitale in Ravenna. This church was dedicated in 547 CE by Bishop Maximian. It is an octagonal plan church filled with mosaics telling the stories of the Old Testament, angelic figures, Jesus, the 12 apostles, and San Vitalus with his sons. But, the most famous pieces are actually of the Emperor Justianian and his wife, the Empress Theodora.

The most important message of this piece is Justinian's authority over both church and state. The emperor stands front and center. His head is crowned with a halo, but he is also wearing the traditional imperial, purple robes. On either side are members of the clergy and the military. Most of the figures are holding important items representing their station, including weapons and liturgical pieces. By showing Justinian at the center of this scene, the viewer is meant to understand that he is one of the great Byzantine emperors that held immense secular and non-secular power.

Theodora’s mosaic isn’t as politically charged as her husband’s. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make its own statement. She holds the wine for the Eucharist. This shows her as an additional leader in the church. Theodora is surrounded by attendants, but not government or military officials like her husband. But, the balanced composition mimic’s Justianian’s panel, showing them as near equal leaders of the Roman Empire.


The next mosaic site we are visiting is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Not only is it one of the four major basilicas in the Catholic faith, but it is the largest Marian church in Rome. It is built on the site of a holy miracle. The Virgin appeared in a dream to a bishop and said that she would mark the site where she wanted a church built. The next day, the bishop went outside and saw fresh snow. It was August, so this was clearly divine intervention. The basilica was dedicated in 434 CE and features some impressive mosaics dating from this time and beyond.

The theme of the art in this church centers around the Virgin Mary. This is most likely because, just a couple of years before the basilica was dedicated, the Council of Ephesus. The major decision of this council was that Mary was the mother of God, also known as Theotokos. Due to this proximity in dates, Santa Maria Maggiore features some of the oldest images of the Virgin Mary in history. The basilica also houses the Reliquary of the Holy Crib and the holy image of Salus Populi Romani.

There are a few groups of mosaics in this church. The first dated from around the time the church was founded. They are clearly influenced by Roman art with their classical stylization. Originally, there were 42 scenes from the Old Testament decorating the nave. But, only 27 of them survive to the modern day.

Another group of mosaics cover the triumphal arch. These feature scenes from the life of the Virgin. Because of the early date, the mosaics helped to create the methodology for traditional depictions of the Virgin. However, the largest mosaic actually dates to about 1000 years after these ones.

In the 13th century, Pope Nicholas VI decided it was time for Santa Maria Maggiore to get a new apse. To decorate this new construction, he commissioned a scene of the Coronation of the Virgin. Christ crowns His mother. The pair are surrounded by saints. The scene does not have a setting, instead they are surrounded by golden tesserae. This is meant to represent the heavenly plane, it is not meant to for our world. It is possible that this was inspired by Byzantine depictions that became popular after the Crusades.


Our final example is housed in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This name is a bit of a misnomer because Galla Placidia isn’t actually buried here, her remains reside in Rome. Galla Placidia is one of the most important women in the Late Antique era. She was the daughter, sister, and mother to Roman emperors. In addition, she was also the queen of the Visigoths, as a part of a political marriage. Galla Placidia was known for her political savviness as well as her dedication to the Christian faith.

The “mausoleum” was once attached to a church dedicated to St. Lawrence. It was built between 425-50 CE, at the end of Galla Placidia’s life. The entire interior is filled with some of the best preserved mosaics from this era. One of the most stunning is a depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd. (This popular motif comes from the Gospel of John.)

In this symmetrical composition, Christ is in the center. He sits in a rocky field with three lambs on either side. But, He doesn’t look like most viewers are used to. Christ is beardless, dressed in a Roman style robe. His body is twisted like a Classical statue. When this mosaic was created, Christianity had only been legal for about a century. So, it isn’t surprising that the artistic style was still being figured out and elements from pagan culture were being reused in the new Christian depictions.


Mosaics are a beautiful and unique art form. These are only three examples from history, but there are thousands more from several different cultures.


Gardner’s Art through the Ages, Edition 12

Fred S. Kleiner


  1. Exterior of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia)

  2. Emperor Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna Italy (Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikimedia)

  3. Empress Theodora Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna Italy (Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikimedia)

  4. Exterior of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy (Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia)

  5. Nave mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy (Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikimedia)

  6. Apse mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy (Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia)

  7. Exterior of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia)

  8. Christ as the Good Shepherd, Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia)

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