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OK everyone, I am very sorry that I have been missing so much lately. I was working on my show and I have been working on my next big project which involves animated drawings. I PROMISE I will get back to regularly scheduled blogging tomorrow (I have some angry things to say about fisheries and the derelict state of our nation in general right now), but for tonight, here is a teaser of my next big project. This is an animation of an oracular priestess turning into a dove and a ghost. The hard part was the Roman-style mosaic flounder in the background (which you hopefully noticed). With any luck wordpress will allow GIFS, but if not, I guess you can look at each broken tile in the flounder. As always let me know what you think and thanks for your patience and kind attention.

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Today amidst the internet flotsam and jetsam, there was a post about archaeologists discovering this exquisite mosaic in Şanlıurfa, Turkey.  There are two male and two female figures surrounded by beautiful decorative frames of interlocking geometry.  It is not known who the figures are–perhaps we will never find out–but look how expressive and amazing these ancient portraits are!

What is now the Turkish town of Şanlıurfa was once Edessa, capital of the kingdom of Osroene.  The city has an ancient and complex history, but between 100 AD and 600 AD (which is the rough age estimate for this mosaic)  it was a vassal state first to the Parthian Empire and later to the Roman Empire, before becoming part of the Byzantine Empire.  Later on, in medieval times, Edessa would be taken by the Sassanid Empire, the first Caliphate, the Crusaders…and on and on and on.

However this mural seems (to me) to be an artwork of Osroene, where the Syriac dialect first developed. Syriac literature and culture flourished there.  These people lived and died and were buried in rocky tombs (which were then buried beneath the Castle of Urfa and forgotten…till now.

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

It is World Elephant Day! August 12th is set aside for the contemplation of the greatest land mammal (and maybe the greatest animal overall) the wise, compassionate, beautiful, imperiled elephant.  Elephants are my favorite animals! I truly love them so much (admittedly at a distance)…yet I only just got home and I have to get to bed so I cannot write the story I want to tell—of heroic Yao Ming trying to save the world’s elephants.  Instead I am going to save that story for a day when I have more time and just do a gallery post of elephant mosaics.

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

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Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Mosaic Brown Elephant - Mosaik Elefant - Mosaique Elephant - Micro Ceramic Tiles - Craft By Alea Mosaik

Mosaic Brown Elephant – Mosaik Elefant – Mosaique Elephant – Micro Ceramic Tiles – Craft By Alea Mosaik

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Some of these tile artworks of the noble beasts are pretty good, but none of the works really do the great proboscideans full justice.  Clearly there are going to have to be more elephant posts before next August!  In the meantime, keep talking about elephants and campaigning for them among your friends and peers.  A world without elephants would not be a worthwhile place.  They are a critical piece of the great mosaic of life!

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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

Sealife Mosaic from "the House of the Dancing Faun" in Pompeii (ca. 1st century AD)

So much of Roman artwork is lost.  Except in remarkable circumstances, Roman paintings, textiles, and drawings were too fragile to survive the long centuries of neglect.  Almost all are now long gone.  Fortunately the Romans were masterful mosaic artists and mosaics are durable. Many mosaics concerning all sorts of aspects of classical life have lasted through the millennia.  Some of these tile artworks present the loves of gods or the wars of men but quite a few are more humble and show the aftermath of a banquet or fishermen hauling in a day’s catch .  Since Romans ate a huge amount of seafood, it is no surprise that many mosaics showcase mollusks of one sort of another.  Here is a gallery of Roman mosaics featuring octopuses, squids, bivalves, or snails.  I have tried to add as much information as I could but some of the photos I found were poorly labeled

Marine Life Mosaic from House viii in Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique (ca. 2nd century BC)

Detail of a Roman bath mosaic depicting a murex. (ca. late second to early first century BC)

Floor mosaic from "House of the Faun" Pompeii: Cat with bird, ducks, and sea life.

Ancient Roman Mosaic Prtraying Sealife from the British Museum

Triton with an octopus and squid (Forum Baths, Herculaneum)

Roman Mosaic of an Octopus

Modern mosaic makers were inspired by the Roman example and flamboyant cephalopods are a major theme of contemporary mosaics as well as ancient ones.  Here are some modern octopus and squid mosaics for millionaires’ swimming pools, elementary schools, or even everyday bathrooms.  Enjoy!

Modern copy of a Roman era mosaic from Milreu, Portugal

A Kraken for the bottom of a swimming pool (by Laurel Studios)

Octopus Mosaic for a public school

Contemporary Octopus Mosaic

A squid mosaic in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Octopus Mosaic from Seattle Country Day School

Navigation Mosaic by Mia Tavonatti

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