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June 11, 2017

Mosaic face
Posted by Teresa at 05:17 PM * 36 comments

I love the faces in Byzantine mosaics. 28.-St-Georges-Rotunda-Thessaloniki copy.jpeg

I used to make my own Mac icons back in the 1990s, when pixels were bigger and the Finder was user-tweakable. You had 31 x 31 pixels to work with. I learned to respect the art of using jagged little squares of color to imply details when seen from a distance.

Byzantine mosaicists were masters of it. The image at right is from the Rotonda of Galerius aka Agios Georgios aka St. George’s Rotunda in Thessaloniki.* It’s remarkably sophisticated. Seen up close, the heavily underlined jaw, the bright yellow highlights, and the checkered colors on his eyes, throat, and chin, look harsh and unnatural: abstract decoration, not mimetic representation. But the more you blur its edges — squinting through your eyelashes should work — the more realistic it looks to your brain.*

It also has that odd characteristic of recognizably being the face of a real person. I don’t know why people can spot that; I just know they do. The differences must be infinitesimal.

Byzantine mosaics thrived in the midst of physical limitations. Their palette was limited to the natural colors of rocks, plus a few colors of glass. The formal architecture of the time didn’t admit a whole lot of light, many of the best decorative surfaces were located way up toward the ceiling, and eyeglasses hadn’t been invented yet.

They still made them sing.

Comments on Mosaic face:
#1 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 05:51 PM:

Lovely, indeed.

There's a 20th century lithographer, Albert W. Barker, who managed to do similar tricks with stone lithography. His "Ridge Farm" and "Rue Romaine, Rouen" both have far more detail in them than could possibly be there -- because the viewer's eye and mind fill them in. Similarly, Chuck Close's huge near-pointillist portraits have that effect. When someone does it right, I feel a sense of awe looking at the works.

#2 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 06:09 PM:

"and eyeglasses hadn’t been invented yet."

To be fair, I got the blurred edge effect mentioned in the second paragraph by taking off my eyeglasses.

#3 ::: Jameson Quinn ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 06:41 PM:

Does this count as an open thread?

#4 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 07:36 PM:

Jameson Quinn (3): Open Thread 218 just went up.

#5 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 07:44 PM:

And backing up about a foot - isn't over-the-hill-myopia wonderful?

After he retired, my grandfather's daughter[s] got him into doing mosaic work. He didn't create the designs, but he cut and set the tiles. We got a table that was designed to go with a lamp, with three tulip-tree leaves in greenish-blue at one end and background that had an unpatterned spot left for the lamp. (His own house had a table with a landscape, or at least a view of trees without leaves.)

#6 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 10:58 PM:

Yanno, looked at from a few feet away at an angle without my glasses, he rather resembles Paul McCartney.

(Pointillism just reinvented mosaics with smaller pixels.)

The solstice is in, what, ten days? Premature happy summer solstice!

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2017, 11:06 PM:

Even before reading the text, I thought "Pixel Art!"

Part of the Real Person aspect, for me, comes from the facial hair / five o'clock shadow.

#8 ::: R. Emrys ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 12:19 AM:

The Sanmartino sculpture tucked into the asterisk is mindblowing.

#9 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 12:59 AM:

There's a similar concept to the sculpture on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.: a veiled woman, a bust rather than full figure. I've seen it first-hand and it's stunningly executed.

#10 ::: SunflowerP ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 01:53 AM:

And for those of us whose presbyopia is not myopic - I achieved the desired effect by putting on my reading glasses and backing away from my screen.

(I concur with D. Potter@6; he does resemble Paul McCartney.)

#11 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 03:04 AM:

I think some of the effect has to do with the fact that it's not pixel art: the tesserae aren't aligned to a grid, and so can be arched over and under the eyes, or aligned to the crease between the cheek and the upper lip, which helps suggest the contours of a face.

I suspect that it would be hard to achieve as good an effect (at the intended viewing distance) with 'proper' pixels in a grid, even with considerably greater resolution.

#12 ::: Seth ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 03:51 AM:

I've always been fond of the Roman mosaics with dogs, particularly the "cave canem" dog and the guilty-looking one with the knocked-over pitcher.

(you can also un-focus your eyes to get the blurred effect)

#13 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 07:24 AM:

At St. Nicholas, the OCA cathedral in DC, there is one noticeable quirk in the iconographic program. They were just finishing it when I was in the Slavic Male Chorus (we rehearsed in the basement), and every bit of it was done in the very typical and often dogmatically stylized Russian way, so that for instance in the huge New Martyrs mural icon in the choir apse, you can recognize Tsar Nicholas and the imperial household mostly because he's wearing the Monomakh crown, not because it's a particularly close representation.

But there is one exception. On the first pillar to the right of the iconostas, there is a mural icon of Patriarch Tikhon, whom the commies eventually deposed. And unlike every other icon there, it is plainly and obviously painted from a photograph. The effect is striking.

#14 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 12:35 PM:

I've seen a few variants of the technique that that Sanmartino sculpture uses; always blows me away. Despite my (IMHO) reasonable skill with such things, be damned if I could tell you how they achieve that effect. Because it doesn't just look draped (that's impressive enough) it looks like the veil is transparent. When it obviously can't be.

WRT icons: the relation between pixelation & verisimilitude is not straightforward. When I was making thumbnails for my portfolio page, I discovered that I had to blur the original full-size image quite a lot before reducing it, in order to get the miniature to come out "clear."

#15 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 05:28 PM:

we are getting new Orthodox icons painted for our church in the Byzantine style. The painter flies over from Belgrade with the canvases, to install them. Part of this is applying the gold leaf inlay for the halos, which doesn't travel well. It is astonishing and somewhat beautiful to me how the tradition has survived.

The icon is seen as a window between heaven and earth, so the perspective is reversed. From the wikip explanation,
objects farther away from the viewing plane are drawn as larger, and closer objects are drawn as smaller, in contrast to the more conventional linear perspective for which closer objects appear larger.

#16 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2017, 07:14 PM:

re 15: At St. Nick's they brought over a crew of iconographers from somewhere in Russia, and their first words were, "we need fifteen thousand raw eggs." They changed their minds on that when they looked at the old iconostas, which had been done in egg tempera, and which had discolored pretty badly. So they used acrylic instead. It's holding up so far...

#17 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2017, 08:48 AM:

Jacque #14: That sounds like your thumbnailer is naive, perhaps grabbing every N'th pixel blindly. If you poke around a bit, it may have settings/options to do better.

#18 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2017, 04:07 PM:

To me, he's not so much Sir Paul as the sort of fellow you see around the Mediterranean. Slim, sallow, and with a heavy beard.

Mosaic -- and the Byzantines really were masters of the art -- at its best is a brilliant art.

#19 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2017, 05:41 PM:

D. Potter, #6: I thought the same. I think it's the eyes.

#20 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2017, 12:44 PM:

"It also has that odd characteristic of recognizably being the face of a real person. I don’t know why people can spot that; I just know they do. The differences must be infinitesimal."

For me it's the eyes. They're slightly differently shaped, and one is slightly more open than the other. There's more lower lid on the right eye than the left. And all of these strike me, not as a failure of art, but as a depiction of the person who was the model for the image.

#21 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2017, 02:52 PM:

wrt "a few colors of glass": Roman/Byzantine glassmaking was capable of some mindboggling feats such as the Lycurgus Cup.

#22 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2017, 12:16 AM:

Julie: I bought a couple of glass art beads created by a local artist. One of her tricks is: she heats a glass rod to glowing, then pokes into a piece of silver (picking up a thin film onto the end of the rod), then adds the rod's tip to the bead.

When the bead is finished, the bead's interior shows a fine scalework of dimples. The dimples are completely invisible if you look through the bead from the other side.

#23 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2017, 12:17 AM:

@0: WRT recognizability of the face, what does it for me is the end of the nose and the upper lip. Very individual, to my eye.

#24 ::: Race Traitor Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2017, 06:17 PM:

This probably triggered one of my odd dreams (you know, the vivid dreams and nightmares are a medication side effect, but I have enough whimsy in my spirit to kinda like it).

First, a small number of pieces of small white notepaper, like you'd get from one of those spiral-topped mini-notebooks, on a dark background. Dream camera pulls back, and the arrangement becomes recognizable as a mosaic face. Dream camera pulls back more, revealing that the face is...

Homer Simpson.



A breeze begins to blow the papers away; I wake up laughing.

#25 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2017, 10:05 PM:



#26 ::: Race Traitor Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2017, 11:26 PM:

It was a dream. I don't know that I'm entitled to credit. But thanks!

#27 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2017, 11:50 PM:

You get the credit for writing it down and sharing it. Some of Lovecraft's best stories were based on his dreams.

#28 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2017, 01:20 PM:

And besides, who else would get credit?

#29 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2017, 12:35 PM:

Without intending any insult to Michael Kruzich, I have to say that looking at his reproduction is a good way to gauge the genius of the original.

It's not that the Kruzich version uses fewer pixels: I counted 13 stones in his version of the yellow arc of tesserae around the figure's right eye, and 12 stones in the same arc in the original.

I suppose it must be the choice of colors? Or, maybe, "art"? Or maybe genius.

#30 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2017, 03:07 PM:

I was recently reading Steven Runciman's "Byzantine Style and Civilization," a Penguin book from 1975, and one of the things Runciman made clear was the *development* of Byzantine mosaics (as well as other forms of Byzantine art). It took them a while to figure out that their work would be seen from an odd angle, and on a curved surface, and to compensate for that; the earliest mosaics didn't yet do so. And they used a lot of glitter; well, not glitter exactly, but glass that was sometimes tilted to catch the light most effectively, to give a sparkling effect. The mosaics were mostly seen by candlelight (though it might be a lot of candles). Have you been to Ravenna?

Then there's Guy Gavriel Kay's fictional take on this, the Sarantium Mosaics. Which might have been one of the reasons I took the Runciman book out of the library. Too bad the illustrations in "Byzantine Style and Civilization" were only black and white.

#31 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2017, 07:47 PM:

oldster @29: Choice of colors, certainly. Also the amount of contrast.

I've put them together side by side.

To me the most glaring difference is that one is the copy of a mosaic and one is the portrait of a person.

Aside from the colors, and regularity/irregularity of the tiles, little nuances tell me this: the line weight of the sideburns and the end of the nose, the line of the jaw and chin. The corners of the mouth. Especially the whites of the eyes.

In the older one, the colors do a much better job of imitating the shading and contours of the face and beard.

I've run into this myself. Copies of paintings always come out stilted (at best). I get much better results with copying photos.

#32 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2017, 08:03 AM:

Jacque @31--

Thanks for assembling the side-by-side. It's very revealing.

#33 ::: Terrry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2017, 07:42 PM:

Some of it is the lack of symetry. If you look at his cheeks, one is slightly deeper than the other. Lots of people have that, mostly becase our teeth don't mesh centered, and our jaws get assymetric muschles (e.g. my right jaw, which makes my mouth a bit skewed).

Subtle, but telling.

#34 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: July 26, 2017, 11:15 PM:

My husband and I spent perhaps too many hours at the Corning Museum of Glass a couple days ago. One of the exhibits is Tiffany's mosaics. What struck me is that they aren't mosaics in the same way this is-- they're stained glass but without leading. Very beautiful.

#35 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2017, 04:59 AM:

This is a big mosaic based on a Maxfield Parrish painting and executed by Tiffany.

There's leading, but the glass pieces are in shapes that follow the contours of what they're depicting.

#36 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2017, 10:01 PM:

Jacque #31: I've run into this myself. Copies of paintings always come out stilted (at best). I get much better results with copying photos.

I think of this so: To produce the original work, the artist took what they saw and filtered it through a human nervous system, to produce a much-simplified ("lossy compression") image which selects "the important part" of the original view. (As defined by the artist, of course.) To then filter that through another nervous system which naturally does the same lossy-compression trick again, with a different filter... well, that's asking for trouble.

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