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It’s always the little bright patch of colour that catches your eye. In a sea of grey Portland stone, black, grey or, for the more adventurous, pink granite or terracotta, the sun always catches a small mosaic. They aren’t plentiful but most large Victorian cemeteries have a couple or two if you know where to look.
Most have survived very well and mostly seem to date from the 1920-1930’s. However, there is one in St Mary Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green which is on a 1950’s tombstone and is religious in nature.
Mosaics and me
When I visited Venice I explored San Michele cemetery, its Isle of the Dead, and, despite not having much time, saw some lovely examples. It was my first experience of seeing mosaics in situ since a school visit to Lullingstone Roman Villa. These are two examples from Venice;
In the same year I also visited Aquileia which is in Northern Italy near the Slovakia border. Once a thriving Roman port it is now 10km from the Adriatic Sea. The Romans left many artefacts including a necropolis which is now surrounded by back gardens and the celebrated mosaic floor in the Cathedral.
Visitors can admire the detailed and colourful figures of birds, fish, reptiles, women and fishermen amongst others from an elevated glass walkway over the floor. Here are a bison and an octopus from the floor:
So it was exciting to be able to go mosaic spotting in the UK and West Norwood Cemetery has a wonderful and large example in its Greek Necropolis. The delicacy and beauty of these creations must be time consuming and expensive so we should appreciate the ones that we have.
On my list to visit – Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb.
I am indebted to Rod Humby from the Joy of Shards website for kindly giving me a link to one of the most spectacular mosaic memorials of all – Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb in Sainte Genevieve des Bois Russian Cemetery, Sainte Genevieve des Bois France. It has a mosaic Oriental carpet draped across it. Nureyev was an enthusiastic collector of beautiful carpets and antique textiles and so it seems fitting that one protects him in his eternal sleep. It was designed by the sculptor Ezio Frigerio who had worked with Nureyev for many years on designing ballet sets.
A brief history of mosaics
The Joy of Shards defines the word mosaic as:
‘The word ‘mosaic’ is as you might expect, Italian in origin. It derives from the Latin ‘mosaicus’ which in turn comes from the Greek ‘mouserus’ or belonging to the Muses and so artistic.’ (reproduced by kind permission)
According to Wikipedia mosaics are:
‘a piece of art or image made from assembling small pieces of coloured glass, stone
or other materials. They are usually made of small flat, roughly square, pieces of
stone or glass of different colours, known as tesserae.’
Again from The Joy of Shards
‘Mosaics were first created roughly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia which included what are now Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. At first they were simple and consisted of pushing terracotta cones point first into a background as decoration. In the 8th century pebble pavements appeared which incorporated differently coloured stones to create patterns. But it was the Ancient Greeks, flowed by the Romans who began to incorporate pictures and patterns into their designs. ‘
(reproduced by kind permission)
Mosaic making flourished throughout the Byzantine Empire from the 6th-15th century and soon spread throughout East and Western Europe. Ravenna in Italy was its centre of mosaic making from the 6th century and pieces still survive in place such as The Great Palace in Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The Christian and Islamic faiths have also used mosaics extensively in their basilicas and mosques. These include the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Great Mosque in Cordoba. Ely Cathedral also boasts a mosaic floor in one of its chapels. There are also notable examples in Venice’s St Mark’s and also on the islands of Torcello and Murano. The Jewish faith also used mosaics to embellish their synagogues.
Mosaics fell out of favour and were replaced by paintings around the time of the Renaissance. But they enjoyed a revival in the 19th century as the Victorians re-discovered them. Westminster Cathedral is a fine example and is decorated in the Byzantine style.
This one is from St Saviour and St John Baptist and Evangelist Roman Catholic church in Lewisham High Street and dates from 1919. It’s over the entrance but I was unable to find out the name of its creator.
This lovely one is from Salisbury Cathedral and features an exquisite border of passionflowers around an 1894 memorial.
There are also the celebrated mosaic interiors of the Beer mausoleum in Highgate and the Doulton sepulchre at West Norwood.
The Bettinelli grave in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery features the colourful head of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and is very striking.
Most of the mosaics that I’ve seen appear to have worn very well with only a few tesserae missing here and there. However, there is one in West Norwood’s Greek section in which the tesserae have completely vanished leaving only a ghostly outline of the figures. There is however, a plain blue mosaic slab beneath it.
This is another from the Greek Necropolis; the Maria Michalinos monument and is based on a stele discovered at a site near Athens and displayed at the British Museum. It features a seated woman dressed in classical dress looking at a jewellery casket held by a servant.
I am compiling a gallery of these little jewels whenever and wherever I find them and here is a selection so far:
Text and photos ©Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated or attributed
West Norwood Cemetery’s Greek Necropolis – Friends of West Norwood publication, 2011