Optical games and spiritual frames: a reassessment of imitation-marble mosaics in late antique North Africa

Variant title
Optické hry a duchovní rámce: nový pohled na mozaiky imitující mramor v pozdně antické severní Africe
Source document: Convivium. 2021, vol. 8, iss. 1, pp. [52]-71
Extent
[52]-71
  • ISSN
    2336-3452 (print)
    2336-808X (online)
Type: Article
Language
English
License: Not specified license
Rights access
fulltext is not accessible
Abstract(s)
Marble was one of the most highly valued materials in the Roman and Byzantine empires. Its pronounced color variation, its embedded geological fragments (breccia), and, when polished, its reflective properties were especially prized – both financially and aesthetically – when displayed as revetment slabs or used as component pieces in opus sectile compositions on floors or walls. In late antique North Africa, however, a tradition arose in which floor mosaics were made to imitate these large, variegated marble slabs, but their material composition – tesserae – consisted of the exact same marble types they were trying to imitate on a larger scale. These mimetic pavements were often installed adjacent or near to costlier real marble slabs or column shafts. Although the phenomenon first appeared within Roman houses and bath complexes, it quickly spread to early Christian churches, in which it became a prevalent design element through the sixth century. Attempts to explain the practice on the basis of economic models fail to account for other factors; these include an aesthetic appreciation of the materiality of mosaic tesserae and their mimetic potential as a form of Neoplatonic visual play, in which imitation and actuality were juxtaposed as part of a theological or philosophical exercise.
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