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The Alexander Mosaic

This will be our first post about a mosaic. I had a mild falling out with mosaics in the second grade when I made a 12x12 of an erupting volcano. I got a good grade on the project but this one is much better. It’s called the Alexander Mosaic and it checks in at over 1 million pieces. Its title comes from its depiction of a battle between Alexander the Great’s army and the forces under Darius III of Persia. Experts seem torn on whether it’s the battle of Issus in 333 BC or Guagemala 2 years later. I think most lean towards Issus. It was created around 100 BC for a wealthy patron in Pompeii, Italy. Mt Vesuvius buried it along with the entire city in 79 AD and the mosaic wasn’t drawn out from under its blanket of ash until 1831. It’s kind of sad to think about such a beautiful piece laying unknown and unseen for almost 2 millennia. But I have to wonder if all that ash is precisely what preserved it for us today.

Artistically this is a triumph. A lot of mosaics are two dimensional and lifeless. But in this one the shading is so effective that the figures appear naturalistic and three dimensional. For its time and medium, the Alexander Mosaic delivers excellent realism. And there is some really great storytelling here, too. The battle scene is confused and chaotic, which reminds me of the terror and desperate adrenaline surge of ancient warfare. It’s on their faces. The man making a stand to defend the retreating Darius is the king’s own brother. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a poignant moment. And almost every commentator has been drawn to the Persian soldier in the foreground watching his own death in the reflection of his shield. The mosaic powerfully retells a macro historical moment but captures intense human drama at the same time. Well done.

You can tell from the large, bare patches that the Alexander Mosaic has lost a lot of its original splendor. That’s the norm for almost all ancient art and sculpture. And as much as I’d love to have seen it in its glory days, I also have to say that there is some beauty in all this loss, too. Instead of feeling sad at what’s gone, I sometimes feel awe inspired at how much still remains. In this case you can imagine the missing sections as a dust cloud through which Alexander charges toward victory. But that’s not really what I mean. I mean that pieces like this one almost make me emotional thinking about how enduring the creative spirit within us can be. Time has worn so much away but it’s still here and still has so much of its essential beauty. That gives me a really reassuring sense of permanence.

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