Several weeks ago we were on our way to see the new installation of Islamic art at MMA when we lost our way, if only temporarily. This detour turned out to be a bonus because I stumbled upon the beautiful black and white mosaics in the great hall of the Greek and Roman Department that I had forgotten about. Not only are the rugs elegant and graceful, but rendering them in black and white, set in a nearly solid black field, makes them feel both modern and traditional and classically timeless. We discovered they were installed in the 1920’s.

Each rug is different but represents stylistic inspirations from the Hellenistic period. Individual design elements from borders to corners to the center motifs are rendered in very small tesserae. The most graphic mosaic rug uses classical design elements from architecture such as a bold Celtic knot enclosed within a square. Similar early rugs used squares and rectangles based on the paneling of coffered ceilings.  Each rug is bordered by the same scallop design.

On another mosaic rug, the central element is organic with a frame of individual parallelograms.  This is a complex but open design, surprisingly three dimensional. In this 1920’s interpretation, the design is simplified from the ancient which might have included patterns of hexagons, octagons and systems of large and small squares.

The circle rug has organic representations, vegetal and floral forms—some in a tracery style—scrolls, and the ever present scallop border. This all over meandering pattern was first noted around the 1st century AD. None of the rugs at the MET has a particular orientation so they are dynamic where ever you stand in the space. The 20’s artisans invented a bold and original interpretation of ancient mosaics.

And, finally, the most complex rug has an organic field and a fluid arrangement of geometric shapes. It seems that themes in the rug were developed from early polychrome mosaics, but in this case were formed from a broader repertoire borrowed from stucco relief work on walls and ceilings.

It is visually dynamic to experience these rugs in person.  I bring them to your attention as inspiration for custom mosaic rugs that you might want to create yourself. Any single design element would make a beautiful rug; though layering designs themes is very beautiful if carefully composed. The two color composition makes this ancient technique feel fresh and new.



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