One of the greatest mosaic artists is Antoni Gaudí. On his birthday, June 25, 1852, we are paying some extra attention to this age-old art form. This is because the Chessmen Museum happens to have a chess set in its possession that is decorated with mosaics. The chess pieces are all representations of Gaudí’s creations.
The art of creating mosaics has been around for thousands of years. The earliest examples are from Sumer, in present-day Iraq, and are made of smooth or coloured clay cones. The Sumerians put the cones in mud so they would be stuck by the time the mud had dried up. But the ancient mosaics that are most familiar to us are those of the Romans.
For their mosaics, which looked like realistic paintings, the Romans used specially designed tiny tiles or tesserae, in the way we still do today. The mosaics represented mythological characters, animals, gods and goddesses or homely scenes including the owners of the buildings in which they were placed. The Romans then spread the art of mosaic to every corner of their immense empire.
After the Romans, it was especially the Byzantines that used mosaic in their artistic expressions. Particularly religious mosaics flourished during this period. The represented characters are saints or apostles and their grandeur was meant to arouse devout feelings. In contrast to the more earthly hues used by the Romans, the Byzantines favoured the use of coloured stones, mainly red, blue, green and lots of gold ones. These colourful mosaics covered religious buildings from top to bottom.
In Europe, the mosaic made a comeback with the Art Nouveau movement, at the end of the nineteenth century. Art Nouveau artists, including Gaudí, were inspired by the fluent forms of nature. In this period, Gaudí developed his unique mosaic style, with which he decorated numerous buildings in Barcelona. Plant vines, flowers, animals and undulating movements can be found everywhere in his designs.
Including some mistakes
The mosaic style that Gaudí used, trencadís, consists of colourful collages of ceramic shards that were pressed into wet cement. In order to learn how to do this, he had been taught by Manuel Vincens i Montaner, the famous ceramics maker from Barcelona. For his mosaics, Gaudí used flawed ceramics which the Spanish earthenware factories sold him for a friendly price.
When we look at the pieces of Gaudí’s mosaic chess set, we can spot some familiar components of Gaudí’s buildings straight away. The king has justifiably been shaped like one of the towers of the Sagrada Familia, the master work of Gaudí’s oeuvre. The eighteen towers of this church symbolise Jesus, Mary, the twelve apostles and the four gospel writers. The pinnacles on the towers are completely decorated with mosaic art.
The rooks and pawns of the set are very similar to the towers of the Palacio Güell mansion, which Gaudí designed in the 1880´s. On the roof of this house he created a kind of fairy tale garden, with chimneys decorated with mosaics. This secret garden couldn´t be seen from the street and was a true surprise for visitors.
But the most fun piece of this game has to be the bishop, which is shaped like the Salamander in the Güell Park. The artist designed a Garden City for the same client who ordered the mansion, Gaudí’s friend Eusebi Güell. The idea was to build a luxurious, walled residential area in a green zone and Gaudí himself took up residence in the model home.
However, the idea did not really catch on and only three of the sixty intended plots were sold. The city of Barcelona then bought the land in 1922 and opened it to the public as a city park. The undulating walls around the park are famous, and the mosaic salamander, ‘El Drac’, is the highlight. He is also the highlight of Gaudí ‘s mosaics chess set, so do come to the Chessmen Museum one day to have a look at him.