The art of mosaic used for decoration of church interior was forgotten for a very long time. Nowadays, it enjoys a revival. One of the few mosaic workshops in the former USSR has been running in St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk for more than fifteen years.
To be exact, mosaic art didn’t go away: unfortunately, it was turned into a lifeless and soulless craft that served to substantiate the ideals of the Soviet state ideology in the shape of colossal idols. As soon as mosaic art found its way back into churches, it became lively and genuine again, which couldn’t but make people really interested in this kind of art.
The Mosaic Workshop was established by St Elisabeth Convent in 2002 with the blessing of Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok, the spiritual father of the Convent. Mosaic masterpieces created by our artists can now be seen in churches around Belarus, Russia, Greece, and other countries.
Ancient Artists Are the Best Teachers
The art of laying out mosaic patterns from pieces of a certain substance, e.g. glass, smalt, or stone, is very old. The earliest known samples of mosaic art date back to several millennia before Christ. The art of mosaic reached its heyday in the Byzantine Empire during the early Christian era. It was then that mosaics became more sophisticated and sublime.
Early Christian artisans appreciated the interplay of light and shadows, the vivacity and unaltered colours of mosaic. Shades of gold were dominant in the background. Artistic qualities of mosaic allowed to create powerful images that reflected the beauty of the visible and the invisible world.
Craftspeople of St Elisabeth Convent borrow the best traditions of ancient artists, referring to the latter as “our teachers.” While discussing a draft, one of their customers asked in surprise, “How are you going to do all that?” “Just like it was done two thousand years ago,” our mosaic artists replied.
The Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God, located in St Elisabeth Convent, is one of the best examples of their work. Its vaults reflect the light because they are covered with golden pieces of smalt. The church is built in the Byzantine style. It is in this church that the mosaic workshop is located. It provides jobs for fifty workers, most of whom are professional artists. Admittedly, not everyone can meet the demands of this job because it calls for a certain type of character and constant professional growth.
Mosaic is indeed very difficult to make. One has to be extremely cautious to combine the tiny pieces together into colour spots that transform the preliminary draft into a picture that fully corresponds to the initial design. Smalt comes in many shades: one colour may have as many as 20 various hues. That’s why this work is exceedingly time- and labour-consuming.
A Draft and The Palette
Creative process begins with making a draft. At this stage, the artists and the customer discuss how the mosaic will look in the interior of the church and what approaches they should take.
Once approved, the draft is enlarged and printed out in its natural size. It is then divided into several parts and assigned to the workers, each of whom is responsible for a certain part of the work. One artist makes faces, the other makes clothes — each specialises in his or her own kind of work. It is at this stage that the colour palette of the mosaic panel is established. One needs a lot of skill and experience to pick the colours that are the most relevant for the picture and the interior of the church. By the way, you don’t always need lots of shades to create a “powerful” image. Our mosaic artists say that the craftspeople of old sometimes used just four shades of one colour and still managed to create spellbinding examples of mosaic art.
Smalt is a traditional material for a mosaic panel. Smalt is opaque glass made according to special technologies with addition of metal oxides and various colour pigments. Its colour palette is very rich: there may be dozens of slight colour variations inside each piece of handmade glass. These variations create a deep and scintillating effect, leading to an illusion of light glimmering or flickering inside the glass.
In addition to this, smalt is one of the most durable materials. Roman mosaics made of smalt have survived for two thousand years and have not lost their splendour and effulgence. The sizes and shapes of smalt pieces can vary almost infinitely, depending on an artist’s requirements. Larger cubes are broken into smaller pieces using a tool called smalt splitter. Along with a wide selection of possible colours, this material can serve as the basis for various visual effects.
There were numerous manufacturers of smalt in the Soviet times because this material was in high demand: mosaic was considered to be one of the kinds of Soviet monumental propaganda and was widely used for decorating cultural edifices and memorials. Nowadays, smalt is not abandoned factory warehouses, donations, or overseas manufacturers from Moscow and Italy. The sole condition is that smalt must always conform to the highest quality standards. Aside from smalt, our artists use natural stones and ceramics.
Double Work Isn’t Always Redundant
Once the “palette” has been determined, the mosaic artists spread a thin layer of plasticine over a cardboard sheet. It will be the basis for preliminary assembly. Assembled mosaic fragments are analysed from the artistic standpoint based on how well they fit into the general picture. At this stage, the artists can improve or amend something before the final assembly. The approved mosaic is then mounted on the permanent base layer in the church. If, for any reason, putting up scaffolds and mounting the mosaic in situ is impossible, they use a plaster net covered by a thin layer of a special binding mixture and then mount the almost finished mosaic panel onto its permanent place.
Monastery in Kyiv, and the church-in-town of Holy Spirit Monastery in Timashyovsk (Krasnodar Territory). Mosaic images of Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, the heavenly patrons of Docheiariou Monastery (Mt Athos), were consecrated in that monastery on November 21, 2017. The mosaic artists of St Elisabeth Convent made an exact replica of the 9.5×6.2 ft frescoes that had been painted on two pillars. The two pillars with the Archangels’ images now stand at the entrance to the holy monastery.
Currently, our workshop is busy making a mosaic icon of the Royal Family for a church in Yekaterinburg and a mosaic for Xenophontos Monastery on Mount Athos. Sometimes, single orders pave the way to permanent cooperation. For instance, our workshop has cooperated with Zverinetsky Monastery in Kyiv for seven years now. They send small mosaic panels to many countries and do restoration work, too.
“We work together,” Dmitry Kuntsevich, the head of the Mosaic Workshop of St Elisabeth Convent (Minsk, Belarus), says. “All team members are parts of the same body and feel the general attitude. Some start a project, some take it up, and some finish it. This is the most precious and significant feature of our job where you can never work alone. You must always feel your co-workers’ shoulders and be in unity with them. You have to do your best to make work easier for your co-workers, too. It’s hard. People mess things up and don’t understand certain things. Everyone has to force themselves into climbing the scaffolds and sit in a cold, dark, dusty, and noisy place making mosaics. This labour is physically taxing, you know. It is one thing when you sit in a warm and bright office but it’s a different thing when you are surrounded with dirt and dust because, as a rule, there are construction efforts going on when we do our job.
However, all our brothers and sisters do their best to participate and help each other, and that’s what makes our job beautiful and valuable. People come to our workshop to stay. We have a strong team here — a team of people who need you and care for you. Working together gives an opportunity to help, support, and comfort each other.
According to Dmitry Kuntsevich, the workshop has plenty of orders: “We want to catch up with everything! If there is a demand for our craft, if the Lord lets us make something beautiful, then of course, we would like to do our best to make people happy… People like church art. They find our workshop and contact us. It makes us so happy!”
A Conclusion, Sort Of…
I would like to finish this article with the words of our contemporary, Archpriest Andrey Tkachev, with regard to God’s Providence, “You come close to a mosaic and look straight at it. All you can see is stones and nothing else. If you step back a couple feet, you start to see that it’s a leg. Whose leg is it? You don’t know. You step back 30 feet and see a man’s leg but who that man is — you can’t tell. It’s only when you step back 300 feet that you realise: this is a picture of the Battle of Gaugamela fought by Alexander the Great or the battle of the Spartans with Xerxes. You have to step back from the picture to appreciate it for what it’s worth. This is what God’s Providence is like. You can’t see the other person’s face when you stand face-to-face to him or her.
When people look back on their lives, they realise that they have been protected and guided by God, and that everything happened according to God’s will…”
There have been numerous restless and concerned people who, in the course of the entire human history, have attempted to understand and fathom who we are in this world and why we occupy this or that place in the society, the family, and the Church. Why is one person a doctor, the other a builder, the third a priest? Why is one rich and healthy while the other is poor and ill? Most of the time, people can only see some pieces of mosaic that stick out — some difficult fates that can hardlyfit into the larger picture.
Is it even possible to fully recognise our own place in the great and awesome mosaic of the world, small and useless as we are? Do we have to? Even so, if we are unable to see it, we should still believe that each person has always been and will always remain in his rightful place and in his proper time, being a part of the unique Divine mosaic of the world.
Few people can recognise God’s Providence and the beauty of God’s plan beneath the whirlpool of faces and events, even to a small extent. Sooner or later this Providence will be revealed in all the victorious power of the Resurrection of Christ and lead to God being all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). Only deep and affectionate faith can open one’s eyes to this amazing picture of the world’s creation and universal unity in God.
The Author of the mosaic of creation and the Greatest Artist — our Lord Jesus Christ — became a part of this mosaic through incarnation to make us believe and trust him. It was at that moment that it began to glow with all colours of the Divine plan.