To continue from my previous post, there is so much more to share:
The math of the project was important to me: I wanted the needlework version of the Antioch Mosaic to be in scale to the original. From a practical standpoint, I knew I wanted to work with 24 count congress cloth. (Congress cloth is softer than canvas for needlepoint but still has more stiffness and “structure” than aida or linen used for cross stitch or counted thread work.) My first plan of a one-inch-to-one-foot scale wouldn’t give me enough room to recreate the mosaic’s intricate details. When I relaxed my numbers to plan for a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch design, it all began to work out.
Both the planning stage and the stitching stage called for much studying of the geometry of the mosaic itself. The overall design is symmetrical, no question. Yet, there are many places where there might have been symmetry in the details, but there isn’t. I tried to imagine the design process of that ancient mosaic artist working seventeen centuries ago.
For example, there are eight squares surrounding the central circle of the mosaic. The two in the upper right are symmetrical with the two in the lower left. Why is this not true for the two in the upper left and the two in the lower right? What about the diamond areas in the corners? Why are they identical in adjacent corners instead of opposite corners? And what about the interior designs of the four triangles at the center of each side?
Pondering questions like these as I stitched and researching the answers to them, I learned more about the Antioch archeological expeditions, more about mosaics uncovered there, and more about the bigger picture of where this artwork came from. Wellesley’s mosaic is dated about 350 AD and has approximately sixty-six tesserae per ten square centimeters. It comes from a villa in Daphne, a “suburb” of Antioch proper. Mosaics from the expeditions during the 1930s can be found in museums around the United States and around the world, including Antioch today. Pouring over photographs of other geometric mosaics that were uncovered did not yield answers to my symmetry questions. Some had the symmetric idiosyncrasies I had noticed in Wellesley’s Antioch mosaic and others did not.
Those eight squares surrounding the center circle in the mosaic not only inspired much rumination about symmetry but also proved to be a mathematical and stitching challenge. In the initial planning stage, I just couldn’t see how I could stitch on the odd diagonal angle, particularly on 24-count congress cloth. But then, I allowed the original mosaic artists of centuries ago to inspire me. Studying my close up photographs, I could see that they had set the tiles inside the squares on a slant, not at all lined up with the tiles around them. The stone tesserae of a mosaic artist allow for that freedom; usually the canvas or fabric I work with does not. What if I gave myself that freedom? What if I figured out a way to change the direction of the stitches? The solution was to imagine a second layer of canvas, one that could somehow be appliquéd onto the congress cloth at an angle to the overall design. But another layer of congress cloth felt too bulky, and I was concerned about the inevitable fraying of the edges. The solution came to me: silk gauze. It would be the perfect for stitching the interior of the squares on separate fabric. Moreover, it would allow me to solve another mathematical problem, which was fitting the designs to the space I had allotted to them.