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Opus sectile is an art technique popularized in the ancient and medieval Roman world where materials were cut and inlaid into walls and floors to make a picture or pattern. Common materials were marble, mother of pearl, and glass. The materials were cut in thin pieces, polished, then trimmed further according to a chosen pattern. Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design.
Origin and evolution
The Herodian Temple in Jerusalem was built during the second half of the 1st century BCE and the first half of the 1st century CE. Recent work by the Temple Mount Sifting Project has recovered enough pieces of floor tile from the Herodian Temple Mount to reconstruct geometric patterns of opus sectile flooring.
Golden era: Rome and Eastern Empire
The most prominent artifacts remain from 4th-century Rome. A large set from the Basilica of Junius Bassus survived, depicting an elaborate chariot and other images. The popularity of opus sectile decoration continued in Rome through the 6th century, and affected areas as far as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey). Particularly remarkable are a series of fourth-century CE panels in glass opus sectile, found in a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, in excavations carried out in the 1960s; they include scenes of famous authors like Homer and Plato, scenes of Nilotic landscapes, harbour-front cities and geometric panels.
Marble floor inlay, Hadrian's Villa (early 2nd century)
There was a major revival from the Italian Renaissance (14th-17th century) in the form of pietra dura work, although this normally consists of much smaller compositions and it is used on furniture, mainly.
In England, the technique was revived in the late 19th century by artists working in the Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Hardgrave, whose designs were executed by James Powell & Sons at the Whitefriars Glass Works, was a noted designer in this technique.
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- Avraham, A.: 'Addressing the Issue of Temple Mount Pavements During the Herodian Period'. New Studies on Jerusalem, Vol 13, Ramat-Gan, Israel. 2007.
- De Fazio, A & Schöps, A.: Un lacerto in 'opus sectile' dalla 'domus' di via D'Azeglio a Ravenna: proposte di restauro e conservazione. Ravenna: Longo, 1995.
- Snyder, F. & Avraham. A.: The Opus Sectile Floor in Caldarium of the Palatial Fortress at Cypros. In: Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho, Volume V. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pp 175–202. 2013.
- The Stations of the Cross according to St. Alphonsus; reproduced from the original “opus sectile” panels in the Church of St Mary's, Lowe House, St Helens, Lancs. London: Burns Oates, 1934.
- Frankie Snyder, Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira. 2016. Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December.
- Katherine M.D. Dunbabin, "The Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments," American Journal of Archaeology 86.1 (1982), p. 71.
- James, Liz. "Opus sectile". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press.