Standing in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the walls surrounding me are covered in thousands of tiny pieces of stone. Pictures and patterns adorn the walls while above me a dark blue sky is full of shimmering golden stars. These 5th-century Roman mosaics are mesmerising. Yet they are very different from the mosaics I have seen before, more detailed and much more colourful. Earlier mosaics (such as those at Fishbourne or Bignor Roman Villa, in my home county of West Sussex in the south of England) are made with a more muted colour palette including off-white, black, grey and red ochre-coloured pieces of stone called tesserae. The mosaics at Ravenna are far more colourful with many of them incorporating gold.
above: Moscaics inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy
One particular Roman pattern catches my eye. It’s strikingly different from all the other moscaics I have seen in Ravenna, a meandering geometric pattern, in some ways it is much like earlier Roman mosaics but again it is brightly coloured and also three dimensional. It actually looks surprisingly modern but it was made in the 5th century when Ravenna was the capital of Rome.
You can find out more about my visit to Ravenna and see more of my photographs of the Ravenna Mosaics here.
above: samples of tesserae, small pieces fo stone and coloured glass used to make the mosaics at Ravenna.
When I first looked at it, it took a while to figure it out. The black background is very close in colour to the dark blue portions and, apart from the squares, the three-dimensional effect isn’t immediately obvious.
The true meaning of the swastika
When you start to analyse the pattern you can pick out ribbons of colour flowing through it which intersect each other at the swastika, an ancient symbol stolen by the Nazis.
Just like the word mandala, swastika is from the ancient language of Sanskrit. It means “conducive of well-being”. The symbol has been used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains for thousands of years. It’s also found in other cultures and was always used as a positive symbol. The earliest known example of it is carved on a 15,000-year-old ivory figurine of a bird made from a mammoth tusk and may have been used as a symbol of fertility and health.
It’s sad that we now associate it with Nazi Germany. So it’s important to remember the original meaning. You can read more on this here.
How to draw the Ravenna 3D meandering Roman pattern
When I started to draw this fabulous design, the white meandering pattern was relatively easy to figure out. When it came to the three-dimensional element, however, that was a bit of head stretch. Here, I’ve broken it down step-by-step. I started by drawing it on my laptop in Photoshop.
Roman swastika meander border pattern
First, let’s look at the meandering border pattern.
Start with a grid 10 squares down by at least 18 squares long. You can make the pattern longer by adding more squares horizontally and you can make the squares any size you wish.
Adapting the pattern to make a square design
Rather than draw this as a border, I wanted to adapt the design to make it square. First, I drew a grid 14 squares by 14 squares.
Creating a three-dimensional mosaic pattern
Now, this is the tricky bit! If we first of all just look at the squares. We want to turn them into boxes.
Please note, that the final design has an additional row of squares added at the top and the right-hand side not shown here.
Now, if we consider the other black lines as the front edge of two ribbons winding around the boxes and intersecting each other we need to draw in the following lines to make them three dimensional too. I know, it’s a nightmare!
The next step is to colour in the background. It was now that I realised the design would look better with an additional row of black squares above and on the right hand side.
Now I’ve coloured in the top of one of the ribbons.
And then the sides of the same ribbon.
Now the top of the blue ribbon.
And then the sides of the blue ribbon.
This just leaves the green squares to colour in.
Note: The original border design below has three ‘ribbons’ running through it whereas this square design only has two. The yellow ribbon in the original design is now incorporated into the orange and blue ribbons.