Carpets of Stone

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

The term 'mosaic' derives from the Latin musivum opus. It originally described the mosaics which decorated the walls and vaults of natural or artificial grottoes, and of fountains (nymphae), those being the most important elements of Roman gardens from the first century BC. These gardens dedicated to the Muses were called musaea, hence musivum opus, in abridged form musium, becoming 'mosaic' in translation.

Mosaic art in the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods

Mosaics, as such, are not found in the art of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. During the fourth millennium BC, a form of decoration arose in Mesopotamia which approximated to later mosaic techniques. Small cones of hardened clay, dyed with various colours, were pushed into the mud walls of buildings before they dried, leaving the round bases of the cones to decorate the surface. An example of this has survived in the palace of Uruk in Chaldea. It was, however, the Greeks who, in the humbler sphere of domestic floor-surfacing, originated all later architectural mosaic decoration.
There are two types of mosaics, corresponding to the two great phases of the historical development of mosaic art: pebble-mosaics which characterized the Classical period, and tessera-mosaics in the Hellenistic period.


Pebble-mosaics make use of small, round, white or coloured, sea or river pebbles, approximately 1 cm in diameter, embedded in a thick coat of plaster, this producing an extremely firm flooring. The most ancient pebble-mosaic, dated to the eighth or seventh century BC, was discovered in Phrygian Gordion in Anatolia. This mosaic which covered the large surface of a meeting-room 11 x 10 m, was purely ornamental, with an irregular pattern of red and white squares, rectangles, triangles and circles on a black ground.
After a gap of some four centuries, pebble-mosaics reappeared in full force all over the Hellenistic world, from Motya in Sicily in the West to Olbia on the Crimean Chersonese to the North-East. The most ancient known example is a fragment depicting a triton blowing into a conch, on the floor of the pronaos of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The excavations of Sicyone, near Corinth, and particularly of Olynthos in Macedonia, in Northern Greece, just before the Second World War, have yielded an important corpus of pebble-mosaics. At Olynthos, for example, the mosaics depicted animal combats, Bellerophon attacking the Chimaera, Thetis and the Nereids bearing arms to Achilles, and Dionysos and his retinue. These pavements must have been laid before 348 BC, since at that date the city of Olynthos was destroyed by an earthquake. These pavements perpetuated in durable form a tradition of carpet design. Textile fragments with designs similar to some of those on the Olynthos pavements have been found in the Kertch peninsula of southern Russia. This kind of merchandise could easily have found its way to Greece through the busy port of Corinth. These stone carpets were more resistant and more easily washed than their textile models, of which they retained, however, bichromy (the use of black and white) and flatness of design. Some of the more ambitious designs, such as Bellerophon killing the Chimaera, may have been borrowed from Greek light-on-dark vase painting, whose standards of artistic tradition were at this time extremely high.
The mosaics found at Pella in Macedonia represented a first step in the evolution of mosaic art. The contouring with strips of lead of the main lines of the composition, of the bodies and of the muscles, as well as the use of a wider palette (black, white, red and yellow for the 'Lion Hunt', for instance) aimed at producing an illusion of relief and emphasized the interplay of light and shade.


A turning point in this evolution was the introduction of the tessera, a four-sided, regularly-shaped stone cube. The exact date and place of the invention of the tessera remain unknown. The oldest tessellated mosaics dating to 260-250 BC were uncovered at Morgantina in Sicily. This does not necessarily imply that the tessera was invented in Sicily. Tessellated mosaics fall basically into two groups, which differ from each other mainly in the size of their constituents. In opus tessellatum, the cubic tesserae measured between 0.7 x 0.7 cm and 1.7 x 1.7 cm; the colours ranged from two to more; geometric motifs were often contoured with small strips of lead. In opus vermiculatum (from the word vermiculus, worm), the size of the tesserae was frequently under 0.7 x 0.7 cm, and narrowly spaced bands of tesserae winded in and out, following the movements of the plastic forms or defining their outlines and their internal lines. The palette was infinitely varied and often the cement between the tesserae was tinted to match them as well as to conceal the joints.
These two kinds of mosaics corresponded to two different uses. The tessellatum covered large areas, either with monochrome mosaics (mainly white) or with mosaics enlivened by geometric or vegetal motifs. On the other hand, opus vermiculatum was the technique par excellence of most finely executed figurative paintings, which Pliny the Elder, quoting Lucilius, described as the art of 'painting in stone' (Hist. Nat. 36.185). A particularly vivid illustration of Pliny's descriptive phrase is the Hellenistic 'Battle of Alexander' which constituted the central panel of a floor mosaic in the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii, based upon a 318 BC painting by Philonexos. The use of tiny, closely set tesserae of basically four colours - black, white, red and yellow - but arranged in fine colour gradations, and the emphasis on modelling with striking foreshortenings, combined to produce truly a 'painting in stone'. The vermiculatum was frequently used for the central panel, mounted separately on a marble or tile tray in a luxury workshop, later transported to the site and ultimately embedded into a simpler floor or decorative border set on the spot. Hence the Greek name emblema for this kind of ready-mounted mosaic, meaning an 'element introduced into another element'. Such a differentiation between a central focal point usually depicting mythological scenes and large surrounding areas of simpler ornamentation was already present at Pella.
Tessellatum and emblema coexisted in Greece from the very beginning of the art of tessellated pavements and were transmitted to Rome only in the first century BC. The Hellenistic tessellatum is represented by fragments of pavements in the second century BC palace of the Hellenistic rulers of Pergamon, where glass (smalto) was first used for pure blue, red and green. It is further exemplified by a corpus of 354 mosaics from the houses of wealthy merchants on the Island of Delos in the Aegean, all dating between 130 and 88 BC, at which date the city was sacked by Mithridates VI Eupator, King of the Pontus. All these pavements followed a set pattern. A rectangular central carpet consisting of several concentric borders decorated with 'trompe-l'oeil' geometric motifs such as meanders, was inserted into the middle of a floor of tessellatum or of white marble slabs. The colour range was limited to white, black, red and sometime yellow. Occasionally, blue or green was used for geometric motifs. In the centre of the carpet, a monochrome surface (generally white) was broken into by a figurative emblema or by a rosette.
Greek influence on Italy is clearly felt in small polychrome emblemata executed with tiny coloured tesserae on a tile base. These could be moved easily and were usually inserted into the middle of rougher pavements in tessellatum, as in the House of the Faun in Pompeii. The motifs depicted on these emblemata were adopted from the Hellenistic East: Nilotic scenes, Erotes, doves, and the asaratos oikos or 'unswept floor' consisting of all kinds of scraps left over from a meal - motifs invented by the famous mosaicist Sosos who lived in Pergamon. There were also fish (which developed ultimately into marine scenes), xenia or still-lives, theatrical scenes, cockfights, masks and wreaths. These were executed by Greek master-craftsmen, such as Dioscorides of Samos and Herakleitos.
These emblemata may even have been produced in the Hellenistic metropoles of the Eastern Mediterranean, bought and brought back to Italy by wealthy Italian collectors. They were all artistic tours-de-force, mosaic translations of paintings rather than creative works of art in their own right. In first century BC Rome, however, the tendency was to do away with these emblemata. Mosaic art on a grand scale first appeared around 80 BC in the Temple of Fortuna built under Sulla at Palestrina near Rome. In the halls on both sides of the temple courtyard, huge apses were covered with floor mosaic, notably one apse with fish and Nilotic scenes. Very small tesserae were used over the entire floor, and there were no geometric borders. Gradually the emblema was superseded by an all-over pattern which finally predominated in the first and second centuries AD. Already in the first century AD, bichromy - the 'black-figured' technique - had been applied to the vestibules of private houses in Herculaneum and Pompeii. Black basalt figures were scattered on a white marble or limestone surface. Monumental compositions which combined ornamental and figurative scenes without partitions, gradually replaced the Hellenistic emblema and border type of pavement. Marine scenes were particularly popular, as in the second-third century AD Terme di Nettuno at Ostia or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
The history of mosaic pavements in the Levant is far less known than in the West, despite numerous pavements uncovered in the excavations of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, Misis and Tarsus in Turkey and Apamea in Syria. In particular, the Antioch excavations have brought to light a series of mosaics ranging from the second century to the sixth century AD. The stylistic evolution of Levantine mosaic art was very different from that of the Latin West. Although the emblema and border mosaic type persisted at Antioch much longer than in the West, the difference between the emblema and the frame was not sensed as acutely as in Pompeii or Delos. The main reason for this was that vermiculatum was rarely used and tessellatum was applied to the whole surface. Stylistic evolution was one of architectural conceptualization and composition rather than of technique.

Mosaics in the Levant from Late Imperial times to the Arab Conquest

In the Roman period, mosaicists tended to produce grandiosely designed pavements in which they attempted to portray analogues to reality. This was based on the artist's knowledge of the physical flatness of a mosaic floor, and on his desire to counteract this by skilfully creating illusions of depth and perspective. Even geometric borders contained elaborate exercises in perspective. Such borders were occasionally replaced by the representation of an entrance portico incorporating a floor, flanked by columns and surmounted by a carved lintel.
This produced a 'trompe-l'oeil' effect, in which the emblema or central panel was set back in perspective from the frame or border. The onlooker practically 'entered' the picture through the portico. The illusion of depth in the emblema usually depicting mythological scenes was further accentuated by the depiction of figures and scenery in receding planes. Such was a second-century AD mosaic pavement from Byblos in the Lebanon which depicted Meleager, King of Caledonia, presenting the hunting goddess Atalante with the dead Caledonian boar. According to Diodorus Siculus (4.34.2-4) and Ovid (Metam.8.270), Artemis, principal goddess of the Hunt, had sent this boar to devastate the countryside of the Northern Peloponnese. At the head of a gathering of heroes from all over Greece, Meleager killed the boar and gave its skin to Atalante with whom he was enamoured. At its most elaborate development during the Roman period, mosaics thus appeared to be no less than paintings made up of stone tesserae instead of an artist's brush strokes.

From scene to scatter

The Early Christian mosaicists who succeeded to that Roman tradition had no such ambitious aims. They did not wish to counteract the incontrovertible flatness of the floor by depicting depth and perspective. Their intention was not illusionist; for them, space was an abstract dimension in which objects did not need to have conceptual relationships. The motifs created by Early Christian mosaicists hung complete in themselves as though on the margin of reality. Such were 'hunting scenes', in which figures of hunters were surrounded by wild animals shown in varying scales and positions, without any attempt at narrative sequence. Likewise in 'Nilotic' scenes with various juxtaposed waders and ducks, as in the fifth century AD pavement of the Church of the Multiplication of the Fishes and Loaves at Tabgha on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The change of course in mosaic design was mainly a return to the mosaic conceived of primarily as a floor, and only secondarily as an artistic creation, separate from its architectural context. While the Roman mosaic was intended to be seen from a single view point as a complete and coherent depiction of a narrative scene, the Early Christian mosaicists realized the functional nature of their art, by recognizing the floorness of their working surface, and by understanding that people primarily regard floors as surfaces on which they walk. One rarely stands at one end of an empty floor and surveys it in its entirety. It is more usual for the gaze to remain at shoulder level, and for the onlooker to be more aware of walls and furniture, than of floor design. Churches offered their own focal points: the eastern end with its apse and altar. Moving around the floor towards the altar, the onlooker could only grasp a sequence or a number of isolated elements at a time. In each small area therefore, the artist placed a motif which was complete in itself, occasionally without providing it with any link whatsoever with its neighbours or attempting to create an overall design.
The scatter of disconnected depictions however was not completely haphazard. There were carefully distributed although they may have been represented upside down, perpendicularly, or at any other angle to the orientation of the floor. The demands that there should be a motif of interest close to every point on the floor was combined with the knowledge that the onlooker would follow certain predictable paths on his way around the building. Standing in the entrances the onlooker would be able to see the depictions the right way up as would someone reading an inscription set into the floor. The mosaicists made particular provision for someone entering the chancel and approaching the apse. In the Church of Nahariya in Western Galilee, the mosaicist assumed that queues of pilgrims and visitors would move around the edges of the nave and side-aisles in an anti-clockwise direction, and therefore would wish to have all the motifs facing them to their right.[6] This conformed with the liturgical practice of the time, which required pilgrims to approach the altar or crypt along the sides of the church. The mosaicist normally did not have to take account of someone standing in the middle of the nave, and could therefore concentrate on ornate borders to be seen at close quarters.
Within the demands of having motifs facing the right way for someone entering and moving around the building, the Early Christian mosaicists were free to improvise the direction in which animals and human figures were to look, to face, to seem to advance and if they were to form self-contained units. Individuals or groups of figures standing upright in the same direction, could face left, right or be depicted frontally in an apparently random fashion. Some figures advanced towards the centre, others towards the border, others formed self-sufficient units, such as a grape harvester leading his donkey towards a wine press, or a huntsman spearing a tigress or lion. The rhythmic succession of isolated figures and groups of scenes, when viewed horizontally, vertically or diagonally across the floor were usually irregular:

Fig. 1. Rhythmic pattern of the mosaic pavement in the nave of the Church of St. Christopher at Qabr Hiram, Lebanon, AD 575. Big arrows indicate the direction in which the 'inhabitants' move, small arrows the direction in which they look.

An exception to this apparently total random placing of figures is the Church of the Holy Apostles at Madaba in Jordan dating to AD 578-79, where the inhabited acanthus scroll border was punctuated not only by a head (traditionally symbolizing a Season) in each corner but also by depictions of a child in the middle of each side:

Fig. 2, mosaic pavement in the nave of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Madaba, Jordan, AD 578-79

Between the two geometries

Besides the emblema used in large rooms, Roman mosaicists laid smaller floors, usually bearing geometric patterns, notably in the corridors and passages of large Roman houses. These consisted of linked forms such as circles, squares, rhomboids, and other geometric forms, creating a regular but variegated floor pattern. These geometric floors served as 'stone carpets' as is clear from private houses excavated in Herodian Jerusalem.[8] The pressure of work and the increasing number of commissions for large mosaic pavements at a time of economic expansion between the fourth century and the sixth century, led to a tendency for the geometric pattern to be used even in large rooms for which at an earlier period only an emblema would have been considered suitable.
The geometric design was conveniently capable of extension in any direction without producing imbalance. The emblema on the other hand was more difficult to extend should the enlargement not be equal on all four sides of the pavement. The monotony of these extensive geometric designs was relieved by the insertion into square or round frames of large busts and figures, as in the Frigidarium of Soteria in the Baths of Apolausis of AD 350 at Antioch. In the course of the fourth century there developed a tendency to dispense entirely with the geometric framework and to show only a scatter or irregularly positioned figures. Since such designs lacked focal centres, they have been called 'figure carpets' or 'carpet patterns', this implying their extendibility.
Another solution to the starkness of larger geometric mosaics involved the introduction of botanic motifs. Limited segments of an otherwise rigorously geometric design were occasionally devoted to leaves and flowers as on the fifth century pavement of the octagon of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Soon mosaicists were laying floors consisting mainly of vegetal designs such as assemblages of small flowers called florets, and vine or acanthus swirls or scrolls, forming a floral equivalent of the 'carpet pattern'. The development culminated in the sixth century with a combination of the two main-stream departures from the purely geometric mosaic - the scatter of figures and the vegetal scrolls - in the inhabited scroll:

Fig. 3, mosaic pavement in the nave of the 6th C. church at Suwafiya, Jordan. Note the association of an acanthus scroll border with a vine scroll field, and the lack of realism in the sizes of the 'inhabitants'.

This motif (whose sources have been traced back to Hellenistic gold diadems of the fourth and third centuries BC) was extremely popular in Roman mosaic art. As it appears on Byzantine mosaic pavements in the Levant, it is the result of compositional changes which affected the North African inhabited scroll pavements between the first and third centuries.[10] Pavements became increasingly organized whilst the scrolls (transferred from border to field) created formal patterns. If the number of inhabited scroll pavements is taken as an index, it is significant that from a climax in the second and third centuries, the count in North Africa dropped drastically in the course of the fourth century. Conversely, the popularity of the motif which had been extremely limited in the Roman period in the eastern provinces, increased from the late third century and reached a peak in the late fifth and sixth centuries. The period of increasing popularity and compositional changes as the result of North African influence is represented by two pavements from Shahba in the Syrian Hauran, a mosaic from Mariamin in the Hama region and a pavement uncovered in Nablus in the West Bank.
The 'Mosaic of the Four Seasons' discovered at Shahba, ancient Philippopolis, by M. Dunand in 1938 and now exhibited in the Archaeological Museum at Suweida, combines an acanthus scroll border with an emblema which depicts Gê (the Earth), offering the gifts of the Seasons to Dionysos and Ariadne under the supervision of Ploûtos (Wealth).[11] Next to the Roman villa which yielded this mosaic, a set of four rooms of another villa with mosaic floors was excavated in 1970. In three rooms, geometric motifs, interrupted by panels enclosing a series of heads, surrounded emblemata which depicted Orpheus and the beasts, the wedding of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and Ares, God of War (Hom., Od. 8.266 ff.) and the Charites or Three Graces. In a fourth room, a large band of marine scenes - putti boating, fishing or riding on the back of dolphins - framed an emblema portraying an Oceanus head. In the fifth room, within a vine scroll border, an emblema displayed the love-making of Ariadne and Dionysos (Ov., Her. 10; Metam. 8.174 ff.) watched by Herakles and Maron.
Other pavements have also been uncovered. They include a depiction of the Birth of Aphrodite, and of Artemis surprised by Acteon, King of Thebes, who was punished for having boasted about this exploit by being turned into a stag and eaten by his own dogs (Paus. 9.2.3; Ov., Metam. 3.131 ff.; Nonn., Dion. 5.287 ff.). All these pavements belong to the short floruit of building operations at Philippopolis during the reign of the Emperor Philip the Arab (AD 244-249) who elevated his birthplace to the rank of colonia, and up the end of the third century. The mosaic of Mariamin discovered in December 1960 and now displayed in the Hama Museum, provides another variant on the combination of the emblema with a scroll border in the central part of a house.
The Mariamin pavement has been dated to the third quarter of the third century on the basis of comparison between the hairstyles of the young women playing musical instruments in the central panel and that of Empress Otacilia, wife of Philip the Arab, as depicted in sculpture and on coins.[13] A mosaic forming the northern part of the floor of a long hall accidentally came to light in 1973 in the course of drilling in preparation for the erection of a block of flats in the centre of Nablus. It is now on show in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The pavement combines a panel composed of a geometric border, an acanthus scroll border and a central emblema now lost, with three small rectangular panels depicting mythological scenes. Panel 1 is destroyed. In Panel 2, the boy Achilles is being turned over to the centaur Chiron for his education. Panel 3 depicts Achilles throwing off his female disguise, grasping the weapons brought by Ulysses and Diomedes and following the Greeks to Troy. Achilles had grown up in hiding in the gynaeceum of Lykomedes, King of the Dolopes on the island of Skyros. He had been sent there by his mother Thetis who had heard from the high priest Calchas that Troy would never be taken without the help of Achilles and who knew that her son would die in the Trojan War. In publishing this mosaic, we have dated it on epigraphic, technical and stylistic grounds to the middle or the third quarter of the third century. It represents the southernmost point of extension of the impetus given to the arts of central and southern Syria by Philip the Arab who also bestowed his favours on Neapolis which he raised to the status of colonia in 244.
These four pavements capture in numerous ways the transition between classical antique and early Christian art: the white ground in the vine scroll border of the Dionysos and Ariadne emblema, the variety of animals, the disregard for the relative proportions in animal and bird sizes which ultimately led in Byzantine art to the depiction of birds as large as zebras or elephants, finally the filling of empty spaces with birds, bunches of grapes, vine tendrils and vine leaves tending towards the horror vacui characteristic of fifth and sixth century pavements.
The overall grid pattern already inherent in borders was extended to the field, so that inhabited scroll fields of the fourth-sixth centuries are reducible to grids of squares, each filled by a scroll. The linear rhythm resulting from parallel, horizontal and vertical rows of scrolls geometrically reduced to circles, whether open or closed, combined with the profusion of scrolls to create a 'carpet' dominated by a repetitive pattern, thus a 'carpet design'. The increasing geometrization of the acanthus, of the vine stem, of vine leaves and of bunches of grapes as well as pattern-making in colour reached its climax in the sixth century. Of this, one example is the alternation between two colours for the arched leaves forming the scrolls, as opposed to the impressionistic and subtle use of colour nuances in the earlier Shahba and Nablus pavements. The scrolls thus became essentially geometric constructions in an organic disguise, as in the Church of Zahrani in Southern Lebanon dated to 524 and in Basilica A at Nicopolis in Greece dated to 540.The geometric version of the inhabited scroll - interlinking circles, rectangles, diamonds and other geometric shapes enclosing animals, birds and objects - was used as an alternative to or as a variation of its vegetal counterpart.
Thus the geometric basis discarded in the earliest carpet patterns made a gradual return. By 450 at Antioch, mosaicists saw the need to structure the floral and the scatter varieties of the carpet pattern mosaic. The 'Striding Lion' pavement belongs to the scattered figure variety but is equipped with the strong focal figure of the lion and with a definite border.
This tendency culminated during the sixth century in a central focalization and a vertical axis, as in the inhabited scroll fields of the Chapel of the Priest John, the Church of SS Lot and Procopius, and the Church of St George of 535-6 at Khirbet al-Mekhayyat near Madaba in Jordan. Symmetry, focalization and verticality are evident in the mosaic of the Church of Elias, Mary and Soreg at Jarash, also in Jordan, where the manifest centrality of the palm results from horizontal and vertical constructional lines. A similar group of mosaics, including those of the Armenian Mosaic in Jerusalem, the Shellal Church of 561-2, the Gaza synagogue of 508-9 and the Maon-Nirim synagogue erected after 536, is provided not with a focal motif, but with an axial row filled mainly with objects such as baskets or vases flanked by antithetical pairs of symmetrically placed beasts. Thus a static vertical central axis resolved a series of dynamic horizontal accents in contrary motion.
This tendency among makers of carpet pattern mosaics to organize, articulate, keep within bounds and to harmonize relationships and proportions, found its fullest expression in works produced during the 'Justinianic Renaissance'. In an undoubtedly unconscious reassertion of the Roman emblema, a number of mosaicists in the North of the Holy Land between 536 and 610 executed large pavements in which a central geometric motif incorporating 'trompe l'oeil' effects of receding planes and surfaces provided a focus for a highly organized matrix of motifs. Examples survive in the Church of Nahariya and in the ecclesiastical farm of Shelomi (Fig. 4 ). Due to their active focal function and the use of perspective, such central motifs deserve the name of pseudo-emblemata, and represent a return to certain compositional principles of the Roman period.

Mosaic 'carpet-patterns' with pseudo-emblemata in the ecclesiatical farm of Shelomi, Israel, AD 610 (Drawing Andrei Okunev).

The flowering of the arts under the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-65) and his immediate successors was characterized by the rediscovery not only of ancient rules of lay-out but also of classical techniques and themes. These were adopted and modified.

Tesserae of limestone, marble and glass

The raw material of early Byzantine mosaic floors in the Levant was almost exclusively the many coloured limestone found in abundance in Syria and Palestine. Tesserae of marble (for white), glazed ware (for yellow and red ochre) and glass - smalto - (mainly for blue and green) were used sparingly. In the Glass Court at Jarash were found lumps of glass of different colours - light blue, dark blue, light green, grey and dark red - altogether weighing over 120 lb. These were presumably part of the stock in trade of a glass factory at the time of an eighth-century earthquake; the colours are similar to those of the cubes used in sixth century pavements.
The mosaic known as the Hammam Baisan pavement (Fig. 5) which floored a funerary chapel in Bet She'an (ancient Scythopolis) around AD 530 and is now exhibited in the garden of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, displayed an unusual prominence of glass tesserae: frit-coloured green with iron for light green, green glass with iron for dark green, glass coloured with iron for olive green, and glass coloured with copper for dark blue. It is the modest Levantine answer to the magnificent wall mosaics of Ravenna, in particular those glistening with gold, marble and glass and depicting the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora and their suites in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna dated to 546-8.

Fig. 5, Hammam Baisan pavement, Israel, c. AD 530.

Tesserae density

In second and third century pavements, for instance at Antioch, the size of tesserae was small and the number of tesserae to the dm2 extremely high. Thus at Shahba, the tesserae measured 0.5 x 0.5 cm, there being 380 tesserae to the dm2. At Mariamin, the tesserae measured 0.4 x 0.3 cm and there were 440 tesserae to the dm2. After the fourth century, the count dropped. In the Byzantine period, three qualities of pavements can be distinguished: coarse pavements with 20 to 60 tesserae to the dm2; a middle quality with 60 to 110 tesserae to the dm2; and, fine work with over 110 tesserae to the dm2. The majority of fifth and sixth century mosaic pavements in the Levant belonged to the middle quality or Group 2. A fourth, so-called 'mixed' group consisted of pavements in which smaller tesserae were used for certain areas such as faces, arms, hands and legs. In the field of the Hammam Baisan pavement, the tesserae count is 108, but for bodies and faces it is 167. In Room L of the Monastery of Lady Mary at Bet She'an dated to 553-4 or 568-9, the tesserae count is 103 in the field but 361 in the faces. In the Church of the Holy Apostles of 578-9 at Madaba, the count is 60 in the field but 400 in the faces.
This is reminiscent of the differences in the sizes of tesserae and their density between firstly the emblema and mythological panels in the Nablus mosaic - with minute tesserae 0.3 x 0.4 cm totalling 373 tesserae to the dm2, secondly the inhabited acanthus scroll border laid with tesserae 0.7 x 0.8 cm totalling 200 to the dm2, and finally the crude outer border of large tesserae 1.6 x 1.6 cm, there being 46 tesserae to the dm2. The use of smaller tesserae for specific areas of a pavement ultimately harked back to the opposition between vermiculatum and tesselatum in Hellenistic and Roman mosaics.

Classical themes in some Byzantine mosaics of the Levant

For all that Christianity had been the State religion of the Byzantine Empire since AD 392, Byzantine culture remained fundamentally classical in spirit. The mosaicists of the Justinianic Renaissance drew much of their inspiration from Greek mythology and Roman daily life. The excavation in 1982-5 of a mid-sixth century hall under the atrium and narthex of the Church of the Virgin at Madaba, disclosed three remarkable panels framed by an inhabited acanthus scroll. The upper panel showed Aphrodite and Adonis, the three Graces (each named as Charis), four Erotes and a peasant-woman (Agroikis). The lower panel which is damaged, depicted the Euripidian myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra. The Tychai or Fortunes of three cities (Rome, Gregoria which is unknown, and Madaba) wearing turreted crowns and sitting in state above and outside the panels, were superficially christianized by the addition of a cross at the upper end of their sceptres.
Two Erotes hold a crown above the head of Achilles flanked by Patroclus and a young woman named 'Eubre' on a sixth century pavement accidentally uncovered in Madaba in 1960. The maiden's nudity under a transparent dress has been made quite clear, and the mosaicist has unashamedly emphasized the muscles, testicles and pubic hair of the male heroes. Likewise, he has delineated the breasts of a dancing girl (Banke) wrapped in veils and the sexual organs of a satyr next to her. These figures were all that remained of a bacchic procession (thiasos) in a panel associated but separate from the Achilles panel.
The healthy lack of inhibition displayed by that particular Madaba mosaicist was exceptional at a period which was dominated by prudery. Human beings (and even animals) were consistently shown sexless, positioned in such a way as not to reveal their genitals or - in the case of men - endowed with a loin-cloth. Moreover, the hunting and vintaging putti of Roman mosaics were turned into real people - hunters, horsemen, farmers and vintagers leading their donkeys to the wine press, carrying baskets of grapes or treading the grapes - all dressed in the style of the sixth century. The human repertory, the bestiary and aviary of mosaic pavements thus passed from the realm of mythological fantasy to that of rural reality, with elephants, zebras, giraffes and even a bushbuck led on a rope by an African, alluding to trade contacts between Palestine, Arabia, India and Egypt.
Dionysiac processions at Erez and Sheikh Zuweid on the borders of Southern coastal Palestine and Egypt, witness further to the forceful resurgence of classical iconographic themes. Paganism in fact never died out completely in the Mediterranean basin. That the cult of Dionysos-Bacchus, the god of wine, still flourished in the Byzantine Mediterranean world is proven by the Dionysiaca of Nonnos of Panopolis in Egypt. This long epic poem composed in the middle of the fifth century, described the travels of Dionysos across Asia Minor and the Near East on his way to India. In fact, the Dionysiaca describe Dionysiac traditions which were still very much alive in Byzantine times.
In third-century AD Paphos on Cyprus, Dionysos held his attribute - grapes - tantalizingly, but serenely. At Sepphoris in Galilee, he seemed already a little tipsy reclining in his conch-shaped chariot whilst a herald signalled on his pipes the approach of the procession. On another third-century mosaic pavement at Sepphoris, Bacchus is disgustingly drunk to the point of actually being shown throwing up. Three centuries later, Sepphoris mosaicists applied their creative urges again to various Dionysiac themes, such as the centaur. Other classical motifs in sixth-century Palestine included the venatio - the struggle between gladiators and wild beasts in the amphitheatre - and the spinario - a child pulling a thorn from his foot, who heralded yet another Renaissance - the Italian Quattrocento.
Thus the strictly limited nature of inventiveness in artistic forms is bound to produce such returns to earlier and often forgotten standards. Fashion in the ancient art of mosaic as in painting, sculpture and even dress is less a matter of sequential progression than a series of cycles within which the artist returns, sometimes deliberately but frequently unawares, to certain points of departure.

Claudine Dauphin
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


Post a Comment

Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Copyright 2007 Melita Insula