The Arts: History on the Floor
When the city of Lod decided to widen a road in 1996, archaeologist Miriam Avissar was called in. The construction was to take place near a site that had already been excavated and where mosaic floors had been discovered.
The first thing Avissar found was the white corner of a mosaic. “Then we found a tail of a tiger, and we saw immediately that [it] is of marvelous quality,” she said. a Within two months, Avissar and her team from the Israel Antiquities Authority had uncovered the entire floor. The main section depicts lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants and other exotic animals set within an elaborate frame of cable patterns. A panel at one end contains a marine scene with merchant ships, shells, dolphins and fish, including a large fish swallowing a smaller one.
This roman mosaic from the third century C.E., one of the finest found in the Holy Land, aroused great excitement. Thirty thousand people rushed to see it when it was shown to the public for one weekend before the IAA covered it again until funds could be raised for conservation. Currently, the three best preserved panels are part of an exhibit touring the United States. (For venues and a schedule, go towww.lodmosaic.org.)
The Lod find, near Ben-Gurion International Airport, is but one of 7,000 sites in the Holy Land that contain some form of mosaics, according to Jacques Neguer, the IAA’s head of art conservation. Of these, he said, about 100, most of them floor mosaics, are important. The sheer quantity is staggering. If you take into account mosaics in museums and in national parks, Neguer said, there are more than 538,000 square feet of mosaics; Beit She’an alone has 107,000, Caesarea has 43,000 and Sepphoris has 16,000. Some of them rival in quality the finest such works found in Italy, Greece and other countries.
Mosaic making is an ancient art; the oldest discovered, in Mesopotamia, dates to the third millennium B.C.E. In the Greek world, mosaics made of pebbles appeared in the fifth century B.C.E. and those from cut stone became prevalent in the third century B.C.E.
Less than a century later, mosaics reached the Holy Land, where the art was practiced for 1,000 years. Pagan Greeks and Romans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims all commissioned mosaics for private homes, public places and houses of worship.
On this the artist incised or painted a design in which little cubes, called tesserae, were set. According to Israeli archaeologist Yitzhak Magen, “Cutting tesserae was difficult and tedious; paving a medium-size church required more than two million of them.”
But before local artisans developed the necessary skills, mosaics were imported to the Holy Land. These early works imitated painting and achieved fine shading with up to 100 tesserae of stone and glass per square inch. The most beautiful is a fragment from Tel Dor, 19 miles south of Haifa, showing a mask from the Greek comic theater surrounded by colorful garlands of fruits and flowers (on display at the Mizgaga Museum;www.mizgaga.com).
By the end of the second century B.C.E., mosaics had entered the Jewish world, and we begin to see reflections of the relations between cultures and religions in the land. In the many cities where different religious groups lived side by side there were mutual influences that found expression in texts and mosaics, said Rina Talgam, head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s art history department and Center for Jewish Art. And because the mosaics were created in periods in which the great monotheistic religions were taking shape, she added, “we can see the meeting between these religions at a crucial stage of coming into existence, as they have to define themselves in relation to each other.”
In the Hellenistic era, Jewish mosaics adapted Hellenistic motifs, and then, under Herod, they adapted Roman traditions. At the same time, Jews—including Herod—avoided animal or human figures, in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment. “Jews thought this was the best way to defend themselves from the potential influence of pagan culture,” Talgam explained.
Yet, toward the end of the third century C.E., Jews started incorporating figural images in their mosaics. In synagogues, they presented biblical scenes “as literal Jewish history,” said Talgam, in reaction to Christian depictions of those very scenes as foreshadowing the life of Jesus.
The mosaic floor in the late fifth-century c.e. synagogue in Sepphoris (011-972-4-656-8272), on a hill in the lower Galilee, portrays the sacrifice of Isaac. The mosaic also shows Abraham and Sarah receiving three angels at Alonei Mamre, the first depiction of this scene found in Jewish art. Another element is the wheel of the zodiac, with animal and human figures and, for the first time, the names of the months in Hebrew.
Figural images in synagogues continued to appear until the end of the sixth century when, in response to the intensified Christian worship of icons, Jews again retreated to a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment.
But in nonreligious contexts, such as private homes and public buildings, almost everything was possible. Thus, for example, the Orpheus House in Sepphoris might have belonged to a Jew. This third-century C.E. villa is named for the mosaic floor in its triclinium, or dining room. It depicts Orpheus playing his lyre and enchanting the animals and birds with his music. At the base of the Orpheus panel are three scenes of everyday life. In the left-hand scene, two men sit at a table playing a board game. The central scene has four men sitting on a red sofa around a three-legged table drinking wine that is mixed with hot water from a samovar held by a servant to their right. In the scene on the right, two men embrace.
“The whole mosaic expresses hospitality,” Talgam said. “Orpheus was not a god [and] no ritual is depicted. Jews could feel comfortable with this.”
Similarly, the Nile Festival Building in Sepphoris, so named for the mosaic in its central hall, might have belonged to Jews, Talgam said. In this naturalistic fifth-century C.E. mosaic, Egypt is personified as a seminude woman, her breasts like pomegranates. Opposite her is Nilus, the personified Nile, seated on an elephant; beside him is the tower-like nilometer (used to measure the Nile River). Below them horsemen gallop to Alexandria to announce that the Nile is at its optimal height of 17 cubits, an occasion for a celebration.
At that time, many Jews and Christians had a classical education and “thought you could be religious without giving up the masterpieces of the classical tradition,” Talgam explained.
But there were red lines. The most important mosaic in Sepphoris is the third-century C.E. floor, found in a private home, depicting the cult and myth of Dionysus. “Its importance is that it is the most detailed depiction in mosaic of this myth,” Talgam said. It includes rare scenes as well as a portrait of a beautiful woman known as “the Mona Lisa of Galilee.” Such a mosaic containing cult scenes would definitely not have appeared in a Jewish home.
The one venue in the region devoted solely to mosaics of the Holy Land, among other artifacts, is the Museum of the Good Samaritan (www.parks.org.il). Opened in June 2009, it is located just outside Israel proper, on the road connecting Jerusalem and Jericho, once an ancient pilgrimage route. Some of the mosaics are exhibited outdoors. Others are displayed in a building that served as a roadside inn that guarded the road during the Ottoman period and had a private mosque.
Since the Byzantine period, the site has been identified with the inn mentioned in the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable “includes men of three different faiths: Jesus…Jews and a Samaritan who performs a merciful deed,” according to Magen, who is staff officer of archaeology for the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria and initiator of the museum. “Accordingly, the museum exhibits mosaics and other artifacts from Jewish and Samaritan synagogues as well as from churches.”
All were excavated in the West Bank and Gaza and removed from their original sites to protect them. One mosaic, only part of which survives, is from a sixth-century C.E. synagogue discovered near the Gaza seashore. It has rows of medallions, each with an image of an animal: a lioness, a leopard, a giraffe, a zebra and a number of birds. But perhaps the most interesting part shows David in the guise of Orpheus, dressed as a Byzantine emperor and playing a lyre. A lion cub, giraffe and snake are next to him, listening.
The earliest Samaritan mosaics are from the late third and early fourth century C.E., like the earliest mosaics found in Jewish synagogues, and share many similarities with them. Both Jewish and Samaritan synagogues have a central panel with a seven-branched menora, the table of the showbread and a building that is the tabernacle or the Ark of the Covenant. But although the Samaritan religion is closely related to Judaism, its adherents accept only the Pentateuch and believe that Mount Gerizim is the original holy place of the Israelites. Thus, the symbols stand for different things, Talgam said. For Jews, the depiction of the tabernacle symbolized the Temple in Jerusalem, whereas for Samaritans it symbolized the temple on Mount Gerizim.
Among the most beautiful of the Samaritan mosaics is from Khirbet Samara, south of the Nablus-Tulkarem road. This mosaic, in which yellow, red and white tesserae are set against a black background, shows a temple façade with four columns topped by Ionic capitals. A parokhet (curtain) hangs from a rod spanning the two inner columns and is draped around the left-hand column to allow a view of the wooden door on which the lock is depicted in detail. According to Magen, “this is one of the earliest and most vivid mosaic depictions of the temple façade or Ark of the Covenant discovered so far in the Holy Land.”
Of the church mosaics displayed in the museum, one of the best is from a church discovered at Khirbet Bureikat, east of the road between Bethlehem and Hebron. Cross-shaped flowers in delicate shades of red, blue and brown adorn its Byzantine-era floor.
And a spectacular mosaic that was integrated into a Byzantine chapel at Deir Qal’a, in southern Samaria, was once part of a Roman fortress, perhaps from its bathhouse, dating to the end of the fourth and the start of the fifth century C.E. In its center an octagon surrounds a circle in which each of three interlacing bands forms a figure eight.
It is notable that whereas Jews placed biblical heroes on the floor, Christians never depicted saints in church floor mosaics, said David Mevorah, curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
For Jews, putting human figures, even divine ones, on the floor “was a solution,” Talgam said. It enabled them to distance themselves from the pagan Greeks and Romans. “The mosaic in the synagogue at Beit Alfa has the hand of God and Abraham and Isaac, [as if] to say this is not an object of worship.”
Muslims, like Samaritans, avoided figural representation in places of worship. However, Hisham’s Palace (972-2-232-2522), which has the finest example of Muslim mosaics in the Holy Land, contains representations of animals; the mosaics are currently unavailable for viewing. The palace, at Khirbet al Mafjar, three miles north of Jericho, was built by the Umayyads, the first great Muslim dynasty, who ruled from 661 to 750 C.E. “They were extravagant,” Talgam said. “They took from everything they saw—from the Persian Sassanians and the Egyptian Copts.” Seminude stucco reliefs are among the decorations.
This winter palace, built from 724 to 744 C.E., had a luxurious bathhouse filled with elaborate geometric mosaic patterns, including concentric interlacing and overlapping circles. “The Umayyads brought artists from all the areas they had conquered; the floor was made by local Jewish and Christian artists,” according to Talgam.
The patron, Walid ibn Yazid, is said to have been an athlete, huntsman, poet and playboy. A private room in the bathhouse contains a famous mosaic depicting a tree with fruit that look like red apples. On one side of the tree a lion attacks a gazelle; on the other, two gazelles graze peacefully. One interpretation suggests that the room may have had an erotic function and the lion represents a hunter about to slay the gazelle. The animal reminds him of his beloved and he lets it go free.
The Palestinian Authority announced in March that Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who won the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2009, is designing a pavilion to protect the mosaics of Hisham’s Palace. Construction is to begin in 2013.
Meanwhile, a visitor with limited time can have a taste of the country’s mosaics while visiting the Israel Museum (972-2-670-8881; www.english.imjnet.org.il).
Among the items on display is a fine Roman mosaic from a third-century C.E. Nablus villa showing three scenes from the life of Achilles. There is also a panel from a synagogue in Horvat el-Hamam, near the Sea of Galilee, with a cartoon-like depiction of the battle between David and Goliath; it dates to the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century C.E.
Breathtaking mosaics continue to be discovered, such as a church floor found this year in Khirbet Madras, south of Beit Shemesh, with flowers, lions, foxes, fish and peacocks.
But protecting them is no simple matter. “Even if we don’t exhibit them, conserving and covering them is very costly,” Neguer said. If they are in a national park, there is some measure of protection, but in the many sites that are not maintained, they deteriorate along with the other archaeological artifacts.
The Lod mosaic is among the fortunate masterpieces that has found a benefactor: the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center is to be built at the site where it was found; Neguer estimates that it will be completed by 2013.
During the conservation process, the archaeological team discovered footprints and sandal prints of the artisans who had laid the tesserae. “We have the footprint[s], a connection in time to those who worked on the mosaic,” Neguer said. Like the inscriptions often found in mosaics that mention the names of the donors, the footprints are a reminder of the people who created these works.
As Neguer put it, “We feel the continuity of generations here.”
Joel Levinson says
This is a fascinating account of mosaics in the holy land. I plan to quote from it with appropriate attribution in the book I am writing called THE DARING DIAGONAL – Signature Geometry of the Modern Era. Those curious about the subject of Diagonality can view my website for early versions of some of the chapters.
I welcome any thoughts on this topic. Please send to: firstname.lastname@example.org