In antiquity polychrome mosaic pavements were a conspicuous feature of interior decoration in public and domestic buildings. They survive in great abundance where corresponding wall and ceiling decoration has largely vanished. The earliest floor mosaics were made of small, smooth pebbles, but these were soon replaced by tesserae (small, evenly cut cubes of stone). There are two types of tesserae, each used to achieve different effects: opus tessellatum consists of square, or nearly square, stones set in rows and opus vermiculatum (“worm-shaped work”) are very small tesserae cut in irregular shapes and laid in patterns dictated by a pavement's design. Opus tessellatum was used to execute geometric patterns or figures, whereas opus vermiculatum was usually reserved for fine details. Tesserae (of local limestone; marble and glass for highlights) were available in a wide range of colors, and several shades of a single color were often used to achieve subtle modeling effects. In Roman mosaic decoration, the average number of colors in the mosaicist's palette was thirty; in Byzantine mosaics the average palette consisted of from ten to twelve colors. Mosaic floors are typically laid on a three-layer foundation consisting of the rudus (a bed of packed earth or debris with large stones); the nucleus (several centimeters of mortar made of lime and ash or pottery dust and chips); and the setting bed (a layer of 2–4 cm of limestone plaster into which the tesserae are set).

Although ancient authors (e.g., Vitruvius) mention mosaic pavements, there are no extant texts that describe the making of a mosaic. The process must have involved several specialized craftsmen to prepare the setting bed, to cut the tesserae, and to design and execute the figures. Piles of precut tesserae, sorted according to color, along with the waste stones from which they were cut, have been found at some sites, indicating a degree of industrialization. While even the most complicated geometric patterns could have been executed merely with string and compass, the repetition of nearly identical figural compositions over several centuries and in widely separated geographic areas indicates that some sort of model “books” were used.

Early Pebble Mosaics.

The first differentiated floor designs were pebble mosaics. Although some scholars have placed the invention of this technique in the Near East, the most recent studies suggest that pebble mosaics originated in Greece, where they existed as early as the Late Bronze Age. At Gordion, in Asia Minor, three buildings were discovered with multicolored pebble floors that are dated to the eighth century BCE. These Phrygian pavements are composed of scattered geometric motifs with no overall order.

Hellenistic Mosaics.

In the Hellenistic period, pebble mosaics were elaborate and representational, often featuring mythological characters (the Scylla mosaic from Nea-Paphos on Cyprus). Floors that incorporate both pebbles and tesserae illustrate the transitional phase in the development of tessellated mosaics (from Alexandria, Egypt: a warrior surrounded by a frieze of griffins; a Hunt with erotes attacking a stag [both now in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria]). As mosaic compositions became more pictorial and dependent on paintings for models, the cutting of the tesserae became more refined. These changes can be charted in the emblemata, or portable tray, compositions executed in opus vermiculatum. Two very similar mosaics from Thmuis (Tell Timai), with female busts that represent either the city of Alexandria or a Ptolemaic queen (Berenike II?) are striking examples of this technique; their superb execution attests to the virtuosity of the Alexandrian workshops, which some scholars believe specialized in the production of emblemata. Close parallels between Alexandrian works and those found in the House of the Faun at Pompeii suggest the influence of Alexandrian artists abroad.

Mesopotamian Mosaics.

The art of mosaics was never popular in Mesopotamia. Although the Standard of Ur (in the British Museum) is sometimes described as executed in the mosaic technique, it is not; it is executed with inlay of shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. Only four sites with pavements executed in opus tessellatum are known from the region, and all date to the third century CE. A personification of the Euphrates River between personifications of Syria and Mesopotamia found at Mas'Udiye has inscriptions in Greek and Syriac that give the name of the artists and the date 539 of the era of the Seleucids (227–228 CE). A well-known mosaic of late Severan date, with the personified provinces, was excavated at Zeugma (Belqis). Better known than either of these are the funerary mosaics at Edessa and the mosaics in the Palace of Shapur I, erected In 260 CE, after his victory over Valerian. In the palace mosaics, geometric panels alternate with figural scenes of dancers, courtesans, musicians, and portraits.

Roman Mosaics.

The earliest tessellated mosaics from the Near East follow the compositions of the pebble mosaics of the Hellenistic period (e.g., at Delos and Alexandria)—namely, multiple bands framing a central emblema that was usually filled with a geometric design (at Arsamea in ancient Commagene in Turkey). Similar pavements with central designs were found in Israel, on Masada in the Judean Desert and in the Herodian quarter of Jerusalem. They are securely dated to before 70 CE, the year Titus destroyed Jerusalem.

The majority of mosaics from the imperial period are from the private sphere of the Roman house. These are best represented by the extensive series of floors excavated at Antioch in Syria. The taste for illusionistic picture panels arranged within a single composition can be seen in the earliest houses of the first century CE, those constructed before the earthquake of 115 (e.g., the triclinium mosaic in the Atrium House, with its Judgment of Paris, Drinking Contest, and Adonis and Aphrodite). Aside from a rich selection of mythological scenes, apotropaic symbols are introduced at the entrances to rooms and houses (the evil eye or ithyphallic dwarfs). Representations of the months and seasons (House of the Calendar) and personifications of rivers (House of the Porticoes) and provinces (House of Cilicia) also reflect the expansion of the repertoire of mosaic images beyond the narrative models of Greco-Roman painting. Episodes drawn from literary (Greek novels in the House of the Man of Letters, now in the Princeton Museum and the Worcester Art Museum) and theatrical (House of the Red Pavement; House of Iphigenia, now in the Antakya Museum) sources reveal the cultural milieu of Roman cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes the themes reflect the function of the particular room they decorate—for example, an elaborate table setting replete with foods frames a central medallion with Ganymede serving the Eagle in the apsed triclinium of the House of the Buffet Supper.

This fashion for allegorical and mythological compositions is demonstrated throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the second and third centuries CE. Where entire houses have been excavated, as in the case of the House of Dionysos at Nea-Paphos, there is evidence for reading the selection and placement of certain themes as programmatic. Dionysiac themes (Vintage and Triumph) are typically set into reception rooms or near them (Dionysos's Gift of Wine to Ikarios), while salutatory motifs such as the frontal peacock or Four Seasons are found at or near the house entrance. Often, several themes are incorporated into one grand design, as is the case with the mosaic, reconstructed from numerous fragments, originally found in Gerasa/Jerash (Transjordan): several Dionysiac friezes are stacked vertically and framed by a garland border accented by busts of the Seasons, Muses, and Authors (Homer and Thucydides are extant), each identified by a Greek inscription. The combination of themes in this mosaic, dated on stylistic grounds to the mid-second century CE, may be intentional: they evoke the processions and cult festivals associated with the theatrical guilds of Dionysiac artists. (Most of the mosaic is in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.)

An equally grand and unusual floor with Dionysiac scenes was produced in the first half of the third century CE for the triclinium of a house in the theater district at Sepphoris in the Galilee. The central composition consists of fifteen panels, each labeled with a Greek inscription, that depict aspects of Dionysiac mythology and ritual. The whole is enclosed by a frame of lush acanthus foliage inhabited by animals and hunters; the bar of the T-shaped mosaic contains a continuous procession of Dionysiac cult followers bearing various gifts and offerings.

Throughout the Near East there was a pronounced taste for mosaic compositions steeped in classical learning. The didactic nature of such displays is emphasized by the popularity of Greek labels. Busts of the Seven Sages (accompanied by their maxims and titles in Greek) and Socrates surround Calliope in a mosaic of Severan date from Baalbek/Suweida in Lebanon. Mythological scenes are also accompanied by inscriptions, and their selection often reflects local lore and interests (the Beauty Contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids found at Apamea, Palmyra, and Nea-Paphos). The display of philosophical notions of time (Chronos, “time”; and Aion, “the ages”) and the representation of nature by personifications (Ge, “earth”; Georgia, “agriculture”; and Tropai, “turning points of the seasons”) are masterfully set out in a mosaic produced in the second half of the third century CE in the city of Shahba/Philippopolis in southern Syria. The discovery of many mythological and allegorical mosaics in Shahba/Philippopolis indicates that a workshop was active there from the second half of the third century through the first half of the fourth.

Late Roman Mosaics.

Hellenism continued as a significant force in the cultural life of the Near East through the Late Antique period, as evidenced by the influence of Neoplatonism, especially in Syria. Several of the mosaics found at Apamea, an important Greek city, bear eloquent testimony to the continuation of pagan beliefs and myths. A group of pavements (most are in the Apamea Museum), dated to the reign of Julian the Apostate (360–363 CE), were found in a single building near the Cathedral of Apamea. Among them is a remarkable scene of Socrates seated among the Seven Sages (as well as the Return of Ulysses, with the “Servants” labeled, and the Judgment of the Nereids). The very ambiguity in the scholarly interpretations of Socrates as a Christlike teacher or a pagan emperor-type implies the degree to which both paganism and Christianity drew inspiration from Platonism. The interpretation of the recondite myths and personifications set out in six elaborate panels in a room from the House of Aion at Nea-Paphos suggests a pagan response to the rise of Christianity. Securely dated to the second quarter of the fourth century, these mosaics include the Childhood and Triumph of Dionysos who, it would appear, is presented as a universal savior. In the adjacent Governor's Palace (House of Theseus), renovations in the fifth century included a grand mosaic with the Birth, First Bath, and Education of Achilles. Scenes from the Life of Achilles are featured on a mosaic from Nablus in Israel, dated to the third/fourth century. The iconography demonstrates the widespread popularity of the myth cycles and the common repertoire of the Near East. Original compositions are rare, but there is an exceptional case from Mariamin (in the Hama Museum in Syria), where the mosaic features a concert with six female musicians, seemingly a record of an actual event.

In the course of the fourth century, figural compositions begin to shift away from pictures in stone to be viewed from a single vantage point to pavements composed of several scenes or single scenes broken up into multiple parts. This change is illustrated by the triclinium pavement in the Constantinian Villa at Antioch (now in the Louvre), where the entire field is divided into a series of irregular panels: sacrifice and hunt scenes fill trapezoidal panels with full-length female Seasons set in the diagonals between them.

Early Christian Mosaics.

Although the promulgation of the Edict of Toleration by Constantine In 312/13 CE meant that Christians were free to construct houses of worship, it is not until the third quarter of the fourth century that church building and decoration appear on a large scale in the eastern provinces. The most prolific center for mosaic production was Syria, where the “rainbow style” emerged in the second half of the fourth century. This new style is characterized by complex geometric designs executed in multicolored bands that can be extended in all directions (e.g., the Kaoussié Church in Antioch; the church in Zahrani, Lebanon; and the basilica in Salamis/Constantia, Cyprus). Such designs suited the need for aniconic decoration necessitated by the prohibition against images contained in the Second Commandment.

Mosaics

MOSAICS. Figure 1. Mosaic from Shavei-Zion. (Courtesy Lucille A. Roussin)

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The increase in mosaic production throughout the Near East in the fifth century is a sign of the region's general prosperity and political stability. Mosaic workshops in Turkey, Syria, and Cyprus continued to flourish, and mosaic production in Lebanon and Palestine increased, especially in the first half of the fifth century. At this time church pavements are decorated with the cross and Christogram (in ancient Palestine at Nahariya, Shavei-Zion (see figure 1), and ῾Evron; on Cyprus there is a mosaic representation of a jeweled cross set into the pavement in the church at Tremithus). The practice continues into the late sixth century, despite the prohibition in the edict of Theodosius II In 427 CE. The crosses and Christograms in these pavements usually mark entrances, altars, and places of special veneration within the churches and may have served an apotropaic function. Specifically religious themes are found in a group of pavements from Cilicia (at Ayas, Karlik, and Korykos) in which the iconography of the Peaceful Kingdom (Is. 65:25) is illustrated. This theme continues in popularity in the sixth century in the mosaics from the Madaba region (Baptistery of the Cathedral; Churches of Sts. Lot and Procopius; and the Memorial of Moses on Mt. Nebo). At the same time, the natural world is also brought into the sacred space through the insertion of a great variety of plant and animal motifs into the geometric patterns (in ancient Palestine at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; in Syria at Dibsi Faraj and Khirbet Mouqa; and on Cyprus at Soloi and at the Kourion Baptistery and Basilica).

The most significant development of the latter half of the fifth century is the reintroduction of large-scale animal and hunt carpets. The camel caravan and animal chase mosaic in the portico of the Great Colonnade at Apamea (469 CE) may be the earliest of this type (also at Apamea are mosaics of Amazons hunting and of Atlante and Meleager). The most dramatic and monumental examples of hunt pavements are those discovered at Antioch (the Megalopsychia Hunt from Yakto now in the museum at Antakya, Turkey, and the Worcester Hunt in the Worcester Art Museum). The mosaic of Adam enthroned in Paradise surrounded by wild beasts from the nave of the North Church at Huarte, Syria, is an example of the adaptation of a popular Roman theme—Orpheus charming the beasts—to Christian iconography.

A taste for the personifications of abstract ideas and the elements of nature remain popular from the Late Roman period through the sixth century; for example, Ananeosis, or “Renewal,” and Ktisis, or “Foundation,” occur at Antioch (Ktisis also appears in the frigidarium of the Baths of Eustolios at Kourion, Cyprus); personifications of the seasons (at Deir es-Sleib, Syria), Ge (at Beth Guvrin?), and Thalassa, or “Ocean” (at the Church of the Apostles, Madaba). Calendar mosaics expand on the seasons imagery with illustrations of the agricultural labors of each season and month (at Beth-Shean in Israel and el-Ḥammam in the same locale).

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MOSAICS. Figure 2. Mosaic from Beth-Shean/El-Ḥammam. (Courtesy Lucille A. Roussin)

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In the sixth century, Palestine and Arabia are the most important provincial centers of mosaic productivity. The most popular pattern was the medallion style of the inhabited vine or acanthus scroll rinceaux, which was used for border and field compositions. Within the scrolls of church pavements are miniature versions of hunting themes and pastoral and vintaging scenes (Beth-Shean (see figure 2) and Madaba). Elements of the natural world—flowers (rosettes), animals, birds, baskets of fruit—fill the intervals formed by grid patterns composed of small four-petalled flowers; these petalled trellis designs are widely found—at Antioch, in the House of the Green Carpet; in Lebanon at the church of Khalde; and in Syria at the church at Dibsi Faraj. Classical myths continue to be represented at Madaba with the Dionysiac thiasos (revelry) and with Achilles and Patroclus; in Jerusalem, with Orpheus; and at Erez, in Israel, with the Triumph of Dionysos.

Topographical subjects, introduced in the fifth century in the cityscape border of the Megalopsychia Hunt from Antioch and in the Nilotic pavement of the transept of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, in Israel, are a particularly rich subject for sixth-century mosaicists. The Madaba Map represents the principle cities of Palestine and the Nile Delta, as well as prominent pilgrimage sites. In the borders of the mosaics at Ma῾in (719 CE) and Umm er-Rasas (765 CE), in Jordan walled cities and churches represent the principle cities of the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Arabia, Alexandria, and Memphis.

The monumental peristyle (1,900 sq. m) mosaic in the Great Palace in Constantinople provides a rare example of a sixth-century mosaic in an imperial context. Recent excavation has clarified the dating of this monument, which previously ranged from the fourth through the seventh centuries: pottery finds below the mosaic indicate a date in the first half of the sixth century. More than seventy scenes are extant and illustrate heterogeneous episodes drawn from the repertoire of the hunt (outdoors and staged in an amphitheater), rural life, and animal combats, against a neutral white ground.

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MOSAICS. Figure 3. Lion mosaic. From Byzantine church at Magen in the Negev. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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Synagogue Mosaics.

The majority of synagogue mosaics are found in Israel, where they present iconographic programs distinctly different from those in the Diaspora. The mosaic pavements of the synagogues at Sardis (dated by numismatic evidence to c. 350 CE) and Apamea (dated by inscription to 391/92) are geometric carpets with framed panels of donors' inscriptions interspersed with geometric designs. In contrast, synagogue pavements in Palestine from the fourth through the sixth centuries show a richly developed iconography with representations of the Torah shrine and menorah and other Jewish ritual objects (shofar, lulav, ethrog, incense shovel) used in the liturgy. Signs of the zodiac and personifications of the seasons frame Helios in the mosaics at Hammath Tiberias, Sepphoris, Khirbet Susiya, Na῾aran, Beth-Shean, Beth Alpha, Huṣifah, and Yafia. Biblical scenes are illustrated in the floor mosaics at Gerasa (Noah's family and the animals leaving the Ark), Beth Alpha (the Sacrifice of Isaac), and in Na῾aran and Khirbet Susiya (Daniel in the Lion's Den).

The political unrest produced by the war between the Byzantine and Persian empires and the Arab invasion of 640 brought about a general decline. Mosaic production in Turkey, on Cyprus, and in Phoenicia came to a halt. The discovery of the Church of St. Stephen at Umm er-Rasas, dated to between 756 and 785, indicates that church building in Palestine did not cease. At least some mosaic workshops in Palestine and Arabia flourished long after the Arab conquest.

The Umayyad caliphs employed Byzantine craftsmen to decorate their buildings with mosaics in Syria and Palestine. The most spectacular early Islamic pavement is preserved in the large bath hall at Khirbat al-Mafjar, near Jericho, dated to the second quarter of the eighth century; it consists of thirty-one individual panels filled with geometric designs. A figural mosaic with lions hunting gazelles on either side of a fruit tree is found in the small private room off the hall. Whether this scene can be read as an allegory is debated.

[See also Churches; Synagogues. In addition, many of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries (see especially Madaba).]

Bibliography

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  • Trilling, James. “The Soul of the Empire: Style and Meaning in the Mosaic Pavement of the Byzantine Imperial Palace in Constantinople.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 43 (1989): 27–72.

Christine Kondoleon and Lucille A. Roussin