© SBF Jerusalem

Late Antique Mosaics: Current Research and Conservation Strategies in East and West of the Mediterranean

University of Vienna,  11-12 December 2020
Organisers: Basema Hamarneh and Davide Bianchi

Online Conference

Zoom link to attend the lectures!


password: fzST08


10:30 – 11:00

Informal greetings

11.00 – 11.15



SESSION 1, Chair: Sabine Schrenk

11.20 – 11.45

Liz JAMES (University of Sussex)

Late Antique Mosaics and the Numbers Game

11.50 – 12.15

Fabrizio BISCONTI (Università degli Studi Roma Tre)

Mosaici cristiani della Tarda Antichità in Campania. Verifiche cronologiche e puntualizzazioni iconografiche

Ritornando su un tema caro e sul quale desidero continuare a lavorare, mi soffermo, innanzi tutto, sulla copertura musiva di Teano, poco nota e mortificata da una cronologia, che avanza, talora, sino al momento bizantino. Una considerazione di dettaglio -che vuole rispondere ad una risacca critica poco fondata- cala il monumento iconografico nella matura età costantiniana ed entra nell'analisi dei temi della concordia apostolorum, del signum salutis e dell'aurum coronarium. Il discorso passa poi ad approfondire il programma decorativo del Battistero di S. Giovanni in Fonte nel complesso episcopale partenopeo, quello della Cripta dei Vescovi nelle catacombe di S. Gennaro a Capodimonte e quello perduto della Basilica paoliniana di Cimitile, per approdare alla Cappella capuana di S. Matrona. Il giro dei confronti ci parla di un dialogo interattivo tra la cultura figurativa romana, quella africana e quella d'Oriente e di un orizzonte cronologico, che si muove dal tempo dei Costantinidi alle soglie della stagione bizantina.

12.30 – 14.00    BREAK

SESSION 2, Chair: Margaret Mullet

14.00 – 14.25

Rina TALGAM (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Contacts and Disputes between Jews and Christians in Galilean Synagogue Mosaics

My lecture focuses on the representation of biblical narratives in synagogue mosaics of the fourth and early fifth centuries, our knowledge of which has greatly expanded recently with Jodi Magness’ excavations at Huqoq and earlier findings by Uzi Liebner in his excavations at Wadi Hamam. The unearthing of Huqoq synagogue has yet to be completed and in my talk, I will refer only to those panels that have been fully published by the excavators. The mosaic floor at Huqoq and Hamam are similar in composition, technique, and style. Nevertheless, there is a disagreement between the two delegations concerning their time. Magness holds the view that the findings date the synagogue mosaic to the beginning of the fifth century. However, the Wadi Hamam mosaic has been dated by its excavator to the early fourth century – a difference of almost one hundred years from the estimated date of the Huqoq mosaic. It is needless to say, that the exact dating of the mosaic within the fourth or early fifth century has implications for the full significance of the depicted themes.
The biblical scenes on the mosaic floors of the two sites highlighted the fact that the synagogues were the repositories of Jewish sacred texts. The stories depicted on the floors were selected cautiously from a large pool of stories. Comparison of the biblical stories and characters that appear on the walls of the Dura Europos synagogue to those in Huqoq or Wadi Hamam reveals several important phenomena that the lecture addresses.
Although the Jerusalem Talmud displays little interest in Christians, it is nonetheless difficult to assume that the Galilean communities were completely unaware of disputes between Jews and Christians. The assumption that those disputes spread to the field of visual representation seems logical. The lecture considers the possibility of Jewish - Christian disputes and demonstrates that the people who planned the synagogue mosaics were aware that Jews and Christians share the biblical text, but interpret it differently. It is worth noting that in the depiction of biblical scenes one may observe the continuity of classical Iconographical formulas. 

14.30 – 14.55

Marek OLSZEWSKI (University of Warsaw)

Mosaics as History. A return to Hellenistic origins in Late Antiquity’s Apamea of Syria

Today, many of the looted antiquities are coming from conflict zones including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. My presentation deals with one famous Roman mosaic from illicit excavations in Apamea. The mosaic, which we know from cell-phone pictures taken by the robbers while still in its original location, is wanted by Interpol. The mosaic carpet, approximately 19 m2 in size,  is composed of three figural registers one above the other. The top and center registers hold the historical narrative scenes, the bottom one, third from the top, genre scenes from the Apamea hinterland. The top one illustrates the hitherto unknown history of the foundation of the Macedonian colony and then of the city of Pella / Apamea. The first register of the 'picture' shows the events related to the establishment of the Macedonian military settlement (katoikia), called Pella, by Antipatros, Kassandros, and Archippos. In the central register, we see the foundation of a new polis, called Apamea,  by Seleucos I Nikator - shown as the ktistes of the city, and accompanied by his wife Apame who is glorified as a benefactor of Apamea; the group is completed by the rest of the founders and benefactors of the Pella/Apamea as Archippos, Antipatros, Kassandros, and Antiochos. The last register is a paean to the quiet splendour of life, wealth, and prosperity enjoyed by the Apameans in the abundant valley of Orontes. It is an exceptional and unique historical source to unknown pages in Hellenistic history and the times of the first successors of Alexander the Great in Syria.  Many historical puzzles that have so far been regarded as such are partially or completely solved thanks to this mosaic. In 2008, in a famous monograph on the Hellenistic settlements, Getzel M. Cohen, after having studied the problem of the foundation of Pella, he concluded: "On the other hand, there is no extant source that explicitly says Antigonos or Alexander founded Pella". Thanks to the scene showing Pella's foundation act, in the first figural strip, we know today that Pella has been founded thanks to the initiative of Antipatros - regent of the empire, and with the support of Kassandros - cavalry commander. However, the direct religious action of establishing the colony is performed by a certain Archippus. Until now, scholars did not know whether he was a legendary or historical figure. In his important article on Pella described in the text of Pseudo-Oppian, published in 1994, Hollys has emphasized that particularly puzzling is "Archippus, ruler of Pella". Archippus is not a legendary figure, as has so far been assumed. He was a historical personage. Antipatros entrusted him with the role of Pella's oikistos, perhaps in August or September 320 BCE, immediately after the Treaty of Triparadeisos. But we know that from June 321 to June 320 BCE, he held the supreme administrative function as the archon eponimus in Athens. At that time, Athens was under the authority of Antipatros and the Macedonian garrison, and the city lost its independence. Many Greeks were serving in the Macedonian army. Thanks to the Apamean mosaic, we know today why, when, and by who Pella was founded. We know too who was Archippos. Today we are able to resolve these and many other enigmas related to the origin of Hellenistic Apamea-on-the-Orontes, because, to paraphrase Bowersock, the mosaics can be read as a history.

15.00 – 15.15    BREAK

SESSION 3, Chair: Basema Hamarneh

15.15 – 15.40

Davide BIANCHI (Universität Wien)

Altar and Mosaic Floor. Displaying the Sacred in the Churches of Jordan

Archaeological excavations conducted in the province of Arabia over the last few decades identified a considerable number of churches decorated with mosaic floors. Although many studies were devoted to the mosaics of these buildings, defining their typology and chronology, they have mostly privileged their decorative patterns and iconographic aspects. Less attention was paid to the relationship between the mosaic floors and the liturgical furnishings, particularly in the bema, the most important sacred space within the church. Indeed, the altar located in the presbytery was the focal point of the Christian Eucharistic rite, and it was characterized by the presence of relics. The analysis of the mosaic floors in the holy area, their restoration and their partial destruction to accommodate different forms of altar mirror the changes in the perception of the sacred and the performance of the liturgical rites in the sacred locis of this region.
The aim of this paper is to focus on the mosaic floors laid in the presbytery of the Jordanian churches, to discuss how various types of altar were installed, and how and to which extent they reflected the cult of relics from the 6th to the 8th century AD. 

15.45 – 16.20

Franco SCIORILLI (Amman)

From the Birth of the Madaba school to the Restorations of the 1990s

Jordan is one of the countries with the greatest wealth of floor mosaics from the Byzantine era. The intuition of founding a school to train local operators came to the Franciscan archaeologist Michele Piccirillo in the early 1980s. Its establishment took place in 1992 in a climate of archaeological activities that had involved the whole country, for this reason, the need to have specialized local operators was of extreme importance. This paper aims to retrace some historical phases of the restorations, starting from the 1930s, to the foundation of the school with the attached Archaeological Park, and the heritage conservation activities throughout the 1990s. The Madaba Mosaic School has made use of important collaborations, such as the Ravenna School of Restoration, The Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence, and experts from other countries who have contributed to the training of the students. The School conducted various conservation activities, starting from the mosaic heritage of Madaba, later extended to the whole country providing valuable help to the Department of Antiquities. Specific interventions were important for mosaics in Madaba, for example the so-called mosaic of Paradise in the Archaeological museum, the Hall of Hyppolitus, the church of the Virgin in the Archaeological park, and above all the restoration of the Church of the Apostles. The Madaba Mosaic School played an important role in all those conservation projects, directed by Piccirillo, until his death in the autumn of 2008.


SESSION 4, Chair: Lioba Theis

10.00 – 10.25

Henry MAGUIRE (Johns Hopkins University)

Materials and Meaning at Poreč and Ravenna

My paper questions the assumption that the use of ordinary materials, such as brick and stone in place of glass, in Early Byzantine wall mosaics necessarily signals nothing other than a scarcity of resources. In spite of the overall visual splendor of Early Medieval mosaics, relatively cheap materials could play positive roles in mosaic making, whether these roles were aesthetic or political. The mosaics of both provincial Poreč and of metropolitan Ravenna provide instructive examples of the ways in which artistry transcended materials.
The first part of the paper focuses on the side apses in the basilica of Eufrasius at Poreč, where the artists clearly faced shortages of materials, and on the simulations of cloth and shell in the tesserae of the main apse, where the combinations of rich glass with relatively inexpensive stone and brick cubes created illusionistic effects such as the sheen of gold, the nacreous gleam of mother of pearl, and the brightness of dyed wools against plain matt linen.
The final part of the presentation considers the puzzling role of different materials in the creation of portraits, focusing on the heads of Bishop Eufrasius in Poreč and of Maximian in Ravenna. Here the conclusion is that the use of different qualities of tesserae should be uncoupled from the simple expression of social hierarchy. Rather, materials were used to distinguish the portrait of a prominent individual from others in the same complex of mosaics, whether it be smaller cubes of dark-toned glass in the case of Eufrasius, or larger cubes of white stone in the case of Maximian.

10.30 – 10.55

Ana SILKATCHEVA (The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford)

The Promising Potential of Patterns: the Distribution of Geometric Motifs across the Mosaics of the Late Antique Levant

Geometric patterns form the largest body of evidence presented by the mosaics of the Late Antique Levant, appearing in great variety and number on nearly every pavement. Yet, unlike the well-studied figural repertoire, patterns and motifs on the mosaics in the Levant have scarcely been considered for their potential to contribute to our understanding of life in the region. Studies elsewhere have repeatedly shown that the distribution of patterns across regions, and the specific treatment of them in their details, can be markers of the activities of mosaicists and workshops. In this paper I introduce my work to chart the distribution of all geometric patterns across the corpora of mosaics in the Levant, demonstrating through two case studies the promising potential patterns hold in showing how the work of mosaicists was organised and diffused across the region.

11.00 – 11.15    BREAK

SESSION 5, Chair: Liz James

11.15 – 11.40

Matteo BRACONI (Università degli Studi Roma Tre)

Il monogramma perduto. Papa Adriano I e il mosaico del catino absidale di Santa Pudenziana

La lunga sequenza di trasformazioni che tocca il mosaico del catino absidale di S. Pudenziana rimane ben riconoscibile e, soprattutto per il lungo arco di tempo che intercorre tra la fine del 1500 e la prima metà del 1800, lascia tracce e segni così evidenti, da poter riconoscere in maniera puntuale modi, tempi e autori dei singoli interventi. Più complesso, invece, risulta comprendere se e come l’apparato musivo del titulus Pudentis sia stato oggetto di operazioni di riassetto nel corso del medioevo, a fronte dell’ingombrante silenzio offerto dalle fonti coeve. Tuttavia, una serie di documenti scritti e iconografici, prodotti tra il XVI e il XVII secolo, denunciano l’insospettata presenza nell’ambito dell’organismo absidale di un monogramma -poi perduto- riferito alternativamente ora all’attività di papa Adriano I ed ora a quella di papa Adriano III. Proprio sul valore di questo elemento si vuole tornare a ragionare, cercando di definirne la corretta ubicazione all’interno del programma figurativo e tentando di valutarne soprattutto il reale valore documentario in funzione del riconoscimento o meno di un’intrusione decorativa da ricondurre ai secoli dell’Alto Medioevo.

11.45 – 12.15

Lihi HABAS (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

The Motif of the Knife, Sickle and Fruit in the House of God in the Byzantine Art of the Holy Land

During the 5th-8th centuries, the Holy Land enjoyed a flourish that is reflected in hundreds of churches with mosaic floors that have been revealed on both sides of the Jordan River. Among the many subjects that adorn these floors, the most common are depictions of genre, including various agricultural activities that employ typical tools, such as the sickle, the knife and the plow. The tools also depicted together with the seasons, months, and labours.
Among the depictions of agricultural activities in churches in the Holy Land, a motif that has been discerned is the knife or sickle held close to a fruit, vegetable or bowl of fruit. This motif has been found both on mosaic floors and on liturgical marble furniture. In the ecclesiastical context, it appears in mosaic floors in all parts of the church in geometrical and vegetal carpets and frames. The depictions of the fruit bowl and knife are rarer. Alongside the knife and the sickle, primarily the citron, and the melon appear, while members of the pumpkin family, pomegranate, apple and peach are demonstrably less frequent. Some of the fruit are depicted complete and others halved into two, and others still have slices cut out and their insides revealed. The tools are identical in form to those appearing in the hands of farmers harvesting wheat and grapes, and the depictions of the seasons and months; they are also identical to tools found in excavations of Byzantine period sites.
Apart from the decorative value and their practical use as tools for peeling fruit and vegetables, the motif can be interpreted as part of the xenia, abundance and prosperity, and emphasizing the fertile aspect of the annual cycle. But also reflects the offerings of the believers to god and their hopes for continued prosperity.
Thus, the motif, and particularly those depictions of fruits and vegetables that were halved, expresses in a palpable way the abundance that was given to Man and hints at the human presence and its part in bringing the bounty of the earth that is God’s creation. The notable appearance of the citron stems from its great value with curative properties, and as part of Four Species in Jewish cult, undoubtedly made an impact, reflect the beliefs that related to it, the redemption of the penitent from sin, salvation, and the promise of new life after death.

12.20 – 12.40

Basema HAMARNEH (Universität Wien)

Mosaics as Markers of Change: the Case of the Churches of Rihab (Provincia Arabia)

In the Late Antique Levant churches were the most prominent buildings, in addition to their proper destinations as religious structures, they performed an essential political and social role, and as such they emerged as important landmarks in urban and rural centres. Their building, maintenance and decoration reflected status, agency and prestige of the local communities and its most eminent figures. The longue durée of the artistic and visual traditions expressed in the decorative strategies, especially between late 5th and the middle 8th century AD (as documented by foundation Greek inscriptions), showed an apparent outstanding continuity. This paper intends to address the specific case of the mosaic floors of Rihab (Provincia Arabia), where an extremely fervent church building activity took place under the tenure of the Bishops of Bostra. The aim is to question if, and how mosaics reflected the historical changes, how challenges were bridged, and identities negotiated, and in which manner mosaics marked the transition from Byzantine to Umayyad and Abbasid political rules.

12.45 – 13.00

Final remarks