Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.24

Susanna Ognibene, Umm al-Rasas: La chiesa di Santo Stefano ed il 'problema iconofobico'.   Rome:  "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 2002.  Pp. 519.  ISBN 88-8265-145-2.  

Reviewed by Charles Barber, University of Notre Dame (
Word count: 1029 words

The church of Saint Stephen at Umm al-Rasas in Jordan is a key example of an early medieval phenomenon in Palestine, namely the removal of images from Christian church interiors by Christians. This book is one of a series of publications on excavations pursued since 1986 by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum at this site.1 In this volume, Susanna Ognibene offers a thorough account of the visual evidence from the floor mosaics in this church.

The first three chapters of this book establish a context for the mosaics. The first chapter (pp. 19-25) provides a brief introduction to the geographical and historical situation of the Jordan river valley until the ninth century A.D. The second chapter (pp. 29-48) traces the history of the identification of the site as the Kastron Mefaa. The fort at the center of this community perhaps dates to the third century. The site was probably abandoned in the ninth century. In the late sixth century the settlement was marked by the construction of several churches, including Saint Stephen. The third chapter (pp. 51-64) gives a thorough description of the architectural layout of the church of Saint Stephen.

Once this physical context is established, Ognibene turns to the mosaics within the church and the discussion that will form the core of this book. Chapter four (pp. 67-94) presents a thorough account of the technique, style and iconography of the mosaics. These include a number of donor inscriptions and portraits, attesting to the community that paid for these decorations. These also render significant dates for the history of the church. The major element in the decorative scheme is the inhabited vine that dominates the church's nave. This is framed by a nilotic border. Topographical representations fill the spaces between the piers separating the nave from the aisles. Geometrical patterns with vegetal or animal motifs occupy the aisles. The sanctuary contains an abstract geometrical pattern that is an eighth-century replacement of the original sixth- or seventh-century mosaics in this area. The inscription that accompanies this new mosaic lists donors and two mosaicists (Staurachios of Esbounta and Euremios) and gives a date of March 756. In addition to the thorough description and analysis of the mosaics in this chapter, this book offers a detailed catalogue of every animate aspect of these mosaics (pp. 151-459). This catalogue provides a black and white photograph and a line drawing of each figure. The accompanying text identifies, describes and locates these images. A list of comparisons is also offered. Of particular value is the detailed account of the exacting iconophobic activity that was brought to bear on these figures. Each animate creature bears evidence of the careful removal and replacement of their tesserae, an act that erased the figure while retaining some aesthetic continuity across the mosaic.

It is the content of Ognibene's catalogue that provides the raw data for the analysis to be found in the fifth and sixth chapters of this book (pp. 97-140). Here the author examines the archaeological and literary evidence that contextualizes these alterations. This is shaped by consideration of the appropriateness of two key terms. Should the re-setting of these mosaics be understood in light of the Christian iconoclasm that played such an important role in the Byzantine Empire of the eighth and ninth centuries? Or, is it more appropriate to read these acts in light of an emerging and regional Islamic critique of the representation of living creatures?2

Saint Stephen at Umm al-Rasas was not an isolated example of such acts. Fifty-seven of the one hundred and fifty figurative mosaics in the region (a list of these with their bibliography can be found on pp. 467-85) show signs of similar alterations. The care with which this was done at Saint Stephen suggests that this was not a frenzied outburst by a rampaging iconoclastic mob. Rather, it is an indication that these changes were introduced by the Christian community that used this church. A point supported by the presence of donors in the new presbytery floor of 756. In this instance, the non-figurative geometrical patterns of the new mosaics appear to establish fresh parameters for the church decoration as a whole. If the new mosaics and the destruction of the older images are to be linked, and this is a reasonable supposition, then the question returns to motivation. Ognibene has rightly distanced the discussion of this church from what is known of Byzantine iconoclasm. In this regard it is notable that the consistent removal of images of living creatures was not an aspect of Byzantine iconoclastic practice. Instead, the material evidence from Saint Stephen indicates that choices were being made in relation to the emerging hostility to the living image within Islam. Given this, many interesting questions might be raised concerning the assimilation of Islam into the rich religious tapestry of Palestine and the response by individual Christian communities to the realities of the Islamic conquest of the region.3 In terms of the specific problem of images, we are fortunate to possess the writings of Theodore Abu Qurrah, bishop of Harran who wrote a treatise on images in Arabic between 799 and 812.4 In these we find clear evidence of the pressure upon Christian communities to respond to the doctrines of Islam.

Ognibene approaches this issue, without attempting to take on its fuller implications. She suggests that the changes in the mosaics can be characterized as a form of accommodation. It is known that Muslims had occasion to use Christian churches for worship.5 Ognibene proposes that the alterations in Saint Stephen are an attempt to make this church palatable for such Islamic worshippers. This is an intriguing possibility, but it begs questions as to conditions within the Christian community that made this possible. Nonetheless, this book is an important contribution. It makes a key monument in a complex land available in a comprehensive manner. While I cannot yet accept the explanation for the iconophobia that is presented here, this is in part because firm conclusions remain difficult to draw. Much more work on the material and textual evidence for early medieval Palestine needs to be pursued. This book is an important and useful stepping stone in that process.


1.   Foremost among these publications is: Michele Piccirillo, Eugenio Alliata, "Umm al-Rasas Mayfa'ah. Volume I. Gli scavi nel complesso di Santo Stefano," Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Maior 28. Jerusalem: Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, 1994.
2.   For an earlier use of this distinction see: Michele Piccirillo, "Iconofobia o iconoclastia nelle chiese di Giordania?" in Bisanzio e l'Occidente: Arte, archeologia, storia. Studi in onore di F. De Maffei. Rome: Viella, 1996, pp. 173-91.
3.   A useful introduction to this topic is to be found in Robert Schick, The Christian Communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule. A Historical and Archaeological Study. Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995.
4.   Sidney H. Griffith has worked tirelessly to familiarize us with this material. Notable publications by him include: "Theodore Abu Qurrah's arabic tract on the christian practice of venerating images," Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 (1985), pp. 53-73; "Images, Islam and Christian Icons. A moment in the christian/muslim encounter in early islamic times," in La Syrie de Byzance à l'Islam. Damascus: French Institute of Damascus, 1992, pp. 122-38; A treatise on the veneration of holy icons written in Arabic by Theodore Abu Qurrah. Louvain: Peeters, 1997.
5.   See Suliman Bashear, "Qibla Musharriqua and Early Muslim Prayer in Churches," The Muslim World 81 (1991), pp. 267-82.

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