Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.22

Andrew M. Madden, Corpus of Byzantine Church Mosaic Pavements from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Colloquia antiqua, 13.   Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA:  Peeters, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 242.  ISBN 9789042930612.  €78.00.  

Reviewed by Laurel Taylor, University of North Carolina Asheville (

Table of Contents

In a new monograph based upon his doctoral thesis, Andrew Madden provides a comprehensive catalogue of chapel, church and monastery mosaic pavements from Roman Palestine during the early Christian period. The chronological parameters of his study begin with the spread of Christianity and the attendant church building in the region during the fourth century and end in the eighth century when, based on current archaeological evidence, construction of mosaic pavements appears to cease in Christian edifices. Though there have been more publications devoted to the mosaics of this region over the past few decades, none have focused exclusively on pavements from Christian contexts. From a large yet diffuse body of publications (monographs, catalogues and a staggering number of excavation reports), Madden has compiled a comprehensive catalogue of nearly 300 mosaic pavements found within Roman Palestine. His contribution is, therefore, a welcome addition and of great utility for those seeking comparanda for Christian mosaics in the larger Mediterranean.

Madden’s catalogue begins with a very brief introduction that both defines his chronological parameters and situates his study within modern scholarship on the subject. Thematically, his approach is one that looks at all mosaics within Christian contexts of this region (whether there is explicitly Christian iconography or not) and so his study begins in 324 CE, the year Constantine became sole emperor, and ends in the early 7th century when the region comes under Islamic annexation (he does include the very few Christian pavements that date from the later 7th century and early 8th century). This is a period of prolific construction of diverse Christian building types including churches, chapels, and monasteries as well as an era of vigorous mosaic production in both secular and religious contexts. Many of these mosaics were first included in Michael Avi-Yonah’s comprehensive, landmark study Mosaic Pavements of Palestine (1933-35) and, later, in Asher and Ruth Ovadiah’s Hellenistic, Roman and Early Byzantine Mosaic Pavements in Israel (1987), a continuation and updating of Avi-Yonah’s earlier work. As Madden acknowledges, his catalogue is indebted to these earlier works and formally follows them in many respects; his own contribution is an updating of these corpora with new discoveries over the past four decades while also collecting all Christian context pavements together in a single reference source. The choice to title his study in accordance with the modern political borders of Israel and the Palestinian territories also follows the earlier works of Avi-Yonah and the Ovadiahs while mirroring other mosaic studies from the larger region such as M. Piccirillo’s The Mosaics of Jordan (1992). Since Madden’s study covers Phoenicia, the reader will, however, find a number of pavements located in southern Lebanon.

Immediately following the introduction, Madden includes a glossary of geometric pattern codes found within the corpus. Following the alphanumeric system of pattern coding first used by Avi-Yonah, the patterns are alphabetized A-K based on a shared underlying geometry with numbered variants in each alphabetical category. As the author explains, the system is intended to simplify design descriptions. While such an approach has the virtue of providing an abridged taxonomy, it is, in a couple of instances, almost too reductive, placing formally unrelated patterns within the same category. Another drawback of the author’s application of the alphanumeric system is that patterns are not named, only lettered and numbered, so the reader lacks shorthand reference terms such as ‘guillouche’ or ‘meander’ within the glossary, even though such design terms generally appear within the catalogue entries. (By contrast, see the lengthier but very usable pattern glossary in K. Dunbabin’s Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World [2001] in which each pattern type is categorized by name). Organizationally, Madden’s placement of the glossary prior to the catalogue entries allows the reader to gain a cursory familiarity with pattern recognition before proceeding to the catalogue itself.

The catalogue, at nearly 200 pages, comprises almost the entirety of the monograph. Organizationally, it follows the four areas of Roman Palestine—Palaestina Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Phoenicia—with the vast majority of pavements located in the larger and more densely occupied Palaestina Prima (the location of important early Christian centers such as Caesarea, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Gaza). Mosaic find spots within the four areas are presented alphabetically with the primary name for each site corresponding to the site name used in the Tabula Imperii Romani Iudaea Palaestina (1994) and the Hebrew and/or Arabic name for the site following. Each site is also assigned a number allowing for easy cross-referencing between the catalogue and the ‘Index of Sites’ found at the end of the catalogue. Madden provides two map references for each site corresponding to the New Israel Grid and Old Israel Grid respectively and, very helpfully, a summary description of each site’s history of excavation and/or survey and by whom. Following this is a description of each mosaic pavement including references for pattern codes, original inscriptions (when they occur) and translations, a commentary, possible date of manufacture and, finally, relevant bibliography. Some mosaic entries also include a list of colors and/or tesserae density while other entries have neither. Though he does not specifically state as much, one assumes that when this information does not appear, either it was not present in the original excavation report or Madden was unable to have first hand access to the pavements.

Following the catalogue is an exhaustive bibliography focused nearly exclusively on archaeological evidence from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (The author does mention important studies of Byzantine mosaics in the nearby regions of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in his introduction yet not all of these are included in his bibliography. ) Images of select mosaics follow the bibliography. These include only 30 examples (c. 10% of the total number) and, unfortunately, none are produced in color. In general, the production value is not particularly high and the reader wishes not only for more and better images of the pavements but also more detailed maps. While a single map of the region with major sites is included in the introduction, regional maps locating each find site would have allowed readers to visualize the distribution of chapels, churches and monasteries containing mosaics. Finally, three indices—‘Mosaic Designs’, ‘Inscriptions’, and ‘Sites’—appear at the end of the book. This first includes a list of occurrences for each geometric pattern code as well vegetal motifs and figural designs (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and defaced figures). The second compiles a list of inscriptions with subcategories by language, symbols, ecclesiastical titles, named mosaicists and dated inscriptions. The final index lists all sites in alphabetical order with the accompanying site number in the catalogue.

While the Corpus of Byzantine church mosaic pavements from Israel and the Palestinian territories fulfills its titular promise, it has modest aims beyond that. Neither within the introduction nor following the catalogue is there any sort of overview highlighting the larger trends in the mosaics under study. This is particularly surprising since, as Madden himself states, mosaics comprise the ‘…primary surviving medium of art from the Byzantine Near East…’ (p. 5). Thus, the reader is left without a summary of iconography and design motifs, materials, technical execution or, even, evidence of workshops based on correspondences of style and composition. Scholars who wish to understand how these pavements fit within the larger corpus of Byzantine mosaics of the Levant and Christian East will need to consult other resources, as will anyone interested in the relationship between these Christian pavements and those from Jewish and/or secular contexts in Roman Palestine during the same time period.1 So while the scope of Madden’s work is narrowly focused by theme and region, it will nevertheless serve as a fundamental reference for scholars seeking Christian context pavements in Byzantine Palestine.


1.   In addition to Piccirillo, see, for example, P. Donceel-Voûte, Les pavements des églises byzantines de la Syrie et du Liban: décor, archéologie et liturgie, Louvain-la-Neuve: 1988. For mosaics in Roman Palestine, see R. Hachlili, Ancient mosaic pavements: themes, issues, and trends: selected studies, Leiden: 2009.

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