A recent trip to see some of the ancient and contemporary mosaics of Israel was made possible through the warm hospitality and open-hearted generosity of a man I scarcely knew and now count as a friend.
There are, so I’m told, more than 1,000 ancient mosaics to be seen in Israel and that’s not even counting the more recent ones. There are synagogue mosaics, early Christian mosaics, mosaics that once belonged to lavish private villas and public buildings, mosaics in submerged crypts and others displayed in the international airport, ones which are almost chocolate box-y in their notoriety and as well as plenty of obscure examples, mosaics with extraordinary designs unknown elsewhere, and mosaics so ordinary that you pass them by. But living quietly in the midst of all these mosaics, I firmly believe there is only one person with the spirit, energy and kindness to show me even a fraction of the wonders of the mosaics of Israel.
I met Jonathan*, a retired engineer from Tel Aviv, last year when he came to Pelion to take my six-day mosaic course. He worked diligently on an adapted copy of a bird from Israel’s Bet Alpha synagogue and as he worked we chatted. I revealed that I was planning to visit Jordan to see my son during his year abroad, and Jonathan, with a spontaneous enthusiasm that I have since learnt is his default mode, suggested that I include the mosaics of Israel in my trip. I could stay with him, he said, he would drive me to the sites, he offered. The suggestion was too tempting to resist, so naturally I had no option but to accept.
Before long, emails were batting back and forth and then, when the flights were confirmed, an itinerary arrived in my inbox. That’s when the penny dropped. When Jonathan said we would visit the mosaics of Israel, he didn’t mean a leisurely drive to a nearby site or two, a brief stroll through the ruins and then a long lunch before heading home to put our feet up. Oh no. Jonathan meant business. ‘This is a rather full programme,’ he acknowledged in an understated kind of way. Never one to shrink from a packed agenda, I was happy to slot right in.
The Mosaics of Israel: Day 1. Trip to Nazareth and Zippori.
Jonathan’s tour began with the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. What a dolt I am! With my head down marvelling and fussing over ancient mosaics, I often need a nudge to look up and notice contemporary ones. Visiting the church built on the site where the Virgin Mary was reputed to have received the news that she would be the mother of God, was less like a nudge and more like being zapped with a cattle prod.
Inside and out, the 1960s building is lined with mosaics of Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel or images of the holy mother and child. The mosaics are donated by congregations from all over the world and each is strikingly different in its rendering of the same, age-old scene. They range from a kimono-clad virgin almost floating in a background of golden tesserae to a lush Brazilian Mary, ornately crowned and robed as if at any minute she might lay down her baby and join a Mardi Gras parade.
As if that wasn’t enough there are also huge opus sectile panels of Biblical scenes and an extensive outdoor pavement done in black and white. Poor Jonathan. At this point, he must have thought he’d bitten off more than he could chew. I was almost hyperventilating with excitement and the day was yet young. I think I might be there still were it not for the fact that he had everything carefully planned. Next on the list was Sepphoris. Nothing less would have torn me away.
The Mosaics of Sepphoris, Israel.
The ancient site of Sepphoris was once an important trading settlement which variously flourished, was razed, and flourished again over many centuries with mosaics being added in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Now known as Zippori, its mosaic offerings are unusually varied with highlights including the famous ‘Mona Lisa of Galilee’ embedded into a third century Roman floor, a rare Nile festival scene featuring the still extant Nilometer, Amazon hunters on horseback and a 5th century zodiac in a synagogue.
The next few hours were very happily spent. We had the place virtually to ourselves with no limits on our time. Jonathan’s stamina matched my own and we wandered freely around the site with no one frowning or tutting if we leaned in a little too close.
First the Nile Festival Building from the early 5th century. Note the pomegranate-breasted representation of Egypt (top left), the dog headed crocodile (top, second from right), the city of Alexandria (top right) and a sawn-off creature jumping through the border (bottom, second from left).
The adjoining rooms with a rearing centaur and Amazon hunters are part of the same building but quite distinct in theme:
Some of the mosaics are badly warped with missing chunks but they have a vigour and oomph to them. With disproportionately large eyes, the animals, puttis, hunters and gods each radiate a preoccupied energy, whether they be strutting their stuff, scampering and darting, pouncing and fleeing or thrusting an over-full cornucopia of fruit and vegetables at the viewer.
The Dionyistic mosaic, a little further off in a covered building with poor natural lighting, is quite different. It was originally laid in the first half of the 3rd century AD in the reception hall of a private villa and is known for the portrait of a woman, the famed ‘Mona Lisa’, incorporated into the acanthus coils in the border and for the fact that it contains scenes from the myth of Dionysos alongside images from the actual cult of the same God as it was practised in Roman times. Apparently, the combination in one mosaic is unique.
View-able only from a raised walkway, it is a controlled and considered mosaic. One can marvel at its exceptional workmanship from a distance but it is a piece so fine – the shading, the movement, the incidental details, the painterly attention to line and light – that even this short distance is frustrating. If this lights your mosaic fire then take a look at the mosaic of Zeus and Ganymede now in the Metropolitan, the Judgement of Paris in the Louvre, both originally from Antioch in Eastern Turkey, and the Triumph of Dionysus at the Setif Archeological Museum in Algeria.**
Showing no sign of flagging, Jonathan then moved me on to the Synagogue mosaic which was discovered by chance in 1993 during work to build a new car park. The mosaic floor is 5th century and dates to a time when Sepphoris had a largely Jewish community under Roman rule. In common with at least two other synagogue mosaics discovered in the region, the mosaic features a zodiac as well as images of familiar Biblical scenes and items associated with Jewish religious practice such as the seven-branched Menorah.
The Mosaics of Israel: Day 2. Churches of the Sea of Galilee.
Miraculously, we had time for a delicious supper with Jonathan’s son and daughter-in-law on our way home and a good night’s rest before hitting the road the following morning to see the Churches of the Sea of Galilee. There were five churches on Jonathan’s itinerary with other stops to see the baptismal site on the River Jordan and a 2,000 year old fishing boat found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jonathan was not one for slacking.
I cannot do justice to those two perfect days I spent with Jonathan and it is the mosaics that you are here for, so let me give them to you.
- The Synagogue of Hamat Tiberias which once had two mosaics, one laid on top of the other. The first, from the 4th century, was damaged by an earthquake in the 5th century and a second was laid over it between the 6th and 8th centuries and almost entirely lost. The first mosaic is the one on display and has similar features to the Zippori synagogue – a zodiac with Helios, the sun god, in the centre and outer panels representing the four seasons. Its upper half, again like Zippori, contains Judaic symbols including the Minorah and the Torah Ark.
- St Peter’s Church, Capernaum, is believed to be the site of the apostle Peter’s house. There is very little left of the original first century structure but other buildings were added over the centuries and as for mosaics there is an interesting alter in the modern church built over the ancient ruins and a copy of a fifth century mosaic floor built above St. Peter’s house.
- The fifth century Church of the Multiplication where Jesus is reputed to have fed the five thousand. The 1,500 year old mosaic floor is almost entirely a plain tessellated surface with simple touches of bird and plant decoration in the nave and elsewhere. Parties of tourists stream in and trample over it, heading determinedly forward to the cordoned off area just in front of the alter to peer at the quietly unassuming mosaic of the basket of bread with two fish.
Over to the left of the alter, however, is where the real mosaic action happens – an elegantly subdued wetland scene with reeds, lotus flowers, nesting birds and water fowl – tantalisingly close but hard to see from an angle.
The Mosaics of Israel: Day 3. Heading home.
Jonathan, as I think I said, doesn’t like to skip a beat. The next day I was heading home but even on our way to the airport he managed to squeeze in a visit to the 5th-6th century Byzantine basilica of Emanus Nikopolis, mentioned in the Gospel of St Luke as the place where Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. What was once a church floor, is now fragments displayed on a wall.
It was only then, satiated, full to the brim with mosaics and inordinately grateful, that I summoned the temerity to ask Jonathan his age. Eighty-four, he replied. If I hadn’t been strapped in, I might have fallen off my seat. It’s not just the mosaics of Israel which are full of surprises.
*Expect to hear about Jonathan in an upcoming blog post on the computerised resurrection of a Byzantine floor mosaic.
Footnote: American artist Frederic Lecut had pointed out that I mustn’t miss the mosaics at Tel Aviv airport so I didn’t.