Mosaics as History

The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam

by G.W. Bowersock

Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2006, 146 pp., 50 illus.
$22.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Robin Jensen

Based on a series of lectures delivered at the Collège de Paris in 1997, this small gem of a book offers new insights on some of the most beautiful and interesting artifacts of Late Antique culture: the mosaic pavements of the Near East that date from the fifth and sixth centuries. Readers at all levels of expertise will appreciate this well-illustrated and clearly written work, and its reasonable price will put it in range of both beginning and advanced students of art history, religion, ancient history and classics.

Bowersock begins by noting that these mosaics were essentially ignored as historical and cultural artifacts prior to the mid-to-late 20th century. Art historians, social historians and religious historians alike tended to regard these rich figurative pavements as merely decorative art objects, and scholars paid more attention to literary texts, architecture, and even coins and inscriptions. Thus, for a long time, these “eloquent expressions of late-antique culture” were undervalued, misunderstood and neglected.

Such neglect began to be remedied in the mid-20th century, mainly because of the significant and continuing discoveries of extraordinary mosaics in the churches, synagogues and private villas of Jordan, Israel and Syria. Like Bowersock, historians now draw upon this tremendous resource to reevaluate older scholarly views of the cultural and religious history of the area. In these five short chapters, the author cogently argues that these artifacts overall depict a widespread veneer of Hellenistic and Roman culture in the region—a cultural surface that overlaid an indigenous Semitic foundation. This fusion of cultures continued through the Christian era and even after the arrival of Islam in the seventh century C.E. In the author’s words, the mosaics “illustrate a persistent tradition of Greek taste that could embrace Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a fundamentally Semitic land, and they suggest the extent to which these three monotheist religions could themselves embrace Hellenism.”

In his first chapter, Bowersock considers the famed Madaba mosaic map, along with others like it, and suggests that these artifacts should be viewed less as records of traditional Biblical sites and more as self-reflective topographical reconstructions of the way cities “saw themselves in relation to other cities.”

His second chapter proposes a theatrical source, rather than illustrated manuscripts or pattern books, for the mythological motifs of the mosaics. In chapter 3 he returns to the subject of maps, focusing on the conventional or symbolic representation of cities and civic identity, as embodied in a mosaic from Madaba showing Rome, Gregoria and Madaba symbolized by regal-looking figures sitting on their thrones.

The fourth chapter takes up the more overarching theological themes of iconoclasm (with respect to evidence of later destruction of the mosaics’ offensive parts) such as the defacement of figures seen in the mosaic at the church of St. Stephen, Umm er-Rasas. The final chapter synthesizes the guiding thesis of the book: that these mosaics demonstrate a visual homogenization of Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures and therefore reflect a kind of artistic coexistence and mutual influence among polytheists, Jews, Christians and (finally) Muslims.

Not every argument in the volume will be universally accepted, but as a group they offer a good introduction to what and how historians can learn from art historical artifacts.

Robin M. Jensen is Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship at Vanderbilt Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

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