Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land
By Rina Talgam
(Yad Ben-Zvi Press, Jerusalem, and The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2014), 579 pp., 144 b & w/ 360 color illust., $129.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Henry Maguire
In this handsome book, Rina Talgam has presented a magisterial survey of the floor mosaics in the ancient provinces of Palaestina and Arabia (present-day Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan). Although the uncovering of mosaic pavements in this region began in the 19th century, recent years have seen a spate of new and often spectacular discoveries, which have brought floor mosaics to the forefront of historical research. Talgam’s book covers the epoch from the second century before Christ to the eighth century of the Christian era, a span of nearly a thousand years that encompassed the successive Hellenistic, Roman, early Byzantine and Umayyad periods, and the religions of polytheism, Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity and Islam.
The book unravels the complex interactions between these faiths as revealed by the pavements of both secular and religious buildings. It also demonstrates that mosaic pavements, for long a relatively neglected field of study, are not only works of art in themselves but also eloquent witnesses of their wider historical and cultural contexts. Floor mosaics, being underfoot, were intrinsically unlikely to carry imagery of an authoritative or official nature, such as might be incorporated into wall or ceiling mosaics—or into large-scale sculptures. They were an underlying background to people’s lives and thus more likely to express fundamental attitudes than dogmatic statements of state or religious ideology. It is for this reason that pavements often reveal the common mentalities and beliefs of the various groups and faiths occupying the Holy Land, in addition to their differences; they present a more complex picture of interaction on the basis of shared inheritances than we receive from the more categorical statements of higher-status art.
Furthermore, floor mosaics have survived in far greater numbers than the decorations of walls or vaults because frequently the pavements have been preserved when the upper parts of buildings have been lost. The relative ubiquity of surviving pavements makes it easier to establish cultural norms within and across the contexts of time, space, ethnicity and religion.
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The book is organized chronologically into three parts, with the first covering the mosaics of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Part two, the longest because of the volume of surviving material, is devoted to the Byzantine period, while part three discusses mosaics from the time of the Muslim conquest in the mid-seventh century through the end of the eighth century. In the second part, the author devotes separate chapters to the mosaics of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Samaritan synagogues and secular buildings, drawing out their similarities and differences. Church floors, for example, often expressed cosmic ideas, presenting images of the terrestrial world in all of its variety, including such natural elements as seasons and rivers, frequently in the form of personifications, as well as plants and animals, scenes of agricultural and pastoral activities and portrayals of cities. Synagogue floors also contained a cosmic element but with an emphasis on the notion of time, a favored motif being the central portrayal of the sun surrounded by the signs of the zodiac and the four seasons. In the third part of the book, Talgam discusses the arrival of Islam and the new anxieties concerning figurative art that can be observed in both Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. These tensions led, in the eighth century, to the outright physical destruction of portrayals of human beings and even animals in pavements adorning the houses of worship of both religions. She comes to a measured conclusion regarding the much-debated causes of this wave of iconoclasm, seeing in both Judaism and Christianity an initial impetus that came from internal opposition to religious images, which later could have been strengthened by the iconophobia of the Islamic conquerors of the region.
One of the great merits of this book lies in its integration of the methods of art historical and historical analyses. We are not just given a survey of mosaics as works of art, nor are the pavements seen only as documents to be mined for historical information, but rather we find a subtle combination of the two approaches. Talgam asks, for example, why it was that “the Jews did not develop a distinctive style of their own” (p. xiv). For them, it was not necessary to distinguish themselves with a particular stylistic practice, even while they developed an iconography that differentiated their places of worship from those of the Christians. This is among the many fascinating questions raised by this rich study, which for many years to come will be the standard work of reference on the mosaics of ancient Palestine, in all of their cultural and artistic complexity.
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