Cover image for Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land By Rina Talgam

Mosaics of Faith

Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land

Rina Talgam


$129.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06084-2

600 pages
9" × 11"
360 color/144 b&w illustrations
Co-published with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute

Mosaics of Faith

Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land

Rina Talgam

“This is a magisterial survey that deserves to take its place as the definitive work on the mosaics of the Holy Land.”


  • Description
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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
This monumental work provides a comprehensive analytical history of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Early Abbasid mosaics in the Holy Land, spanning the second century b.c.e. to the eighth century c.e. Previous general studies of the Holy Land mosaics have focused on specific collections; in Mosaics of Faith, Rina Talgam sets out to demonstrate how mosaic art constructed cultural, religious, and ethnic identities in eras that shaped the visual expressions of three monotheistic religions. Her examination of the mosaics in a pivotal area of the eastern Mediterranean sharpens and refines our understanding of the region’s societies and their ideologies, institutions, and liturgies. Covering almost one thousand years of mosaic production, Mosaics of Faith offers an unprecedented view of the evolution of floor decorations from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, in the transition from Roman to Early Byzantine art, and in the persistence of Byzantine traditions under Umayyad rule. More than other corpora of ancient mosaics, those from the Holy Land have generated greater awareness of the intricate visual exchanges between paganism, Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity, and Islam. Talgam examines the mosaics’ formal qualities in conjunction with the religious and cultural contexts within which they were produced and with which they had a profound, multidimensional dialogue.
“This is a magisterial survey that deserves to take its place as the definitive work on the mosaics of the Holy Land.”
“The result of immense and ongoing research, this readable book is lavishly illustrated in color. It will appeal to interested general readers and to scholars and students of art, religion, history, and anthropology.”
“All those interested in the cultural life of the Holy Land in the period concerned will learn from this book.”
“This outstanding book examines a millennium of mosaic making in the Holy Land, discussing the mosaic art of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims as a reflection of the social, intellectual, and religious world of each society and the interrelationships among them. Rina Talgam is not only an acknowledged authority on ancient art, and mosaics in particular, but also a highly experienced archaeologist who has participated in the excavation of mosaics. Technique and style play an important role in her study, along with analysis of iconography. This volume is of the utmost importance for the study of art and culture in the ancient Near East.”
“In Mosaics of Faith, Rina Talgam has accomplished the heroic task of providing a chronological and comparative review of the many mosaics of Palestine as they survive in contemporary Israel and Jordan today. These mosaics evoke the cults and tastes of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims from before the Roman Empire to after the Muslim conquests. Her vast perspective is unparalleled and immediately establishes her work as an indispensable guide to the shared imagery of the faiths of the region.”
“In this magisterial study, Rina Talgam gives full justice to all aspects of the floor mosaics of the Holy Land in their multicultural contexts. Comprehensive, detailed, and well balanced in its conclusions, it will become the preeminent work of reference and interpretation in its field.”
“The mosaic floors excavated in Palestine in the last century or so—pagan polytheist, Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, Muslim—represent one of the most vibrant groups of historical documents in archaeology for understanding the multicultural development of religious identities (some discrete and separate, some syncretistic, all in different ways in dialogue with one another) in late antiquity. Rina Talgam’s book—comprehensive, detailed in discussion, wide-ranging, superbly illustrated—offers a transformative account of this material, by far the best to date. She takes the reader through a deep and enlightening historical survey of the excavated materials, offering insight and up-to-date information on a vast and wonderful corpus, and not eschewing controversial topics such as iconoclasm and the destruction of figurative images in the eighth century.”

Rina Talgam is Associate Professor of Art History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Preface and Acknowledgments


Part I: The Mosaics of the Holy Land in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods


Chapter 1: The Mosaics in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods

Chapter 2: The Mosaics of the Late Roman Period

Part II: The Mosaics of the Holy Land in the Byzantine Period


Chapter 3: The Compositional Trends in Floor Mosaics of the Byzantine Period

Chapter 4: The Stylistic Developments of Byzantine Mosaics

Chapter 5: The Church as the Heir of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple

Chapter 6: The Synagogue as a “Lesser Temple”

Chapter 7: Samaritan Self-Determination

Chapter 8: The Mosaics in Secular Buildings

Part III: Mosaics of the Holy Land from the Muslim Conquest to the End of the Eighth Century


Chapter 9: Church Mosaics

Chapter 10: Synagogue Mosaics

Chapter 11: Mosaics Under Muslim Patronage

Chapter 12: The Defacement of Images


List of Abbreviations




This volume provides a comprehensive analytical history of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Early ʿAbbāsid mosaics in the Holy Land (second century BCE to eighth century CE). All general studies of the Holy Land mosaics until now have focused on specific collections, resulting in useful corpora but nevertheless devoid of full analyses of the mosaics’ cultural and religious significance. This book sets out to fill this lacuna by demonstrating how mosaic art constructs cultural, religious, and ethnic identities in a multicultural society in eras that shaped the visual expressions of the three monotheistic religions. What makes this endeavor both timely and imperative are recent archaeological discoveries (e.g., the Christian mosaic at at Kefar ʿOthnay, the synagogue at Wadi el Hamam, or the early ʿAbbāsid mosaics at Ramla) that have considerably enriched the existing corpora and, above all, have challenged prevailing assumptions.

While I was preparing my manuscript, Rachel Hachlili published her book Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues, and Trends (Leiden, 2009). Although there is some overlap in the mosaic floors (of ancient Palaestina) that are discussed in the two volumes, our approaches are completely different. Hachlili focuses on the formalistic analysis of motifs as well as their meaning and significance, but she does not trace the evolution of the iconographical schemes along their diachronic axis, thereby passing over a large set of historical, cultural, sociological, and liturgical questions that the present volume brings to the fore. The distinct methodologies naturally affected our respective observations.

Mosaics are not mere decorations, for when approached critically, they can be read as first-rate historical documents. Such an examination of the mosaics in a pivotal region of the eastern Mediterranean can sharpen and refine our understanding of societies, including their ideologies, institutions, and liturgies; inclusion of the mosaics in the scholarly discourse makes possible a richer perception of the past.

The mosaics of the Holy Land span almost a thousand years, enabling us to detect meaningful threads of continuity and change in the evolution of floor decorations from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, in the transition from Roman to Early Byzantine art, and in the persistence of Byzantine traditions under Umayyad rule.

More than any other corpora of ancient mosaics (such as those of Antioch, Tunisia, or Greece), those from the Holy Land have generated greater awareness of the intricate visual dialogues among paganism (polytheism), Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity, and Islam. The provinces of Palaestina and Arabia (present-day Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan) are especially rich in mosaics dating to Late Antiquity, when the region became a Christian and, later, an Islamic Holy Land (fourth to eighth century CE). Adopting a comparative approach, I examine the mosaics of each of these religious/ethnic groups against the background of the art of other contemporary communities with which it had a profound and multidimensional dialogue.

Because of the unique nature of the region in the ancient world—and probably in world history—I base my approach on an analysis of imageries and texts. Sometimes the art confirms the textual evidence; at other times it contradicts it. This lack of agreement obliges us to assume that the historical picture is more complex than we may have thought.

An art historian must consider all aspects of the artworks in his or her study. Accordingly I shall treat questions relating to iconography and significance side by side with those addressing technique, composition, and style. The formalistic analysis of the mosaics’ style shows the existence of periodic styles; therefore, the stylistic developments may be used as a yardstick for a discussion of the mosaics in their precise historical and social contexts. A comparison of the stylistic and compositional characteristics of the mosaics from the Holy Land with those from other provinces of the Roman and Byzantine world is essential for understanding their uniqueness and for clarifying the mechanism that enabled the spread of artistic trends to small local workshops in remote areas. The Jews did not develop a distinctive style of their own, and we shall ask why they did not consider style an important component in the designation of their cultural identity.

Weighing the disparate data presents a major difficulty that confronts any scholar of mosaics in Palaestina and Arabia. The number of mosaics classified as Byzantine by far exceeds the number of those classified as Hellenistic and Roman, and such an imbalance prompts profound reflections on economic, political, and administrative factors.

The book is composed of twelve chapters, divided into three parts. Part I, chapter 1 discusses the Hellenistic and Early Roman mosaics. Although our knowledge regarding this period is far from complete, the information at our disposal for roughly the first two hundred years of mosaic production in Israel and Jordan is considerable in comparison with the even poorer evidence from nearby Syria until the end of the first century CE. With regard to the pre-Herodian mosaics, I analyze forms of interaction between foreign, Hellenistic influences (extending from Alexandria to Asia Minor) and local artistic traditions. Under the patronage of Herod, the local mosaic industry expanded, and a fertile dialogue took place between the local Hellenistic traditions and the current Roman styles. Magnificent mosaic floors recently discovered at Caesarea Maritima and Beth Shean close the gap between the mosaics of the Second Temple (second century BCE to 70 CE) and Late Roman periods (from the Antonine dynasty to the time of Constantine) and may attest to the continued use of mosaic art in the late first or early second century CE under Roman patronage.

Part I, chapter 2 studies the Late Roman mosaics. Although marked by the influence of the major production centers in contemporary Syria, the artisans were also exposed to ideas coming from the West. Some of the mosaics raise questions regarding the degree of pagan influence on Jewish society. My conclusion here is that Roman patronage, while deepening the Hellenistic character of the art, also introduced distinctly Roman elements; it should be emphasized, however, that several of the mosaics discussed here have not yet been subjected to careful analysis. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the intriguing mosaic discovered at Kefar ʿOthnay (in the Legio region), the earliest-known Christian mosaic in the Holy Land.

Part II treats a relatively large number of floor mosaics (approximately 600) from the Byzantine period. In chapters 3 and 4, I analyze the main compositional and stylistic features of these mosaics, and to highlight the uniqueness of this material, I compare them with mosaics of nearby provinces, such as Syria and Phoenicia. Contrary to generalizations that have customarily been used by scholars, I emphasize the distinct character of each century, demonstrating how style (a flexible notion) becomes a tool of periodization (an artificially established notion). It will be shown that the compositional trends of the mosaics in the Holy Land are the result of a complex and intricate process of internal development alongside a receptivity to influences from other production centers.

My examination and analysis of the iconography of churches (chapter 5) and synagogues (Jewish, chapter 6; Samaritan, chapter 7) is followed by a study of mosaics from private homes and public secular edifices (chapter 8), raising several pivotal questions. Is there a basis for the assumption that, in addition to the authentic internal discourse within each community, art also responded to the arts of other religious groups? Was the discourse among the arts of different religions conscious or unconscious, hidden or overt? Are there differences in the way mosaics functioned in the liturgical spaces of each religious community? What happened when two religions, as a result of the veneration of the same text, began to draw from a common reservoir of images and topics? How did they deal with the risk that the use of the same repertoire might blur the real or projected differences between them?

One focus here is on the question of how religious buildings (churches and synagogues) were spiritually perceived by the different faiths. While the idea that a religious building is a model of the world is held in common, its implications in the mosaics are different. I also discuss how the recognition in the early fourth century of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, with the waning of paganism, affected Jewish mosaics.

The relationships between the prayerhouses of the various monotheistic religions and the Temple in Jerusalem (destroyed in 70 CE), as reflected in mosaic decorations, are also explored. I consider how and to what extent concepts of divine omnipresence are expressed in the mosaics and how the role of religious buildings as communal meeting places is reflected in their decoration. The decorative programs of synagogue and church mosaics raise the question of where authority resided in Jewish and Christian social and cultural life.

Jews and Christians also decorated their secular spaces with mosaics. Such works are replete with mythological scenes that provide unique insights into Classical education in Late Antiquity and the continuous vitality of Hellenism in the Byzantine period.

Part III focuses on the mosaics of the seventh and eighth century, prompting us to consider the ways in which the rise of Islam affected both Christian (chapter 9) and Jewish (chapter 10) mosaics. One strand of the investigation follows the production of Christian and Jewish mosaics under Muslim rule, and in particular how Christian mosaics responded to the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. Special emphasis is placed on the motivation and mechanisms that ultimately resulted in the so-called iconoclastic movement.

Since Muslims, on the whole, shunned figurative floor mosaics within a religious context, the analysis of Islamic mosaic art focuses on figurative and geometric floor mosaics discovered in the palaces of the Muslim rulers and members of their families (chapter 11). Here I examine how Muslim patronage contributed, perhaps paradoxically, to the preservation of Byzantine artistic traditions.

The last subject to be examined is the defacement of images on the mosaic floors in churches and synagogues, a phenomenon that has almost no parallels in other regions (chapter 12). In searching for the factors that led to the destruction the explanation of the phenomenon should take into account the role played by Jews, Muslims, and Christians in setting the processes of destruction in motion, and it should consider internal factors in each faith as well as possible external influences or tensions.

This volume will shed light on the close cultural interaction between faith and art in this critical part of the Mediterranean. My examination and interpretation of the recent archaeological discoveries of mosaic floors in the Holy Land will now make it possible to perceive both the intimate links and the disjunctions between art and text.