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Sixth Century Byzantine Mosaic Shows Palestine on the Map July 26, 2012

Posted by The Prodigal Son in Christianity.
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St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church – Madaba, Jordan

The Madaba Mosaic Map is a unique piece of art realised in 6th cent. A.D. as a decoration for the pavement of a church in the town of Madaba (Jordan) in the Byzantine Near East. At that time Madaba was part of the so called Provincia Arabia, and was inhabited by Aramaic speaking Christians descendant from the ancient biblical people of the Moabites. The mosaic was discovered accidentally about one hundred years ago (in 1897) while constructing a new church for the Greek-Orthodox Arab community, which was then settling on the very ruins of the ancient town of Madaba.

The mosaic represents the biblical land from Egypt to Lebanon, including Sinai, Palestine, and Transjordan. Unfortunately the northern sector is almost completely lost, and the rest suffered a lot of damage too. The original panel would have measured about 94 square meter but only 25 are still preserved. What remains is still of the greatest importance for art, history and biblical topography. The city of Jerusalem is depicted with the uppermost care but a total of 156 places or biblical memoirs are present in the preserved portion of the map.

The mosaicist conceived and carried out his masterwork with great topographical skill and biblical knowledge. The Madaba Mosaic map is deemed by some scholars to be the best topographic representation ever done before modern cartography. As a source of biblical topography the map is fully comparable with the well-known treatise on the biblical places written in Greek about 395 A.D. by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea and translated into Latin by Jerome about 490 A.D.

A Map of the Holy Places

Many have already speculated about the meaning of such a map, depicted in mosaic, on the floor of a Christian building in a remote provincial town of the Roman Empire. Some have suggested that the map may have been useful to pilgrims, to help them in travelling from one holy place to another. Some others point out that the map has been found not far from Mount Nebo and that it may therefore represent the vision of Moses of the Promised Land, from the place of his death.

Some scholars view the Holy City of Jerusalem as the center of all the composition, being also presently the most detailed map item. A new idea may also be presented here. The central portion of the map stood in front of the chancel of the sanctuary, there the mosaicist would place what was most important to him.

The Madaba Mosaic Map still serves today as floor of the Greek Orthodox parish church of St. George. The church, located to the northwest of the city center, was built in fact in 1896 A.D. over the remains of a Byzantine church, whose dating is probably to be set at the end of 6th or at the beginning of 7th century A.D. The church was divided into a nave and three aisles by two rows of columns, an arrangement that corresponds only partially with the present one. The mosaic panel enclosing the Map was originally some 15.60 by 6 m, that is 94 square meters, of which 25 are preserved, corresponding only to about a quarter of the total. The map covers the entire area from the south wall to the north wall of the Church.

Topographic extent, as well as iconographic parallels suggest that this had to be the town of Madaba with all the details of its streets, churches and shrines. Unfortunately this part of the mosaic is not preserved, but this very idea may help us to understand the pride of the people of ancient Madaba, in seeing their town as part of the Land originally promised to the Israelites and now belonging, by the grace of God, to the Christians, as truly legitimate heirs. Moreover, in the same Land, great events of salvation beneficial to humankind, were accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, as related in the New Testament. All of this may still not be enough to give sense to every detail of the map.

From Mosaic Art Source and Christus Rex

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