The magnificent mosaic of the Byzantine church at Tabgha,a commemorating the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16, John 6:11),b has been beautifully restored.
The mosaic was originally the floor of a late fourth- or early fifth-century A.D. Byzantine basilica church on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, less than two miles south of Capernaum. Unfortunately, we cannot date the original structure more closely than this. The mosaic was discovered at the end of the 19th century by Fr. Z. Biever. In 1886 the church was acquired by the German Foundation for the Holy Land, a German Catholic organization.c In 1932, the entire site was cleared by the German archaeologists A. E. Mader and A. M. Schneider,1 the full plan of the basilica was revealed, and the surviving mosaics were exposed and cleaned. In 1935, British Major A. A. Gordon raised funds to pay for a temporary church to protect the precious mosaics.
By 1935 parts of the foundation of the mosaic were crumbling because of water seepage. The mosaic itself was 024coming apart. A Dusseldorf artist, Bernhard Gauer, made the first restoration of the disintegrating parts, consisting of about 60 percent of the existing mosaic. The church constructed over it was intended to be temporary, but it continued to be used until 1980.
In the late 1970s the German Foundation for the Holy Land decided to build a new church in the original Byzantine style over the mosaic. Completed and formally dedicated by Cardinal Höffner in 1982, the large stone basilica is a handsome addition to the landscape, as well as an authentic Byzantine reconstruction on the ancient foundations, incorporating all the ancient elements that had been found.
The outer walls of the original church did not form a rectangle, but a trapezoid. The north (left) wall of the building was built at an angle, cutting off part of the area that would have been included in a conventional rectangular building. This wall was probably built at an angle in order to avoid a road or to avoid covering a venerated spot. The original building was 182 feet long and 108 feet across on the wider end.
The east-west basilica itself was located within the larger trapezoidal structure, which included hospice rooms for pilgrims. Two rows of columns created side aisles on either side of the central nave. A north-south transept gave the building the form of a cross, and a semicircular apse abutted the transept. Between the north and south arms of the transept, west of the apse, was the altar area. Here, Fr. Biever reported the discovery of a fragment of mosaic floor showing a basket of loaves of bread flanked by two fish. And here also is a block of chipped, undressed limestone. One tradition says that Jesus preached while sitting on this stone. Another says it is the rock on which Jesus laid the loaves. The fourth-century pilgrim Egeria 025reported in her diary: “The stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar. People who go there take away small pieces of the stone to bring them prosperity, and they are very effective.”2 Egeria also reported that a Syrian-style church had been erected around the rock. Archaeologists found a primitive church built about 350 A.D., perhaps by the Judeo-Christian Count Yosipos of Tiberias. Remnants of its foundation, protected by glass, can be seen next to the altar and in the northern transept.
The most elaborate mosaics in the basilica were those in the two arms of the transept. Fortunately, these delicate marshland scenes containing plants, animals and architectural elements have survived sufficiently intact for us to appreciate fully their extraordinary artistry.
In 1970, even before the new church building was begun, I had restored part of the almost intact mosaic in the north transept. When construction of the new church began, it was decided that restoration of the entire mosaic should be completed. In addition, it was decided to reconstruct the missing parts of the original mosaic so that a mosaic would once again cover the entire floor area in the basilica that originally contained mosaic pavements. I directed the restoration and reconstruction of these extraordinary mosaics for the Israel Museum, in cooperation with the German Foundation for the Holy Land and its architect, Anton Georgen.
To understand how we restored the mosaic, you must first understand how the mosaic was originally laid. Ancient artisans first leveled and tamped the ground until it was as firm as possible. Then they paved this surface with a foundation of smooth round pebbles or small stones. Over this loose paving they poured a mortar consisting of lime, sand, potash in the form of ash, and other materials. While the mortar was still wet, these gifted artists firmly pressed in tesserae (stone cubes) of various colors in the exquisite forms and patterns we still see today. The tesserae in this mosaic are quite small—between 10 and 20 millimeters on a side.d
How long a mosaic lasts depends on the quality of the mortar, the foundation, and the geological nature of the 030ground on which it is laid. In the case of the Tabgha mosaic, underground water eroded the foundation, causing the mosaic to disintegrate.
When Gauer restored the mosaic in 1935, he needed to replace the foundation. To do this he had to lift the tessarae—no easy task. First, he divided the mosaic into sections approximately one meter square each. Then he probably glued canvas onto the tessarae of each section. After the glue hardened, he inserted a long flat chisel under the old mortar and dislodged the section of mosaic by lifting up the glued canvas at the same time he worked the chisel to free the mosaic from its old base. Each section was removed in this way and flipped over, face down, so that the canvas was on the bottom. When the sections had been lifted off their old foundation, he removed all traces of the old mortar that clung to the backs of the tessarae.
With the mosaic removed, he could easily dig out the rest of the old foundation. He then laid a new foundation of concrete let it dry, and laid a new layer of wet mortar 031on the dry concrete. He then put back the tessarae glued to the canvas sheets, again flipping them over so that the canvas was uppermost. It was simple to soften the glue, take off the canvas and bring the tessarae back to their original luster. This is the classical method of restoring mosaics.
The technique we used was a modified version of the technique used in 1935. Since we decided to restore the entire mosaic, including the part that had been restored in 1935, we needed to lift this part also. However, lifting the sections restored in 1935 turned out to be difficult, and sometimes impossible, because the tesserae were set in 20th-century mortar, which is harder than the ancient mortar.
In order to restore the mosaic so that future restorers could easily redo our work, we made a tin form around sections of the canvas-backed, flipped-over tessarae. Then we added to the form a layer of wet mortar and a layer of wet reinforced cement. This created a rigid three-layered slab which we turned over with the tessarae on top and then placed on wet mortar to bind it to a cement foundation. If a new foundation must be laid in the future, the restorer will be able to separate the three-layered slab from the concrete foundation at the mortar layer that binds the two together. The mosaic tessarae will remain firmly supported in their slab until they can be relaid on a new foundation.
The original mosaic covered about 5,300 square feet (500 square meters). However, only about half of this huge artwork survived the centuries. In the areas where the original mosaic was missing, we reconstructed it so that this area is now aesthetically pleasing as well as functional: The public can walk on the reconstructed mosaic while looking at the original mosaic—which of course is roped-off so that it won’t be stepped on.
To differentiate the reconstructed area of the mosaic from the original Byzantine mosaic, a frame of neutral color mortar one centimeter wide was placed around the original mosaic. Every few meters in this frame, we placed small brass plaques with the date 1982 on them. Although the reconstructed mosaic restores the ancient design and uses the same size tessarae as the original, slightly different colors in the reconstructed mosaic emphasize that it is not the original. For example, in the nave, where the original crosses were in three colors—pink, yellow and black—the reconstructed crosses are all gray.
The old fits in well with the new—both the new church and the reconstructed mosaic pavement complement the original mosaic. And the Byzantine mosaic may now be seen in its pristine beauty in a church that faithfully echoes the original, both in its Byzantine architectural form and its artistic veneration of a site long sacred to Christian pilgrims.
The magnificent mosaic of the Byzantine church at Tabgha,a commemorating the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16, John 6:11),b has been beautifully restored. The mosaic was originally the floor of a late fourth- or early fifth-century A.D. Byzantine basilica church on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, less than two miles south of Capernaum. Unfortunately, we cannot date the original structure more closely than this. The mosaic was discovered at the end of the 19th century by Fr. Z. Biever. In 1886 the church was acquired by the […]
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The Arabic name Tabgha comes from the older Greek name of the site, Heptapegon, which means seven springs—a reference to the springs found near the church site. The pilgrim Egeria mentions the Heptapegon church in her travel journal written at the end of the fourth century. See Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land, translated and annotated by John Wilkinson, rev. ed. (Ariel Publishing House, Jerusalem, with Aris and Phillips, Warminster, England 1981), p. 196.
In each of the Gospels, the story is told that Jesus blessed five loaves of bread and two fish and gave them to his disciples to feed a multitude of more than 5,000 people who sat before Jesus on the grass.
The church is still entrusted to the care of a small community of Benedictine monks.
There are some much smaller, 4 to 5 mm, and some considerably larger, 2 to 4 cm.
See Alfons Maria Schneider, The Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes (George E. J. Coldwell Ltd. London, 1937).