ReViews: Unraveling the Meaning of Mosaics
Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
and how historians can learn from art historical artifacts.