The Nile and the Rivers of Paradise
|The River Nile, one of the four Rivers of Paradise, was a frequent theme in the decoration of churches in the Early Byzantine period. 1 My purpose in this paper will be to explore some of the connotations of this imagery for Christian viewers; that is, I shall attempt to explain, first, why the Nile was such a popular subject for the walls, floors, and even ceilings of Christian churches, and, secondly, why it subsequently fell out of favor in course of the eighth century.
The Nile and the four rivers had, of course, many different meanings for different viewers. For convenience, however, I will group the possible connotations of these subjects under four main headings, namely, topographical, allegorical, liturgical, and propitious. Of these four, the last, the propitious, had the strongest pagan overtones, and was the most problematic in the Christian context. It will be the main focus of this paper, but I will begin by briefly reviewing the first three headings, topography, allegory, and liturgy, especially as they relate to the Rivers of Paradise and the decoration of church floors.
My discussion starts with the topographical significance of the Nile and the four rivers, which may also be called the literal meaning of the motifs. Following the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, many writers felt the need to represent pagan views of geography and natural history in order to reflect the teachings of the new faith. Thus we have a large body of Christian literature from the fourth to the sixth centuries which describes and discusses the ordering of the natural world. These writings include the many commentaries on the Hexaemeron, or the first six days of creation, as well as works of Christian geography, such as the Christian Topography by the sixth-century author Cosmas Indicopleustes. From these works we can gain a composite Christian view of the geographical role of the four Rivers of Paradise, including the Nile.
Apart from a few outright allegorists, such as Origen, who denied the physical existence of the trees of the Earthly Paradise altogether, 2 most people believed that the Four River actually flowed out of the Garden of Eden. Some authors followed Genesis 2:10, and described the four rivers as flowing from a single river, or potamos. 3 But other writers, including Cosmas Indicopleustes and Ephrem Syrus, saw the four rivers as issuing from a spring or a fountain; 4 they took their inspiration from Genesis 2:6, which describes a fountain (pege) that "went up...from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground."
|The most remarkable aspect of the four Rivers of Paradise, as they were visualized both by early Byzantine writers and by artists; is that they flowed out of Paradise into the inhabited world as its four major rivers, and thus provided a tangible connection between Paradise with its blessings and mortal human beings. This extension of the four streams into our world was accomplished by some elaborate water-works, illustrated by Cosmas Indicopleustes in a map; which is preserved in three later medieval copies of his work. Figure I illustrates the version of the map on folio 40 verso of the ninth-century copy of the Christian Topography in the Vatican, manuscript gr. 699. Cosmas explains that the land inhabited by mortals is surrounded by the ocean. On his map the inhabited earth is shown as a rectangle, framed by a rectangular band of sea. Four large gulfs can be seen opening into the inhabited land, each identified by an inscription - the "Romaic Gulf" (that is, the Mediterranean), the "Arabian Gulf" (the Red Sea), the "Persian Gulf," and the "Caspian Sea." Surrounding the rectangular band of sea there is another band representing "the earth beyond the ocean." 5 It is here in the east that the Earthly Paradise is located, recognizable from its trees, which, according the Early Christian writers, bore ripe fruit constantly at all times of the year. 6 From the Earthly Paradise flow its four rivers, which traverse the "earth beyond the ocean," then pass under the ocean to come out again in the inhabited earth as the "Tigris'" the "Euphrates," the "Phison," and the "Gehon," or Nile. This channeling of the four rivers to our world was also described by other writers. Thus Ephrem Syrus, in his Commentaries on Genesis, said that "the four rivers which flow from the fountain of Paradise ... have been absorbed in the periphery of Paradise, and they have descended in the middle of the sea as if by an aqueduct, and the earth makes each one spring forth in its place." 7 In the early sixth century, the poet Avitus, after describing the source of the four rivers from the fountain in Eden, went on to devote many lines to their geography in our earth, including the annual floods of the Gehon, which he identifies, like other writers, with the Nile. 8 Avitus also describes the rich gifts of the Phison, which he takes to be the Ganges in India. The Phison, he says, steals the wealth of Paradise and conveys it to our place of banishment. 9 Once they reached our world, the four Rivers of Paradise took on the physical characteristics that are known and recognized by mortals. Ephrem Syrus averred that the rivers here do not taste the same as the waters of the fountain in Paradise. 10 Nevertheless, the Early Christian writers did not loose sight of what lay upstream. Epiphanius of Salamis said that he knew the description of Paradise in Genesis to be literally true, because (in his words): "I saw the waters of Gehon [i.e. the Nile], waters which I gazed at with these bodily eyes.... and I simply drank the waters from the great river Euphrates, which you can touch with your hands and sip with your lips". 11
The interconnection of the Earthly Paradise with our world through the four rivers is illustrated graphically in several early Byzantine churches. Space only allows me to illustrate two floor mosaics, from Greece and Jordan.
Madaba. Mosaic floor of the Martyr Theodore Chapel
|The Greek church is the basilica of Thyrsos at Tegea, in the Peloponnese, where the nave was covered by a fifth-century mosaic depicting the inhabited earth surrounded by the oceans and watered by the four Rivers of Paradise. 12 As in the map of Cosmas Indicopleustes, our earth is shown as a rectangle surrounded by a narrow band portraying the ocean, which is signified in this case by a series of octagons containing a variety of sea creatures, such as dolphins, lobsters, crabs, cuttlefish and octopuses. Within the inner rectangle, the earth is signified by means of personifications of the twelve months with their typical attributes or produce, including February, whose head and body are wrapped up against the cold, a more lightly clad July, who holds a sheaf of wheat in his arm, and August with an aubergine and a melon. In other words, these personifications portray the mutable months of our world, and not the unchanging fruitfulness of Paradise. At the four corners of the rectangle representing the inhabited earth, within the outer border portraying the ocean, are busts of the four rivers, Gehon and Phison nearest the sanctuary, and Tigris and the Euphrates nearest the entrance. Thus in the mosaic at Tegea the Rivers of Paradise are shown not at their place of origin in Paradise, but rather watering our earth. Each river held an attribute, a vase or a cornucopia, representing its gifts to humanity.
My second geographical example of the four rivers in Byzantine church decoration is the Chapel of the Martyr Theodore, adjoining the atrium of the cathedral church at Madaba. According to an inscription, the chapel and its mosaic were completed in 562. The central panel of the nave of the chapel is composed of a geometrical interlace creating circles, lozenges and octagons that frame a variety of motifs depicting creatures and produce, including birds, fishes, and baskets of fruit; in the borders there are pastoral and hunting scenes. As at Tegea, personifications of the four rivers appear at the corners of the rectangular composition - they are labeled Geon, Phison, Euphrates, and Tigris. Here, therefore, the nave appears to show the inhabited earth, with its creatures and its fruits. The earth is watered at its four corners by the Rivers of Paradise, as in the church at Tegea. 13
The Rivers of Paradise were frequently illustrated, or evoked through inscriptions, in baptisteries. In this context they obviously acquired an allegorical significance, beyond a mere illustration of divinely created geography. An inscription found in an Early Christian baptistery at Ostia reads, in part, "Take the fountains of the Christians, Geon, Fison, Tigris, Eufrates." 14 In a few surviving baptisteries, we find the four rivers depicted in the mosaics of the floor, surrounding the font. For example, they appear, with identifying inscriptions, in the form of masks with water streaming from their mouths on the floor of a fifth-century baptistery discovered at Ohrid, where they accompany representations of fountains flanked by lambs and deer. 15 A similar composition was discovered in the mosaic floor of a baptistery at Mariana in Corsica. Here also the four heads are seen in the corners framing the font, and there are fountains flanked by animals. At Mariana there are no identifying inscriptions, but the overall similarity of the motifs to the mosaic at Ohrid make it almost certain that the four Rivers of Paradise are portrayed here too. 16 In this context, then, the rivers function as symbols of the baptismal waters, and perhaps also of the four Evangelists. 17
In the context of church floors, the four Rivers of Paradise could also acquire a liturgical significance. This association is attested to, at least after the fact, at the great sixth-century church of St. Sophia in Constantinople. Here there are four bands of green marble crossing the floor at irregular intervals, which were used to mark stopping places for various liturgical processions. 18 As we discover from the Narratio de Sancta Sophia, these bands were referred to by the eighth or the ninth century as the four Rivers that flow out of Paradise, 19 and it is quite possible that they had this name from the beginning. Other churches simply had liturgical stopping places marked on their floors in a temporary and ad hoc fashion with chalk, but these lines also were referred to by later commentators such as Symeon of Thessalonica as "rivers." 20
Besides the topographical, the allegorical, and the liturgical meanings, a fourth interpretation of the rivers in churches was propitious: that is, beholders would not only see the rivers as symbols of spiritual gifts and blessings, but also as providers of material good fortune and benefits through the power of Christ. It was significant for this interpretation that the four rivers had their origin in Paradise. As Avitus said of Phison, or the Ganges, the rivers steal the wealth of Paradise and convey it to our place of banishment. We have already seen that at Tegea and Madaba the representations of the four rivers frame motifs evocative of earthly prosperity and well-being, such as baskets or months with their fruits.
The importance of this type of propitious interpretation of the rivers and their imagery for the Early Christians is illustrated by the popularity of the Nile by itself as a subject for floor mosaics; indeed, the Nile is depicted in churches much more frequently on its own than as one of the four Rivers of Paradise, though very rarely, as we shall see, in the form of a personification. The Nile was especially susceptible to interpretation as a conveyer of material prosperity. The river had, of course, already carried these connotations in non-Christian contexts. We may take, by way of example, the recently discovered mosaic of the Nile in a large building of undetermined function at Sepphoris, in Galilee. Here we see, at the top of the panel, the personified river reclining on the right, and on the left Egypt, with her right elbow resting on a basket full of fruit and holding a cornucopia in her left hand. Beside her are the flocks in their fields, while the river itself, with its usual aquatic plants and birds, flows below. At the center, boys inscribe the high-water mark on the nilometer. All of this is accompanied by an inscription in the upper border that enjoins the viewer to "Have good fortune." 21 Images of the Nile personification and of the nilometer were also employed as good-luck charms on domestic textiles, as can be seen from a pair of sixth or seventh-century roundels now in the Louvre which once may have decorated a tunic. On these weavings the Nile is accompanied by Euthenia, or abundance. 22
At Sepphoris and elsewhere the propitious imagery of the Nile was presented in a non-Christian context, but by the sixth century the Nile as a source of fruitfulness and prosperity had also been adopted by Christians. In Egypt itself the rising of the river was now ascribed to Christ, rather than to pagan deities such as Demeter or Isis, as had been the case in earlier centuries. Thus we can find among the sixth-century papyri a hymn extolling the beneficial powers of the Nile as "a remedy for men and for beasts," but closing with a prayer to Christ. 23 We find a wedding-speech delivered by a sixth-century Egyptian orator, Dioskoros of Aphrodito, which invokes "the Nile with his many children," and calls on God to grant to the couple "a superlative marriage" blessed with offspring. 24 We also find Christian liturgies performed to bless the Nile and insure that it floods and provides the fruits of the year. 25
|Away from Egypt, the Nile could be employed by Christian writers as a symbol of spiritual regeneration. Thus the poet Romanos used Egypt and the Nile as metaphors for fruitfulness in his Kontakion on the Holy Innocents: "Winter prevailed when May brought forth the uncultivated grape.... For the fruit of the only pure Virgin, with the vine is destined to flee into Egypt, and be planted there and give fruit. It fled ... a waste land empty of all benefit, it arrived at the fruitful Nile ... overthrowing there all their idols." 26
Such Christian texts, evoking the fruitfulness of the Nile in a variety of contexts, material as well as spiritual, had their counterparts in the decoration of many church floors. I will cite only two well-known examples, in both of which Nilotic motifs frame other subjects evocative of earthly prosperity. The first example is the pavement of the church of St. John the Baptist at Gerasa, dated to 531, where the central square, with its border portraying the seasons and the months, was flanked on two sides by scenes showing the Nile with its characteristic plants and birds and also its cities, one of which, Alexandria, is identified by an inscription. 27 My second example is the now famous pavement of St. Stephen at Umm al-Rasas, where a continuous Nilotic border, also provided with representations of Egyptian cities, surrounds a vine scroll whose medallions contain motifs indicative of rural prosperity, such as fruit-laden baskets and scenes of the vintage, of pastoralism, and of hunting. 28
This combination of motifs, of Nilotic scenery with the wealth of the land, is here enclosed in the temple of Christ. A similar idea is conveyed on some domestic textiles of the early Byzantine period. Figure 13, for example, illustrates one of a pair of tapestry weaves, found in Egypt but now preserved in the Louvre Museum of Paris and the Musée Historique des Tissus of Lyon, respectively. 29 The two squares probably decorated the same piece of cloth, In both of them the Nilotic designs are organized by a large red cross. The center of the cross displays a large medallion where a nereid appears disporting herself on a sea monster against a blue ground with aquatic plants such as nenuphars. In the compartments in the corners of the square there are more aquatic scenes, with boys fishing, or else holding out fruit or birds. In the arms of the cross are four busts, perhaps representing seasons. Here too, in this weaving for the home, the blessings of the Nile are framed by the power of Christ.
At the same time that we find this frank acceptance of the imagery of Nilotic prosperity into Christian churches and houses, there was an undercurrent of unease. Egypt had always had a double connotation for the Early Christians; it was both a symbol of prosperity and a home of paganism and idolatry. Even Romanos, in his hymn on the Holy Innocents, says that when Christ arrived at the land of Egypt and the fruitful Nile, he overthrew there all the idols. 30 In the fourth century, Firmicius Maternus, in his work on the errors of the pagans, contrasted the water of the River Nile with the holy water of Baptism. "In vain do you suppose," he says to the pagans, "that this [Nile] water that you worship will ever bring you profit. For it is through another water that people are renewed and reborn." 31 This theme was taken much further by Andrew of Crete, in a remarkable passage in his encomium of St. Patapios, who was born in Egypt. This text, which he wrote in the early eighth century, on the eve of iconoclasm, is remarkable for its rejection of the whole panoply of Nilotic imagery, and deserves to be given attention by historians of Byzantine art. In his panegyric of St. Patapios, Andrew sets up an antithesis between the saint's two fatherlands: one was his material, earth-bound fatherland, represented by Egypt, with the River Nile and its corruptible riches of the flesh; the other fatherland consisted in the eternal riches of heaven, obtained by Christian baptism. "Egypt," he says, "is the generator of darkness and gloom, the baptismal font is the mother of immaterial light; ... one is the guide to death, the other the leader to eternal life; one is the manufacturer of the earthly passions, the other the teacher of the passionless way of life (apatheia); this one is the place of grief, that the treasury of joy, this the shady abode of evil, that the brilliant abode of virtue...."
After this stark contrast, between Egypt, the material birthplace of St. Patapios, and baptism, his birth into heaven, Andrew of Crete, ironically plays the part of a late antique orator of the second sophistic. He acknowledges that some people in his audience those who are devotees of the theater and of other such nocturnal diversions will expect a proper rhetorical encomium of the saint's birthplace. So the church orator appears to comply with this expectation, and he proceeds to go through all the conventional topoi of Nilotic prosperity, just as they had appeared in late antique literature and art. He describes in detail the rich earth, the fat and fruitful fields, the thickly-set cities, the pastures full of flocks, the abundance of food, and lastly the annual floods of the Nile, which turn the agricultural lands into a ship-bearing sea teeming with fishes and creatures that swim.
However, when Andrew of Crete reaches the end of this catalogue of the Nile's benefits, he once again starts to undercut it: "Egypt, the ungrudging supplier of earthly delights, the manufacturer of bright garments, the artificer of the passions, the handmaiden of the pleasures, the patron of mud and clay ... she who is called darkness in the scriptures...." He concludes his panegyric of the saint by saying that Egypt was sanctified and cleansed of its accursed idols and the foul rites of its demons only through the arrival of the light of Christ. 32
While we have seen that Andrew of Crete was not the first Christian writer to make the antithesis between the River Nile and the water of baptism, what is most remarkable is the way this eighth-century writer takes the whole range of traditional Nilotic imagery and turns it around, so that it no longer signifies fertility, but corruption, no longer life, but death.
The Christian ambivalence towards the imagery of the Nile was reflected in the decoration of churches. In the first place, the representation of all four Rivers of Paradise together as personifications in church buildings was evidently accepted, 33 but the River Nile on its own, without the other three Rivers of Paradise, was very seldom portrayed in churches through a personification, 34 even though it often was in secular art. In churches, instead of appearing in the form of an isolated personification, the Nile was evoked, as we have seen, through its typical flora and fauna, or through its cities, or occasionally, as at Madaba, through a map. Given the association of Egypt with idolatry in Christian thought, it would, indeed, be surprising to find the Nile appearing on its own in human guise in a church - even on its floor. A thought of this kind seems to be expressed by Choricius, in his sixth-century ekphrasis of the church of St. Stephen at Gaza. Here he describes the Nilotic scenes portrayed in the aisles of the basilica, saying with approval that the Nile river "is nowhere portrayed in the way painters portray rivers" (that is, the Nile is not shown by a personification), 35 but instead the river "is suggested by means of distinctive currents and symbols, as well as by the meadows along its banks" where "various kinds of birds that often wash in that river's streams dwell in the meadows." 36 In other words, the aisles of St. Stephen of Gaza must have resembled those of St. John the Baptist at Gerasa, depicting the River Nile through its streams of water together with its characteristic birds and plants. 37
|Thus, in the sixth century, there was a measure of caution concerning the portrayal of the Nile. Artists working in churches avoided personifying the river on its own. Christians at this time sought to secure the benefits of the Nile, but without the taint of nilolatry. The river could be evoked in churches by means of its typical flora, fauna, and buildings, or through a map such as that at Madaba, but it could not appear in human form without the other three Rivers of Paradise to act as chaperons. However, the encomium of Patapios by Andrew of Crete shows that by the beginning of the eighth century influential Christian writers were questioning not only the Nile personification, but the very imagery of its fruitfulness, the plants, the fruits, and the creatures of its banks. Such a wholesale rejection of the late antique imagery of material prosperity may have been one of the factors contributing to the wave of iconoclasm in the eighth century, when not only human figures, but also representations of creatures were more or less rigorously removed from the mosaic floors of churches in the former provinces of Palestine and Syria. 38
After this time the personifications of the Rivers of Paradise disappeared altogether from Byzantine churches. After the end of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine empire in the ninth century, the four rivers never returned to monumental art in human guise. 39 Even motifs such as Nilotic plants and birds became rare. The floors of medieval Byzantine churches are typically bare and devoid of figures compared to their early Byzantine predecessors - as can be seen in the case of the eleventh-century marble pavement of the monastery church of Hosios Loukas in Greece. 40 There was no longer any place here for the earth-bound imagery of the rivers, least of all for the corruptible, and corrupting, riches of the Nile.
1. See, in general, Alfred Hermann, Der Nil und die Christen, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 2 (1959), 30-69; Srdjan Djuric, Ateni and the Rivers of Paradise in Byzantine Art, Zograf 20 (1989), 229; Michele Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman, 1993), 37-40; Janine Balty, Thèmes nilotiques dans la mosaïque tardive du proche-orient, in eadem, Mosaïques antiques du proche-orient. chronologie, iconographie, interprétation (Paris, 1995), 245-54.
2. Selecta in Genesim, PG 12, cols. 98100. See Henry Maguire, Adam and the Animals: Allegory and the Literal Sense in Early Christian Art, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), 363-73, esp. 363.
3. Severian of Gabala, De mundi creatione, Oratio V, 5; PG 56, col. 478.
4. Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographia christiana, 2.82; ed. W. Wolska-Conus, Topographie chrétienne. I (Sources chrétiennes 141, Paris, 1968), 401. Ephrem Syrus: J. Daniélou, Terre et Paradis chez les pères de l'église, Eranos Jahrbuch 22 (1953), 433-72, esp. 451-52.
5. Topographia christiana, 3.25 and 4.7; ed. Wolska-Conus, 137-9, 461-3, and 543-5; see also Henry Maguire, Earth and Ocean: The Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art (College Art Association Monograph Series 43, University Park, 1987), 223.
6. Maguire, Earth end Ocean, 25.
7. Commentarii in Genesim, I.23B; translation after Daniélou, "Terre et Paradis," 451-2.
8. Poematum de mosaicae historiae gestis, PL 59, cols. 329-30. The traditional identification of Gehon with the Nile followed Jeremiah 2:18, "And now what have you to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the waters of Gehon?"
9. PL 59, col. 330.
10. Commentarii in Genesim, I.23B; translation after Daniélou, Terre et Paradis, 451-2.
11. Epistula ad Joannem Episcopum Jerosolymorum, PG 43, col. 386.
12. A. K. Orlandos, Palaiochristianika kai byzantina mnemeia Tegeas-Nykliou, Archeion ton Byzantinon Mnemeion tes Hellados 12 (1973), 12-81; Maguire, Earth and Ocean, 24-8, figs. 15-21.
13. Michele Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania (Rome, 1986), 378; idem, Madaba, le chiese e i mosaici (Milan, 1989), 26-8, 339; idem, The Mosaics of Jordan, 117.
14. Paul A. Underwood, The Fountain of Life in Manuscripts of the Gospels, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 5 (1950), 43-138, esp. 73, fig. 33.
15. Vera Bitrakova Grozdanova, Monuments paléochrétiens de la région d'Ohrid (Ohrid, 1975), 55-65, pl. 4.
16. G. Moracchini, Le pavement en mosaïque de la basilique paléochrétienne et du baptistère de Mariana (Corse), Cahiers archéologiques 13 (1962), 137-60, esp. 150-58, figs. 14-22.
17. On the rivers as symbols of the Evangelists, see Maguire, Earth and Ocean, 27-8, 77.
18. George P. Majeska, Notes on the Archeology of St. Sophia at Constantinople: the Green Marble Bands on the Floor, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 32 (1978), 299-308.
19. Narratio de S. Sophia, 26; ed. Th. Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum, I (Leipzig, 1901), 102-3; Majeska, Notes, 299.
20. Majeska, Notes, 302-3.
21. Ehud Netzer and Zeev Weiss, Zippori (Jerusalem, 1994), 47-51.
22. Inv. no. X4129; P. du Bourguet, Catalogue des étoffes coptes: Musée National du Louvre (Paris, 1964), 132, nos. D36-37.
23. M. Manfredi, Inno cristiano al Nilo, in P. J. Parsons, J. R. Rea, eds., Papyri and Egyptian Edited by Various Hands in Honour of Eric Gardner Turner (Egypt Exploration Society, Graeco-Roman Memoirs 68, London, 1981), 49-62, esp. 56.
24. Leslie S. B. MacCoull, Dioscorus of Aphrodito, his Work and his World (Berkeley, 1988), 111-12.
25. Hermann, "Der Nil und die Christen," 46-7; D. Bonneau, La crue du Nil. divinité égyptienne, à travers mille ans d'histoire (332 av.-641 ap. J.C.) (Paris, 1964), 421-39; Leslie S. B. MacCoull, Stud. Pal. XV 250ab: a Monophysite Trishagion for the Nile Flood, Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989), 129-35.
26. Strophe 15; ed. J. Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode. Hymnes, II (Sources chrétiennes, 110, Paris, 1964), 222
27. Carl H. Kraeling, Gerasa. City of the Decapolis (New Haven, 1938), 32-49, 480, pls. 66-70; Piccirillo, Mosaics of Jordan, 2869, figs. 535-45.
28. Michele Piccirillo and Eugenio Alliata, Umm al-Rasas, Mayfa'ah, I, Gli scavi del complesso di Santo Stefano (Jerusalem, 1994), 121-64, figs. 23, 33-40.
29. Du Bourauet, Catalogue des etoffes comes: Musée National du Louvre. 205. no. E49 (inv. no. X4419); Yvonne Bourgon-Amir, Les tapisseries coptes du Musée Historique des Tissus, Lyon (Montpellier, 1993), 73-4, pl. 56 (inv. no. 886.1.55).
30. Strophe 15; ed. Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Melode, Hvmnes, II, 222.
31. De errore profanarum religionum, 2.1; see Hermann, Der Nil und die Christen, 47-8.
32. PG 97, cols. 1217-1221. I am grateful to Alexander Kazhdan for bringing this text to my attention.
33. To the examples found at Tegea, Madaba, Ohrid, and Mariana can be added, most notably, the personifications of the Four Rivers on the Justinianic floor at Qasr-el Lebia, in Libya, where they appear in the risky company of the converted pagan spring, Castalia: see Maguire, Earth and Ocean, 44-55.
34. One possible exception is a floor at Umm el-Menabi, which was described by Nelson Glueck before its destruction: Nelson Glueck, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, IV (The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 258, New Haven, 1951), 229-30; see also Piccirillo, Mosaics of Jordan, 37, 341. According to Glueck, this mosaic, at the time that he recorded it, served as the floor of a single-room house; among other motifs it showed the figure of a man labeled as the Nile together with a nilometer. But there is nothing in Glueck's account to indicate why he believed this floor to have belonged to a church, rather than to a non-Christian building, such as the one at Sepphoris.
35. Compare Sidonius Apollinaris praising his villa at Avitacum: "Here no disgraceful tale is exposed by the nude beauty of painted figures, for though such a tale may be a glory to art it dishonors the artist" Epistulae, 2.2.57; translation by W. B. Anderson, I (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 423.
36. Laudatio Marciani II, 50; translation by Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453, (Englewood Cliffs, 1972), 72.
37. Other compositions of this type are listed by Balty, Themes nilotiques. The finest are the transept mosaics in the church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes at et-Tabgha; ibid, 245-6, pl. 45.2.
38. On this phenomenon see, most recently, Michele Piccirillo, Iconofobia o iconoclastia nelle chiese di Giordania? in Bisanzio e l'Occidente: arte, archeologia, storia. Studi in onore di Fernanda de' Maffei (Rome, 1996), 173-186.
39. They were, however, portrayed at Ateni, in Georgia. See Djuric, Ateni and the Rivers of Paradise in Byzantine Art, 22-9, figs. 1-6.
40. Illustrated in Robert Weir Schultz and Sidney Howard Barnsley, The Monastery of Saint Luke of Stiris (London, 1901), pl. 31. On Byzantine opus sectile floors in general, see Urs Peschlow, Zum byzantinischen opus sectile-Boden, in R. M. Boehmer and H. Hauptmann, eds. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Kleinasiens: Festschrift für Kurt Bittel (Mainz am Rhein, 1983), 435-47, pls. 89-93.
|This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 179-184|