The Architectonic Models on the Madaba Mosaic Map

by Guadalupe López Monteagudo

In the Madaba Mosaic Map one can find different kinds of constructions, some of them realistic and others more symbolic. There are some realistic representations in mosaics, 1 which, despite their conventional schematism, sometimes have contributed to the topographical study of ancient cities and to the reconstruction of certain monuments. Such is the case with the borders of the pavements of the Megalopsychia in Antioch or the Church of Saint Stephen in Umm al-Rasas. But there are also symbolic images that do not intend to depict real buildings, but rather to highlight their meaning. Here I will stress the formal rather than the ideological aspects of the architectonic structures in Madaba, as reminiscences of earlier models dating from the Roman period, and also as shapes that lived on in medieval art in regions as far away as Spain.
Among the buildings represented in the Madaba Mosaic Map is a very frequent and well defined type of simple structure, with two towers. They follow the pattern of the late Roman villas depicted in mosaics, and documented as well in the Tabula Peutingeriana, 2 although both in the latter document and in the Madaba Mosaic Map some of the buildings seem to be synthetic representations of cities, with two side towers and an arched or rectangular door in the center.
This same architectonic pattern can be found in the depiction of some villae, paralleled in mosaics from Spain and North Africa. 3 The main features of all these depictions, typical of late Roman art, are their synthetic nature and the lack of proportions in the buildings, where flat perspective is used, joining and superposing in a single plane the different elements of the building, such as the facade, towers, side walls and peristyle. These features later passed on to Byzantine and Medieval art. 4
Tower villas, with their variants of gallery or loggia, are used in the Madaba Mosaic Map to represent the doors of walled cities such as Jerusalem, Askalon, Charach Moba (here with the particular feature that one of the towers is used also as side wall of a building with pediment), Zoora, Aia, Tharais, (Th)ekoue. 5
In the Madaba Mosaic Map we find arched doors in a great many buildings. 6 Arched doors are frequent in the representations of cities and buildings in other Byzantine pavements dating from the fifth-sixth centuries.
A construction made up by the gallery or loggia, quadrangular main body two stories high and double-sloped roof, and two towers at both ends, is represented in the Madaba Mosaic Map under the toponym Athribis, identified with Tell Athrib, in Egypt; the place called Terebinth, identified with Hebron, also has a building with two bodies, a porticoed gallery with three columns supporting a leaning roof, and a building with pediment and saddle roof, of which we see the main facade with arched door and one side with square window; a third porticoed construction is part of the city of Charach Moba. 7

The semicircular peristyle is documented in the Madaba Mosaic Map under the inscriptions of Diospolis and Saint Zacharias in Bet Zadhar, as well as in Gaza and Saint Victor. 8 The pseudoperipteral colonnade is one of the architectonic characteristics that feature the depiction of temples. 9

The vignette of "Smirna"
in San Isidoro de León - España

The other kind of construction represented in the Madaba Mosaic Map is clearly identified as a church by the inscription that goes with it, although depicted as a schematically shaped building lacking an identifying cross (Church of Philip, Terebinth, Jacob's well, Betabara, Saint Lot, Betagla, Saint Victor, Diospolis). K. Miller thought that this architectural pattern followed a conventional outline and that very different churches were depicted the same way. 10 It is a simplified rectangular construction, the most significant feature of which is that the main facade with pediment and the side facade are seen in the same plane. Apparently this model can be found in the representations of Roman temples, and appears in many documents with different meanings: pagan temple in the manuscripts of the Late Antiquity (Vergilius Vaticanus, Ilias Ambrosiana); house or room (mosaics of Madaba, identified by the toponym Iamnia, and of Santa Maria Maior in Rome); and the tomb of Lazarus (paintings and paleochristian sarcophagous). The architectonic type does not depend on the building's use, despite a few differences of detail, such as the pseudoperipteral colonnade employed in the temple, the curtains and lamps in the house, or the access stairs and high podium in the tomb. That is to say, it was a stereotyped building, regardless of its use, that distinguishes the period of Late Antiquity.
The same building is documented in the wall mosaic that adorns the dome of the Hispanic-Roman mausoleum in Centcelles (Constantí, Tarragona), dating from the middle of the fourth century. 11 There is represented a rural villa in a context of a deer hunt, seen from an angular perspective within one single plane like in the above mentioned documents. The side wall reveals three windows, while in the main facade, quite run down, we can see the pediment of the access door, one window, and the remains of the wall; behind, there appears the rectangular tower with saddle roof and three windows of the upper floor. This partial depiction, with a very close parallel in the toponym Agbaron in the Madaba Mosaic Map, 12 seems to relate to the kind of villa with towers.
The kind of construction with two faces seen in the same plane, pediment, saddle roof, and lined up windows in the facade is frequently used in the pavement of the Madaba Mosaic Map to represent both religious constructions (Church of Philip, Terebinth, Jacob's Well, Betabara, Saint Lot, Betagla, Saint Victor, Diospolis), and buildings integrated in the cities of Charach Moba (here with the particular feature that the side wall with windows is at the same time the tower of the wall's door), Gaza, Jerusalem and Pelousin. 13
The windows lined up in the facade, which are also represented in many North African mosaics of the third and fourth centuries, 14 and their appearance in the towers as well makes evident that lighting was a central need in rural constructions.
The Madaba Mosaic Map shows, under the toponyms of Saint Elisha (the present Ain es-Sultan) and St. Jonah, a vaulted or apsidal structure between two towers with flat roof, as in the cities of Areopolis, Esbounta and Maiumas represented in the pavement of Ma'in; another building, this one formed by three vaulted units, reminding us of the thermal structures in the Roman mosaics, and identified as Maiumas as well, appears in the Madaba Mosaic Map. 15 Here are "flattened" depictions, "spread out" or developed elevations of the building facades.
Next to the synthetic kind of representations, be they cities or specific buildings such as churches, in the pavement of the Madaba Mosaic Map, there is a deliberate trend to depict the cities as a whole. Two kinds of architectonic patterns are used in this mosaic to represent cities, one of them of a Hellenistic origin (Jerusalem, Gaza, Charach Moba, Behtlehem, Iamnia), with examples as well in Gerasa and the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus; 16 and the schematic type with flat-roofed towers joined by a wall, whose number changed according to the city's importance (Archelais, Jericho, Aia, Tharais, Zoora, Betsura, Safitha, Rinocorura, Elusa). 17 The buildings are synthetically seen, a typically Roman characteristic where the perspective is frequently an illogic and inconsistent combination of "regular" and "bird's eye" panoramic views. 18 The feature common to all these depictions is the conception of the background as a flat surface, from which the buildings "come out" placed against it in a three-dimensional way. This ambiguity in the representation of panoramic views is what Kitzinger describes as a "neutral background of indefinite depth". 19
Observed as a whole, the urban representation of the Hispanic-Roman mosaics closely reminds one of the constructions forming the cities of Nikopolis, Iamnia, Jerusalem and especially Gaza in the Madaba Mosaic Map. 20
They are all recorded within a group of images that develop at the same time in the East and in the West starting from the second half of the eighth century. They thus document the relationships between Hispania and abroad within an artistic current of rebirth of the representation of cities and architectures based on the same early Christian patterns that in turn are inspired by images of Classical art, and that transmitted by way of the topographical maps of the fourth and fifth centuries, surviving only in medieval copies, such as the Vergilius Vaticanus, the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Notitia Dignitatum or the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, whose models were ancient Roman works from before the fourth century.
In conclusion, the continuation of the architectonic ideology of the topographical mosaics of Madaba, Gerasa, Ma'in, and Umm al-Rasas, dating from the sixth to the eighth centuries, confirms that the tradition was very likely kept along the centuries through the maps-guides and this way reached the Middle Ages.


1. I. Ehrensperger-Katz, Les répresentations de villes fortifiées dans l'art paléochrétien et leurs dérivées byzantines, Cahiers Archéologiques 19, 1969, 1-27; G. Mansuelli, La rappresentazione della città nell'arte tardo-romana e bizantina, XIX Corsi di Cultura sull'arte ravennate e bizantina, 1972, pp. 239-244; J. Deckers, Tradition und Adaption. Bemerkungen zur Darstellung der christlichen Stadt, RM 95, 1988, pp. 303-382; M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics at Um er-Rasas in Jordan, BA 51/4, 1988, pp. 208 ss.; id., Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, Milan 1989, pp. 83-93; id., The Mosaics of Jordan, Amman 1993.

2. K. Miller, Die Peutingersche Tafel, Stuttgart 1962; A. and M. Levi, Itineraria Picta, Rome 1967.

3. T. Sarnowski, La représentation de villas sur les mosaïques africaines, Varsovia 1978; M. P. San Nicolas Pedraz, Arquitectura rural en los mosaicos hispanos, XII Convegno di Studi su l'Africa Romana (Olbia 1996), in press. I appreciate Dr. San Nicolás Pedraz's permission to consult and make use of her unpublished work.

4. N. Duval, L'architecture sur le plat en argent dit "à la villa maritime" de Kaiseraugst (première moitié du IVe siècle: un essai d'interprétation), Bulletin Monumental 146/4, 1988, pp. 341-353; H. Schlunk and M. Berenguer, La pintura mural asturiana de los siglos IX y X, Asturias 1991, pp. 20-26, 83-94, figs. 11-19; G. Lopez Monteagudo, Modelos clásicos para las pinturas de San Isidoro de León, VI Jornadas de Arte sobre "La visión del mundo clásico en el arte español" (Madrid 1992), Madrid 1993, pp. 25-35, figs. 1-7.

5. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 83-93.

6. Ibid

7. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 87, 88, 93.

8. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 87-92.

9. E. Billig, Spätantike Architekturdarstellungen I, Stockholm 1977, pp. 47-80, fig. 10.

10. K. Miller, Die Weltkarte des Castorius, Ravensburg 1887, p. 93.

11. H. Schlunk, Die Mosaikkuppel von Centcelles, Mainz 1988, pp. 111-112, Abb. 45a and 46b, Taf. 12.

12. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 82 and 88.

13. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 87-93.

14. A. Carandini, Ricerche sui problemi dell'ultima pittura tardo-antica nel bacino del Mediterraneo, Arch. Clas. XIV, 1962, Tav. XCV, 1; G. Ville, La maison et la mosaïque de la chasse à Uthique, Karthago XI, 1961-1962, pl. I c; Dunbabin, The Mosaics of Roman North Africa, pl. 35-36, 112-113; Sarnowski, La représentation de villas, p. 84.

15. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 87-89, 232-233.

16. H. Stern, Notes sur les mosaïques du Dôme du rocher et de la Mosquée de Damas, Cahiers Archéologiques 22, 1972, pp. 217-225.

17. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 82-93.

18. P.H. Blanchenhagen, Narration in Hellenistic and Roman Art, AJA 61, 1957, pp. 79-83.

19. E. Kitzinger, Stylistic Developments in Pavement Mosaics in the Greek East from the Age of Constantine to the Age of Justinian, CMGR I, Paris pp. 341-352.

20. Piccirillo, Madaba. Le chiese e i mosaici, pp. 87-93.

This article was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 256-258.

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