The Church of the Map

by Michele Piccirillo

From an archeological point of view, the principal problem which arose from the study of the Map, was its possible extension, and, as a consequence, the original plan of the Church in which it was laid. Methodologically, however, one ought to proceed in the opposite direction: from the plan of the church one should be able to trace the original extent of the Map. We have at least four witnesses who saw the ruins of the Byzantine church, and made a plan of it before the XIXth century Greek Orthodox church was built over it.

In 1891, Schumacher, who was the first to draw a plan of the church, wrote that the length of the building, from the door to the beginning of the apse, measured 20.4 m, to which must be added 4.9 m, which is the length of the radius of the apse. Although he did not give a width measurement, if it corresponded to the perimeter walls marked in black in his plan, it would have been 15.9 m. He saw four column bases still in place and he indicated on his plan an enclosing wall at the level of the columns nearest the altar. Also, on his map of the city, he drew another plan of the same church, a plan showing a small church of standard design with a nave, two aisles and a narthex. Fr. Séjourné gave the measurements, which he said were exact, as 23.4 m for the interior length, by 16.7 m wide. The rough sketch which accompanied his description of the church showed a double row of four columns, with the step of the presbyterium in line with the first two columns on the east. In March 1895, F. J. Bliss drew a more complete plan of the church, simplifying the inevitable difficulties. "Church No. 4 [the north church] is built upon vaults," he wrote, "so that whereas the interior of the church is ruined down to a foot, the outer walls remain to a considerable height, sometimes 12 or 15 feet. These are built of small stones, with drafts and rough bosses. The column bases are massive, and, notwithstanding that they occur at irregular intervals, are in situ. It has a narthex, and chambers to the southwest. The outside measurements, excluding the narthex, are 83 feet 6 inches in length by 55 feet 6 inches in breadth." Furthermore, Bliss anticipated the news of the church's reconstruction, on which, perhaps, some work had already been done: "No. 4 alone is to be kept for its original ecclesiastical designation, for I am rejoiced to report that the Greeks are to restore it, or rather rebuild it on the old lines." In 1899, Fr. Manfredi, who was in Madaba both before and after the construction of the new church, wrote the following note: "This [new church] was erected on the foundations of the ancient basilica near the north gate. This was composed of a nave divided from the aisles by four great Corinthian columns, whose pedestals measured 0.85 m in diameter. One could discern the remains of a wall that enclosed the construction on the east in a straight line; which makes one suppose that the apse, as in other basilicas of Madaba, was flanked by two chambers as diakonikons (sacristies). One might also remark that instead of the present-day iconostasis closing the only apse, there must have been a parapet which girded part of the nave up to the first row of columns .... One entered the Church by way of the customary atrium and portico or narthex. When the reconstruction of the basilica was almost finished, there was discovered the large fragment of the most important among the Madaba mosaics-the celebrated geographical-Biblical map." Even if the measurements do not tally, the four witnesses from before the reconstruction agree that the north church, like the other churches of Madaba, had a nave divided from the side aisles by rows of four columns, with a presbyterium enclosed by the chancel screen on the line of the first row of columns, a narthex on the facade, and a double room on the southwest corner. This plan coincides with that of the new church plotted by Fr. Vincent in 1897, which accompanies his sketch of the Map, and also the plan drawn by the surveyor, G. Arvanitaki in the same year. The new church included neither the ancient narthex nor the double room outside. In conclusion, this author is of the opinion that the present-day church must have been built on the foundations of the ancient one, which were visible at ground-level. The pillars were raised on the bases of the columns which, as Bliss stated, were seen in situ. Only later was the interior of the church excavated in order to lay the new pavement and to leave the mosaic fully exposed, as related by Fr. Manfredi.
The first secure testimony for the existence of the mosaic floor in this church is the transcription of two fragments of the Map which Fr. Biever sent to Fr. Germer-Durand in Jerusalem some time before 1890. The sketches of the Map, drawn in 1897 by Frs. Lagrange and Vincent, and by Arvanitaki, as well as Fr. Germer-Durand's photographs taken in the same year, prove that from that time on, nothing further of the Map was lost. On the contrary, what had been found was carefully preserved by A. Andreaki, the builder of the new church, who included it in the new pavement and protected it with a wood and iron railing. Only in 1965 did some new details become visible around its borders with the removal of cement around the edges of the mosaic.
The mosaic occupies the eastern part of the church between the first and third rows of pillars. The largest section lies in the nave and the southern aisle, and there are three fragments which are separated from the main part. One of these, which was copied by Fr. Biever, still lies near the north wall. If the present-day church follows the perimeter of the ancient building, as we have demonstrated, we must conclude that the Map extended from the region of Tyre and Sidon in the north, to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert. Since no border of any kind has been found around the composition, either on the south or north, as is usual in the mosaics of the region, and because the people of Madaba claimed to have seen details of Syria and Asia Minor(!) outside the present wall of the church, the whole plan of the building has therefore been called in question, and hypothetical plans have been put forward that are totally alien to the region. Based on the existing plan of the church, the author believes that the interior of the walls of the present church must have been widened in the reconstruction, just as the bases of the columns were widened to produce the present-day pillars. It is probable that these modern additions covered or destroyed the frame. Between 10 and 20 cm on each side would have been sufficient to enclose the Map in a simple frame of lines of tesserae of different colors. The nature of the geographic composition, extending over the entire width of the church, from wall to wall, would exclude a border of scrolls. The eastern margin of the Map can be fixed not far above the city of Charach Muba, dictated by the step of the chancel which enclosed the presbyterium near the first row of columns. As far as the western side goes, however, there are no architectural elements to serve as a margin; there is only the Mediterranean Sea on the Palestinian coast. With these data at our disposal, we can conclude that the original composition did not extend much further than the limits of the present mosaic, which are, at the most, 15.7 m x 5.6 m.

This contribution was first published in: The Mosaics of Jordan, Amman 1993, 27-28.

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Created Saturday, December 16, 2000 at 11:24:27
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