By Pnina Arad
It is generally accepted that the sixth-century Madaba mosaic map – the earliest known map of the Holy Land – decorated the floor of a Byzantine church in Madaba (Jordan), and, as a church ornamentation, answered religious needs. Recently, it has been claimed that the Byzantine building was not a church but a private house or a hall for judicial hearings, and that the mosaic map illustrates notions of law and ownership rather than any notion of religious faith. I reject this claim, asserting that the Madaba map was designed to construct religious notions and to meet religious needs.
An examination of the map’s six types of written inscriptions and topographical features shows that the map essentially expresses the theological notion of Fulfillment. I claim that the Madaba map belonged to a new genre of “Holy Land” iconography that appeared in Palestine in the sixth century, iconography that related to the formation of the Holy Land’s sacred space and the interpretation of its landscape in light of the biblical text.
The sixth-century Madaba mosaic map is one of the few surviving maps from Late Antiquity. It was unearthed at the end of the nineteenth century during the construction of a new church on the ruins of a Byzantine building at Madaba (Jordan). At the end of the nineteenth century there was no doubt that the Byzantine structure was a church, and between 1895 and 1899 five floor plans of the church were published. A revised floor plan of the church has been suggested in 1954 by archeologist Michael Avi-Yonah. According to Avi-Yonah’s plan, the Byzantine church was a short basilica with a relatively wide transept, and the map – oriented to the east in conformity of the church – was located along this transept.
Recently, Beatrice Leal has claimed that the Byzantine structure was not a church, but a hall with secular functions. Arguing that the mosaic map could not have fitted ‘iconographically’ into a church setting and that the early reconstructions of the Byzantine building interpreted it as a church under the influence of the new church building that was being erected on the Byzantine ruins, she suggests that the hall in which the map was discovered functioned either as a residential audience hall or as a hall for judicial hearings.
I will not delve here into Leal’s arguments, but just note that I disagree with her analysis and that without surviving archaeological evidence to determine whether the Byzantine structure was a church or a secular hall, we are left with the map’s internal evidence to interpret its meaning. The map’s surviving fragments are enough to demonstrate the map’s religious language, as well as the very religious narrative that it constructs through a combination of topographical features and illustrative inscriptions.
The map survived in four fragments; the main fragment (measuring about 10.5 x 5 m) portrays the region between the Jordan and the Nile, and the three small fragments illustrate sites in the Upper Galilee and in the area of Lebanon. Landscape is implied by the depiction of mountain ranges, seas (on the surviving fragments: the Dead Sea and a small surviving section of the Mediterranean), rivers (the Jordan and the Nile), streams, towns, villages, fortresses, and holy places. Towns, villages and fortresses are represented by a variety of architectural symbols that endow the places with some hierarchy, and holy places are marked by small edifices with red roofs, which obviously stand for the basilical churches that stood in situ.
Jerusalem is highlighted in the centre of the map through a large vignette, which is a product of a deliberate manipulation of the urban space: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been shifted south to be positioned exactly in the middle of the city, perpendicular to the cardo maximus, which has also been shifted to make a focus point with the church, exactly in the centre of the emblem, and the Temple Mount – the city’s most prominent topographical feature – is not depicted. In essence, by highlighting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and by portraying the city filled with churches but with no reference to the Temple Mount, this vignette inherently characterizes Jerusalem as a Christian city and as the city of the Passion.
The written inscriptions (in Greek) are the key to the religious narrative and message constructed on the map. Classification of these inscriptions according to the information they convey reveals the range of dimensions they evoke and add to the pictorial view, and thus is essential for understanding the map. In essence there are six types of inscriptions:
(2) holy places – architectural symbols of churches identified by labels, including places composed of tombs of saintly personages (e.g. “of Saint Zacharias” or “of Saint Victor”, a tomb of a martyr located next to the city of Gaza) and places associated with biblical events or personages (e.g. “Desert of Zin where were sent down the manna and the quails”);
(3) biblical traditions – inscriptions that associate specific places with biblical events (e.g. “Ailamon, where the moon stood still for a whole day in the time of Joshua, the son of Nun”, or “Ephraim which is Ephraea there walked the Lord”)
(4) Tribes of Israel – the names of the tribes, distributed all over the map are scattered ;
(5) milestones – two references to milestones appear adjacent to Jerusalem;
(6) boundaries – five inscriptions demarcate the boundaries of the land or of certain regions in both the biblical past (e.g. “Azmon city by the desert bordering Egypt and the going out of the sea” – an inscription that reflects the biblical description of the domain of the tribe of Judah as described in Josh. 16:3) and the Byzantine present (e.g. “Border of Egypt and Palestine” – an inscription that refers to the border of the Byzantine province of Palestina Prima).
These examples reveal the crucial role played by the written component in inserting biblical content into the image. Yet, more importantly, through these six types of inscriptions the map not simply localizes the holy, but creates a condensed narrative for the land, with two apparent functions: to conceptualize the land as both a sacred space and a physical reflection of the biblical past, and to convey a distilled religious message. In particular, through the manifestation of four types of localities – places of divine presence (on the surviving fragments: “Ephraim which is Ephraea there walked the Lord” and “Shiloh, where the ark stayed”); places of miracles (for example, “Desert of Zin where were sent down the manna and the quails”); places of the acts of biblical figures; and tombs of saintly personages – the map promotes the idea that the territory is a ‘trace’ of the sacred past and characterizes it as being imbued with permanent holiness.
While references to activities of biblical figures express the perception that the holiness of the territory derives from the presence of these figures in the past, and references to places of miracles allude to divine action, the presentation of localities of divine presence emphasize the uniqueness of the territory as the place of the Revelation. The indication of tombs of saintly personages alludes to a permanent holiness maintained by the saints’ relics (bones) and shrines. The inclusion of tombs belonging to both biblical figures and martyrs elaborates the message, as these tombs allude to two formative pasts in the land’s Christian history: the sacred past of the Scriptures and the time when believers were willing to give their life for their faith in Christ.
Close Relationships to Early Christian Religious Art
In effect, the Madaba map conveyed the very same message communicated by complete decorative schemes of early Christian churches, which juxtaposed scenes from both Testaments to illustrate the continuity of divine planning and the harmony of the Testaments, and to enable visitors to the church to both comprehend and interpret the Scriptures. The fifth-century decorative scheme of Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome) is a good example: it presents Old Testament scenes on the walls of the nave, while the triumphal arch is dedicated to the advent of Christ. While this arrangement inherently reinterprets the Old Testament cycle in terms of its fulfilment in the triumph of Christianity, the Madaba map presents the very same fulfillment: it depicts Jerusalem as a purely Christian city set among the domains of the Tribes of Israel and a variety of episodes from both Testaments, while the central position of the Holy Sepulchre in the city vignette and in the entire map proclaims the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the Passion of Christ.
In the strictest sense, the Madaba map corresponded with sixth-century innovative iconography that figured on containers for sacred materials from the holy places. The surviving ones include some dozens of small pewter ampullae for oil and water and a wooden box that contains some stones and wood (the so-called “Sancta Sanctorum box,” preserved today in the Vatican Museum). The correlation between the map and this iconography lies in the similar strategy through which they all conceptualized the holy places. The ampullae present a combination of visual depictions of sacred events and captions referring to the depicted events. This combination of image and text was meant to evoke the momentous events that sanctified specific places, yet it actually conceptualized the places themselves as physical embodiments of these momentous events. The Madaba map suggested the very same conceptualization – of specific places and of the entire land.
Most telling is the comparison between the Madaba map and the Vatican wooden box, which delivers the same message through a combination of stones, labelled with inscriptions in Greek referring to their origins (the legible ones read: Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, and [the site of] the Resurrection) and a series of images that depicts five scenes from Christ’s life on the inner side of the lid (from bottom to top, left to right: Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion, the women at the empty tomb, and Ascension). The entire composition – labelled terrestrial relics and pictorial markers of certain events/sites, arranged in two adjacent framed rectangular spaces – conveys an emblematic reflection of the Holy Land through a selection of its most sacred places.
The conceptual relationship between this object and the Madaba map is complex. Beate Fricke has argued that the Vatican box’s pictorial scenes were arranged as a chronological narrative in order to connect the user of the box to the sacred sites of Palestine and the end of time. According to her, it is the linear order that brings the distant (time and place) to the present of the user and allows one to “read his or her own time into a linear progression of the experience of elapsing time.” The Madaba Map provides the viewer with a non-linear narrative that leads one to the very same place. By presenting narrative pieces from both the Old and New Testaments alongside contemporary localities, the map produces a condensed narrative that clearly concludes in the viewer’s present. The presentation of all references without any kind of arrangement encourages a spontaneous and contemplative movement along the narrative, including forward and backward, and a way to compose endless variations.
Pnina Arad earned her PhD in visual studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2012). Her work focuses on visual representations of the Holy Land and the cultural role they have played in different societies from the Middle Ages to the present. She is the author of Christian Maps of the Holy Land: Images and Meanings (Brepols, 2020); “Post-Secular Art for a Post-Secular Age: Stational Installations of the Via Dolorosa in Western Cities,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief 18.2 (2022): 203–227; “Landscape and Iconicity: Proskynetaria of the Holy Land from the Ottoman Period,” The Art Bulletin 100.4 (2018): 62–80; “Frederick III’s Holy Land Installation in Wittenberg during the Cultural Transition of the Reformation,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 48.1 (2017): 219–252; “Memory, Identity and Aspiration: Early Modern Jewish Maps of the Promised Land,” Imago Mundi 69.1 (2017): 52–71. Learn more about Prina’s research on her Academia.edu page.
Pnina Arad, “Another Reconsideration of the Madaba Map,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 47.2 (2023): 1–19.
Beate Fricke, ‘Tales from Stones, Travels through Time: Narrative and Vision in the Casket from the Vatican’, West 86th 21.2 (2014): 230–250.
Beatrice Leal, “A reconsideration of the Madaba map,” Gesta 57.2 (2018): 123–143.