Madaba Mosaic

In 1897, a mosaic of various-coloured stones was discovered in the floor during the reconstruction of St George's Church in Madaba, Jordan. It is a map of the chorographic type depicting Palestine and the Nile Delta with legends in Byzantine Greek. The digital plot created for this library shows its current extent. The other half of the map assumed to have occupied the left side of the church bema would have doubtless depicted Galilee, conceivably extending to the Anti-Lebanon or even the Lebanon Range. The town of Madaba itself was probably depicted where the mosaic lay directly in front of the original church's altar.

No other product of antiquity resembling the map has ever been found,leading some to speculate that it was the sole one of its kind when it was made in about 550 CE. That may be over-reaching: the Tabula Peutingeriana and the Dura-Europos Parchment are formally similar to it, and the Madaba mosaic's survival owes much to its robust construction. In the centuries in which the building lay a ruin, the floor did not fall apart. The tesserae are not tiles, but pegs extending more than five centimetres into the soil. From bones excavated from the soil, Donner and Cüppers concluded the main losses to the present mosaic occurred when graves were later dug in the ruined church. By most accounts, the builders in the 1880s and 1890s went to pains to do no damage to the mosaic they found.

The map depicts towns and other points of interest with vignettes: stylized profile views showing the main built features. Roads as such are not depicted, but are implied both by the towns that line known highways and the obstacles to travel posed by rugged country and watercourses. Of the the three surviving chorographic maps, that of Madaba is by the far the most elaborate in its depiction of mountains, oases and bodies of water, adding trees, fish and boats.

Like the other chorographic maps, the Madaba mosaic adopts neither a consistent scale nor a consistent orientation but is drawn to a point of view. For the congregation, the Mediterranean Sea was the foreground and the Arabian Desert the background and the script orientation confirms this. The chorographic perspective of the countryside is to greater or lesser degree foreshortened. The angle of view is mostly bird's eye, with buildings in towns such as Jericho and the boats shown frontally whereas the six main cities are either depicted obliquely from above or folded out flat.

The lettering is proof of the mosaicist's compositional skill: he laid out a well-rounded ω with just 18 stones at full size while his compact script reduced an ω to just 16. In the vignettes,a single stone depicted an oculus window. Nine green stones sufficed for the foliage of a date palm. The folds of mountains are drawn according to the conventions in other media of ancient Greek art.

The great tragedy of the Madaba Map is that although its discovery was world news in 1897 and the map is the principal tourist attraction today in Madaba, no avatar or surrogate of it exists.[*]The significance of these terms has recently been well debated by Dot Porter.

In 1897, the Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palästinas (DVEP) commissioned Paul Palmer, a Jerusalem architect of Swiss origin, to make a coloured drawing of the mosaic. This was not published until 1906, after it had been accepted by Hermann Guthe of the DVEP as an accurate copy and set up for lithographic printing in Leipzig (see Piggin for more details). Curiously, it remains to this day the nearest thing we possess to a surrogate, although the print both abbreviates the mosaic and silently emends sites of damage. Donner illustrates this prettification by an example, comparing the number of stones in the original image of the Roman watch tower in a marsh by the Jordan with the number drawn by Palmer for each of its parts. [*]Foundation arch: 12 > 10; tower: 11/5/10 > 10/4/9; frieze: 2x5 > 1x4; facade: 32 > 15; window frame: 6 > 0. [D]ie Formen und Positionen der Mosaiksteine stimmen meistens nicht, die Anzahl der Steine entspricht in sehr vielen Fällen nicht dem Original . Donner, Herbert, and Heinz Cüppers. Die Restauration und Konservierung der Mosaikkarte von Madeba. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 83, no. 1 (1967): 1–33, 18. Piggin, Jean-Baptiste. Drawing the Madaba Map. 2018-09-18.

A satisfactory representation of the estimated 850,000 extant stones, their positions, their shears and cracks and the refractory qualities of materials ranging from glossy to matte to glass would be an immense project, becoming even greater if the document had to also record the gradual deterioration in the stones over the past century [*]That is to say, interpreting the 19th-century black and white photographs, integrating the mould taken of the mosaic in 1967 by Cüppers and now preserved in Göttingen, and comparing these to the mosaic's present state. and to include cultural and scientific metadata about the work of art as a whole. Given the restrictions on my time, my plot therefore makes some wholesale compromises in order to achieve closure:

At the same time, the opportunity has been taken to add some necessary metadata and to make viewing interactive:

The plot can in its turn be used to draw comparisons with geographical maps and to devise new visualizations which explore the points of view used in the mosaicist's tradition.

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