Byzantine mosaic (The church, Petra)

What is a Byzantine Mosaic

Byzantine mosaics were one of the art forms prominent during the Byzantine period which lasted from the 4th century until 1453. The Byzantine Empire was basically the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe. Unlike the Romans the Byzantines were predominantly Christian, thus mosaics were used extensively to glorify the Christian faith and decorate Christian places of worship.

The Byzantine mosaics although influenced by the Roman and Greeks were unique in presenting images as stylized motifs instead of trying to imitate life as the Romans and Greeks did. The Byzantine mosaics were a popular form of decoration for Christian places of worship throughout the Byzantine Empire including Petra in the country of Jordan.

Petra’s Byzantine mosaics

Byzantine mosaic in the church in PetraIn the ancient city of Petra in Jordan you can see Byzantine mosaics dating back to 450AD. Although there are three Byzantine churches in Petra the Byzantine mosaics can be seen inside the Petra Church which stands a few meters off Colonnade Street. Within the Byzantine Petra church there are two side aisles and each has 70 square meters of mosaic flooring which has been well preserved.

 Although now difficult to make out having been worn away by time the walls of the Petra Church once had images of Mary, Jesus and Joseph in golden glass mosaic stone. It is thought that the wall mosaics would also have shown illustrations of Biblical scriptures and images of the Christian Saints.

What can you see in Petra’s Byzantine Mosaics

Depicted in Petra’s Byzantine mosaics are both mythical and real creatures; personifications of the seasons, the ocean, the elements, the land as well as concepts such as wisdom. The Byzantine mosaics of Petra are meant to depict everything in G-d’s kingdom both in heaven and on Earth. In the northern aisle of the Petra Church there are three rows of connected circles, almost like a chain, in each circle is an image of an animal or some kind of vessel or symbolic container. In the southern aisle we can see the seasons, ocean, earth and wisdom as well as more animals. The mosaic showing the seasons in the southern aisle of the Petra Church is thought to be the oldest Byzantine mosaic in the church, dating back to the original construction in the 5th century. Later in the following century the mosaics in the northern aisle and on the walls were added.

The creatures and mosaic pictures are surrounded by patterns and decorative borders. One of the mosaics on the Petra Church floor is that of what appears to be a camel with spots, it is in fact the interpretation of what a giraffe would look like created by someone who had never seen a giraffe but was familiar with camels. One of the other elements of the Petra mosaics is that of two birds drinking from a vase, this represents mankind being nourished by the goodness of Jesus Christ. The mosaics also depict ducks, birds, fish, a woman with one breast exposed and a man carrying what appears to be a harvest offering.

The excavation process in Petra is a long and slow one as the mosaics need to be treated with the utmost of care. To help protect the Byzantine mosaics of Petra the excavation is done alongside a conservation team and all under a protective metal roof covering.