MOSAIC. A picture or design made by setting tiny squares or cones of varicolored marble, limestone, or semiprecious stones in some medium such as bitumen or plaster to tell a story or to form a decoration. Mosaics are one of the most durable parts of ancient structures and often are the only surviving part. Mosaics have survived from ancient Sumer from as early as 2900 b.c. They were widely used in the early Christian and Byzantine buildings in Palestine, and remaining examples throw considerable light on ancient biblical customs and afford insight into early Christian beliefs and symbols.
Very famous is the fine mosaic picture-map of Jerusalem from the floor of a church in Madaba, probably from the sixth century a.d. This is one of the earliest maps known from Palestine. The mosaics from the Arab palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar (near Jericho) are among the most beautiful known. Ancient Palestinian synagogues have yielded interesting designs and even pictorial art, as, e.g., the Beth Alpha synagogue, with its large circular representation of the zodiac, and the scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.——JBG
MOSAIC mō zā’ ik (meaning “fit together”). A surface ornamentation of designs or pictures, and sometimes inscrs., made by inlaying in patterns small pieces of colored stone, glass, shell, or other material.
Roman mosaics, both pavement and wall, had widespread use as a decoration both stable and impervious to moisture. Only stone tessarae were used for pavements, but glass and gold leaf on stones were used for walls. Mosaics reached their highest point of development in early churches and synagogues, and esp. in the Byzantine period. Prime examples are to be seen at, Tabgha, Gerasa, Madeba, and the Beth Alpha synagogue near Jezreel.
The mosaicist’s art involved geometric designs and figured compositions, assembled from the basic shapes of the square, star, triangle, lozenge, circle, pelta, and hexagon. Mosaics are 1) decorative, 2) descriptive (telling a story), and 3) identifying (advertising shops, etc.).
M. Avi-Yonah, The Madeba Mosaic Map (1954), 18-20; S. Lloyd, The Art of the Ancient Near East (1961), numerous references; A. Graber, Byzantium (1966), 102-166; R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia, 446-453.