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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.

In Esther 1:6 a mosaic pavement in the palace at Susa is described as made of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Mosaics were very ancient in Mesopotamia. In the latter half of the fourth millennium b.c. cone-mosaics appear. These were made of terra cotta, usually seven to eight cm. long, and were thrust into the soft plaster on the walls or other features. The ends were dipped in paint before insertion, and sometimes the heads were inset with colored stones, or sheathed in bronze. An outstanding example is the Pillared Hall at Warka. This form of decoration persisted through the ’Ubaid period. The temple of Nin-khursag at al-’Ubaid had columns (of palm trunks) with a mosaic sheathing of black, red, and white triangles of mother-of-pearl, red sandstone, and asphalt. The triangular tesserae recall the texture of the tree trunk. A masterpiece of mosaic is the “Standard” from the Royal Cemetery of Ur. It is a double-sided panel, with small figures in shell or mother-of-pearl, which are inlaid in bitumen against a mosaic of lapis lazuli. One side shows a battle with chariots and infantry, the other, a victory feast.

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 Antioch in Syria, 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.