Birds Mosaic (Jerusalem)

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The Birds Mosaic decorates a floor dated to the sixth century, located about 350 meters north of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. The inscription at the head of the mosaic, as well as its artistic style, indicate that it was made by Armenian artists.

Location and discovery[edit]

The mosaic is located in an old building, outside Damascus Gate, near the beginning of HaNeviim street. This building is located in what was once the Jewish neighborhood Kirya Ne'emana, which was destroyed during the Israeli War of Independence, and Arab houses were built on its ruins. This mosaic is one of four Armenian mosaics from the Byzantine period which were discovered in this part of Jerusalem, and it seems we can learn from this about the activity of the Armenian community in that period.

The mosaic was discovered in 1894 in the process of building the foundation for a house. The Turkish authorities requested that the archaeologists Frederick J. Bliss and Archibald Dickie, who were working at the time on Mount Zion, to take upon themselves the excavation work. The development work slightly damaged the edges of the mosaic, and as soon as it was discovered the work ended, and the process of uncovering and preserving the mosaic began. A small cave was discovered under the southeast part of the mosaic, including human bones and oil lights, which were dated to the Byzantine period. When the Armenian inscription was revealed, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem expressed interest in purchasing the house, and eventually did purchase it, out of desire to emphasize the importance and centrality of the Armenian community in Byzantine Jerusalem. To this day, the mosaic is considered one of the most important sites in the history of the Armenian community in the city. As of 2009, entrance to the site is possible only by coordination with the Patriarchate.

Dating and identification[edit]

About 1000 mosaic floors have been discovered in the land of Israel. Most have been dated to the Byzantine period, between the years 450 and 640, when Muslims conquered the area and church art declined. Most of the mosaics adorned the floors of Greek or Armenian churches.

This mosaic covers an area of about 4 by 7 meters. It has been almost fully preserved, including a full Armenian inscription which states "To the memory and redemption of all the Armenians, whose names are known only to God". This inscription seems to indicate that the mosaic decorated the floor of a memorial chapel for the dead, a common feature of Armenian churches in the Byzantine period. Apparently the cave which was discovered under the mosaic served as part of the chapel, and perhaps it is the burial place of those Armenians "whose names are known only to God". Based on the inscription and the mosaic style, it was dated to around the year 550, since beginning in this period there are indications of Armenian presence in Jerusalem. The Armenian alphabet was created only in 404, so the mosaic cannot be any earlier than this.

Description and analysis[edit]

Partial view with inscription at top.

The mosaic includes many figures of birds, which are inscribed in 39 round medallions formed from images of grape vines. The mosaic is bounded by a colorful "braided" frame. This is a symmetric mosaic, where elements on the right side are "reflected" to the left, so every bird on the right side has a twin on the left side, except those on the central axis. Therefore, most of the birds are facing the central axis. The birds lack "depth " and perspective: while Greek and Roman mosaic art involved perspective and three-dimensional depiction, Byzantine mosaic art which developed in Israel in the 5th century was influenced by Eastern art which tended towards "flattening" of images and division of the area into squares or medallions.

The mosaic's head is at the entrance to the room, where an amphora is displayed with peacocks on either side. The amphora with peacocks is a common motif in Byzantine mosaic art in Israel, which can also be found in the old church in Nahariya or the Byzantine church in Sebastopol. Thin, round grape vines extend from the mouth of the amphora to create the framework of the 39 medallions. Many grape leaves and clusters branch off of the vines, and are scattered around the mosaic. Interwoven grape vines are another common motif in Byzantine mosaic floors in Egypt, including in synagogues from the period, such as in Gaza and Maon. It seems that the artists of the period thus continued the Roman mosaic tradition.

The birds have been identified by scholars as a variety of species found in Israel, including pigeons, geese, storks, swallows, partridge, pheasants, and more. Armenian mosaic artists extensively used natural motifs, such as trees, flowers, birds, and other animals. The motifs are therefore a clear characteristic of Armenian art in general, and to this day Armenian ceramics, for example, are characterized by natural designs.

The subject of the mosaic, according to many scholars, is the memory of the dead by the living, and the passage from this world to the afterlife. The inscription at the head of the mosaic indicates that the chapel was intended to preserve the memory of the deceased, and the entire mosaic comes, then, to strengthen the connection between the worlds. According to this approach, one may see the caged bird as a symbol of the soul encaged in the body, which separates it from the body-free souls in the afterlife. The conch, which appears above the amphora on the central axis of the mosaic, is a motif taken from ancient Greek art, where it symbolizes a holy place or royalty. Perhaps this is a symbol of "the kingdom of heaven". In addition, the eagle (or vulture) which looks backwards, unlike the other birds, perhaps symbolizes the separation from the dead and their memory. The large amphora, grape vines, and two peacocks are also motifs from the afterlife, as archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah wrote about the synagogue in Maon in the southern West Bank: "The amphora and tendrils represent the Garden of Eden, and the peacocks on either side represent immortality."

Comparison to the Birds Mosaic in Caesarea[edit]

In 1950, a mosaic was discovered in Caesarea, which likewise included many depictions of birds within medallions. This mosaic was originally identified as a church, but later excavations in 2004 led to the conclusion that it was the courtyard of a palace from the late Byzantine period.

Despite the great similarity in terms of style and material between the two mosaics, there is no further connection between them. The Jerusalem mosaic is small, the medallions are separated by grape vines, the birds face the central axis, an the building was religious. In contrast, the Caesarea mosaic is almost three times larger, the medallions have a stone border, all the birds face to the left, and the building was private. In addition, it is unknown who created the Caesarea mosaic, and there is no indication that the artists were Armenian.

Further reading[edit]

  • Michael Avi-Yonah, Ancient Mosaics, Keter Press, Jerusalem, 1978
  • Michael Avi-Yonah, "Mosaic floors in synagogues and Christian churches in the land of Israel", Yediot 1-2 (Tammuz 1934), p.1-9
  • Nurit Kenaan-Kedar, "Birds of the Garden of Eden" - Mary Belian and the Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem, Eretz Yisrael Museum, 2000, p.26-27

External links[edit]