Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title Wall Decoration of Early Byzantine Churches and Synagogues in the Eastern Mediterranean
Author email
About author Fanny Vitto — field and research archaeologist. Israel Antiquities Authority, POB 586, Jerusalem 91004, Israel.
In the section Byzantine and Eastern Christian Art DOI10.18688/aa199-2-19
Year 2019 Volume 9 Pages 198209
Type of article RAR Index UDK 72.033; 82(091) Index BBK 63.3(0)4; 83.3(0)4; 85.11

Very few remains of wall decoration have been preserved in situ in the Early Byzantine churchesand synagogues of the Eastern Mediterranean. Writings of Church Fathers contain descriptions of elaborate wall mosaics and paintings in churches of the Holy Land which make up to some extent for the dearth of material evidence. Concerning the synagogues, there is only a laconic allusion to wall decoration in the Jerusalem Talmud which does not give any indication of what may be represented.

Excavations of Palestinian churches have yielded evidence of both wall mosaics and polychrome wall paintings which represent mostly saints, the Virgin and scenes of the Transfiguration. In synagogues, the few preserved wall paintings consist of simple geometric and stylized plant motifs, as well as texts in Aramaicwhich are dedicatory in nature or connected with the service in the synagogue.

Despite the scarcity of evidence, it is possible to discern significant differences between wall decorationin churches and in synagogues. One of the reasons is the difference of attitudes of the two religions towards images, the prohibition of treading upon human figures of the Holy Scriptures in Christianity, and the prohibitionof treating images as idols in Judaism. Another reason is the difference in the people who attended the religious services, a mostly local and long-established population in the synagogues whereas, in the churches,the body of worshippers was still in the making and the lavish decoration of the churches was intended to attract new converts and teach the Holy Scriptures to those who were illiterate.

Reference Vitto, Fanny. Wall Decoration of Early Byzantine Churches and Synagogues in the Eastern Mediterranean. Actual Problems of Theory and History of Art: Collection of articles. Vol. 9. Ed: A. V. Zakharova, S. V. Maltseva, E. Iu. Staniukovich-Denisova. — Lomonosov Moscow State University / St. Petersburg: NP-Print, 2019, pp. 198–209. ISSN 2312-2129.
Publication Article language english
  • 1. Acconci A. Su alcuni laterci pittorici di Umm er-Rasas-Kastron Mefaa. Barsanti C.; Acconci A. (eds.). Bisanzio e l’Occidente: Arte, archeologia, storia. Studi in onore di Fernanda de’ Maffei. Rome, Viella Publ., 1996, pp. 193–201 (in Italian).
  • 2. Ainalov D. V. The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Art. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press Publ., 1961. 322 p.
  • 3. Avner T. Early Byzantine Wall-Painting from Caesarea. Holum K. G.; Raban A.; Patrich J. (eds.). Caesarea Papers 2: Herod’s Temple, the Provincial Governor’s Praetorium and Granaries, the Later Harbor, a Gold Coin Hoard, and Other Studies (Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. S. 35). Portsmouth, Journal of Roman Archaeology Publ., 1999, pp. 108–128.
  • 4. Bacci M. The Mystic Cave: A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehen. Brno, Masaryk University Publ.; Rome, Viella Publ., 2017. 316 p.
  • 5. Barag D. The Synagogue at Ein Gedi. Hirschfeld Y. (ed.). Ein Gedi: “A Very Large Village of Jews” (Hecht Museum Catalogue 25). Haifa, Hecht Museum Publ., 2006, pp. 17*–20*.
  • 6. Baumgarten J. M. Art in the Synagogue: Some Talmudic Views. Judaism, 1970, vol. 19, pp. 196–206.
  • 7. Ben-Arieh R. The Frescoes. Hirschfeld Y. (ed.). The Early Byzantine Monastery at Khirbet ed-Deir in the Judean Desert: The Excavations in 1981–1987 (Qedem 38). Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Publ., 1999, pp. 133–134.
  • 8. Brubaker L.; Haldon J. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680–850: A History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press Publ., 2011. 918 p.
  • 9. Clermont-Ganneau C. La mosaïque de Medaba. Recueil d’archéologie orientale II. Paris, Ernest Leroux Publ., 1898. 422 p. (in French).
  • 10. Deines R. God’s Revelation through Torah, Creation, and History: Interpreting the Zodiac Mosaics in Synagogues. Leibner U.; Hezser C. (eds.). Jewish Art in Its Late Antique, Context (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 163). Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck Publ., 2016, pp. 155–186.
  • 11. Di Segni L. The Date of the Church of the Virgin in Madaba. Liber Annuus, 1992, vol. 42, pp. 251–257.
  • 12. Di Segni L. Varia Arabica. Liber Annuus, 2006, vol. 56, pp. 578–592.
  • 13. Dothan M. Hammath Tiberias: Early Synagogues and the Hellenistic and Roman Remains. Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society Publ., 1983. 88 p.
  • 14. Figueras P. (ed.). Horvat Karkur ‘Illit: A Byzantine Cemetery Church in the Northern Negev; Final Report of the Excavations 1989–1995 (Beer-Sheva XVI). Be’er-Sheva‘, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press Publ., 2004. 359 p.
  • 15. Figueras P. Remains of a Mural Painting of the Transfigration in the Southern Church of Sobata (Shivta). Aram, 2006–2007, vols. 18–19, pp. 127–151.
  • 16. Forsyth G. H.; Weitzmann K. The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Church and Fortress of Justinian. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press Publ., 1965. 20 p.
  • 17. Gibson S.; Vitto F.; Di Segni L. An Unknown Church with Inscriptions from the Byzantine Period in Khirbet Makkus near Julis. Liber Annuus, 1998, vol. 48, pp. 315–334.
  • 18. Gutman S.; Yeivin Z.; Netzer E. Excavations in the Synagogue at Horvat Susiya. Levine L. I. (ed.). Ancient Synagogues Revealed. Jerusalem, The Israel Exploration Society Publ., 1981, pp. 123–128.
  • 19. Gutmann J. The Dura-Europos Synagogue: A Re-evaluation (1932–1972) (Religion and the Arts 1). Missoula, American Academy of Religion Publ., 1973. 190 p.
  • 20. Habas L. Destruction of Symbols and Iconoclasm after the Muslim Conquest. Aram, 2016, vol. 28, pp. 121–156.
  • 21. Hachlili R. Ancient Synagogues — Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research (Handbook of Oriental Studies 1; Ancient Near East 105). Leiden, Brill Publ., 2013. 738 p.
  • 22. Hawkins J. W.; Mundell M. C.; Mango C. The Mosaics of the Monastery of Mar Samuel, Mar Simeon and Mar Gabriel near Kartmin. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1973, vol. 27, pp. 279–296.
  • 23. Kraeling C. H. Gerasa: City of the Decapolis. New Haven, American School of Oriental Research Publ., 1938. 616 p.
  • 24. Kraeling C. H. The Synagogue (Excavations at Dura-Europos 8/1). New Haven, Yale University Press Publ., 1956. 402 p.
  • 25. Kraeling C. H. The Christian Building (Excavations at Dura Europos 8/2). New Haven, Dura-Europos Publ., 1967. 233 p.
  • 26. Lehmann C. M.; Holum K. G. The Greek and Latin Inscriptions of Caesarea Maritima (Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports 5). Boston, Oriental Schools of Oriental Research Publ., 2000. 292 p.
  • 27. Maayan-Fanar E. The Transfiguration at Shivta: Retracing Early Byzantine Iconography. Zograf, 2017, vol. 41, pp. 1–18.
  • 28. Maayan-Fanar E.; Linn R.; Tepper Y.; Bar-Oz G. Christ’s Face Revealed at Shivta: An Early Byzantine Wall Painting in the Desert of the Holy Land. Antiquity, 2018, vol. 92/363. Available at: https://www.
  • (accessed 20 March 2019).
  • 29. Magen Y. The Monastery of St. Martyrius Ma‘ale Adumim. Tsafrir Y. (ed.). Ancient Churches Revealed. Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society Publ., 1993, pp. 170–197.
  • 30. Magness J. et al. The Huqoq Excavation Project: 2014–2017 Interim Report. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 2018, vol. 380, pp. 61–131.
  • 31. Mahamid H. Results of the Excavation of the Church of al-Rashidiya/al-Tafila. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 2003, vol. 47, pp. 7–16 (in Arabic).
  • 32. Mango C. The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312–1453: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Publ., 1972. 272 p.
  • 33. Ma‘oz, Z. U. ‘En Nashut: The Art and Architecture of a Synagogue in the Golan (Archaostyle Scientific Research Series 7). Qazrin, Archaostyle Publ., 2010. 203 p.
  • 34. McNicoll A. W. Pella in Jordan 2: The Second Interim Report of the Joint University of Sydney and College of Wooster Excavations at Pella 1982–1985 (Mediterranean Archaeology Supplement 2). Sydney, Meditarch Publ., 1992. 315 p.
  • 35. Megaw A. H. S. Byzantine Architecture and Decoration in Cyprus: Metropolitan or Provincial. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1974, vol. 28, pp. 57–88.
  • 36. Michel A. Les églises d’époque byzantine et umayyade de Jordanie : étude de typologie et inventaire (Bibliothèque de l’Antiquité tardive 2). Turnhout, Brepols Publ., 2001. 471 p. (in French).
  • 37. Peppard M. Dura-Europos and the World Oldest Church. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016. 320 p.
  • 38. Piccirillo M. La Chiesa della Vergine a Madaba. Liber Annuus, 1982, vol. 32, pp. 373–408 (in Italian).
  • 39. Piccirillo M. La Chiesa del Prete Wa’il a Umm al-Rasas-Kastron Mefaa in Giordana. Manns F.; Alliata E. (eds.). Early Christianity in Context: Monuments and Documents (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Collectio Maior 38). Jerusalem, Franciscan Printing Press Publ., 1993, pp. 313–334 (in Italian).
  • 40. Piccirillo M. The Mosaics of Jordan, Amman, American Center of Oriental Research Publ., 1993. 383 p.
  • 41. Polański T. The Nilotic Mosaic in Saint Stephen’s Church of Gaza in Choricius’ Description. Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization, 2009, vol. 13, pp. 169–181.
  • 42. Polański T. The Cycles of Childhood and Miracles in Saint Sergius’ Church of Gaza in the Ecphrasis of Choricius. Dabrowa E. (ed.). Hortus Historiae: Studies in Honour of Professor Jozef Wolski on the 100th Anniversary of His Birthday. Krakow, Historia Iagellonica Publ., 2010, pp. 737–760.
  • 43. Schick R. The Christian Communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule: A Historical and Archaeological Study (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 2). Princeton, Darwin Press Publ., 1995. 583 p.
  • 44. Sukenik E. L. The Ancient Synagogue of Beth-Alpha: An Account of the Excavations Conducted on Behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press Publ., 1932. 58 p.
  • 45. Talgam R. Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land. Jerusalem, Yad Ben-Zvi Press; University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press Publ., 2014. 579 p.
  • 46. Talgam R. From Wall Paintings to Floor Mosaics: Jewish and Christian Attitudes to Figurative Art. Leibner U.; Hezser C. (eds.). Jewish Art in Its Late Antique Context (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 163). Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck Publ., 2016, pp. 97–118.
  • 47. Tchakovskaya L. S. Voploshchennaia pamiat’ o Khrame: Khudozhesvennyi mir sinagog Sviatoi Zemli III– VI vv. N.E. (Figurative Memory of the Temple: The Artistic World of the Synagogues of the Holy Land, 3rd–6th Century A.D.). Moscow, Indrik Publ., 2011. 367 p. (in Russian).
  • 48. Tepper Y.; Di Segni L. A Christian Prayer Hall of the Third Century CE at Kefar Othnay (Legio): Excavations at the Megiddo Prison 2005. Jerusalem, Israel Antiquities Authority Publ., 2006. 59 p.
  • 49. Tonneau R. Chronique: Excursion biblique au Négeb. Revue Biblique, 1926, vol. 35, pp. 583–604 (in French).
  • 50. Tsafrir Y. Excavations at Rehovot-in the-Negev I: The Northern Church (Qedem 25). Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Publ., 1988. 209 p.
  • 51. Urbach E. E. The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts. Israel Exploration Journal, 1959, vol. 9, pp. 149–165, 229–245.
  • 52. Vasiliev A. A. The Iconoclastic Edict of the Caliph Yazid II, A.D. 721. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1956, vol. 9–10, pp. 23–47.
  • 53. Vitto F. The Interior Decoration of Palestinian Churches and Synagogues. Efthymiadis S.; Rapp C.; Tsougarakis D. (eds.). Bosphorus: Essays in Honour of Cyril Mango (Byzantinische Forschungen 21). Amsterdam, Hakkert Publ., 1995, pp. 283–300.
  • 54. Vitto F. Could the Biblical Story of Jonah and the Fish Appear in Jewish Art? The Fortieth Archaeological Conference in Israel, 10 April 2015, Haifa. Jerusalem, Israel Antiquities Authority Publ., 2014, p. 5 (in Hebrew).
  • 55. Vitto F. Wall Paintings in the Synagogue of Rehov: An Account of Their Discovery. Israel Museum Studies in Archaeology, 2015, vol. 7, pp. 2–12.
  • 56. Waliszewski T. The Wall Mosaics. Fiema Z. T. (ed.). The Petra Church. Amman, American Center of Oriental Research Publ., 2001, pp. 300–302.
  • 57. Woolley C. L.; Lawrence T. E. The Wilderness of Zin (Palestine Exploration Fund Annual 3). London, Palestine Exploration Fund Publ., 1914–1915. 147 p.