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The Interior Decoration of the Church


Though early literary sources frequently refer to the sumptuousness of the churches' interiors, practically no wall decorations from churches in this region have survived. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the prominent churches of the Holy Land were richly ornamented with wall mosaics and frescos, not unlike those in the church of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, and in the religious buildings at Ravenna in Italy.

The mosaic pavements are better preserved than the wall mosaics. However, they do not depict sacred themes (it would have been unseemly to place such scenes on surfaces where people tread) and they only rarely include motifs of a symbolic nature. Instead, they usually portray hunting scenes or scenes of everyday life, in keeping with the standard Hellenistic-Roman repertoire found in many of the religious buildings of this region. A fine example is the mosaic pavement from the church at Kissufim in the western Negev presented here.

Among the remains of church walls discovered in excavations, numerous inscriptions have come to light, most of them dedicatory inscriptions mentioning the names of the donors, like those incised on the marble furnishings. Sometimes the inscriptions are accompanied by a decorative motif. Occasionally, verses from the Bible or the New Testament were inscribed on the walls or floors.

Excavations have also revealed the remains of glass inlays, further evidence of the former splendor of these early churches. In some sites, gold-glass wall tiles were unearthed, bearing geometric patterns of crosses. Such tiles were presumably inlaid in groups in the church walls, producing a blinding golden effect.

Mosaic pavement
Church near Kissufim, the Negev, 6th century
Israel Antiquities Authority, 77-416/13-14
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Wall Painting Depicting Three Saints

Made in the secco technique (paint on dry plaster)
White painted ocher, black, red, green, and gray
Caesarea, late 6th-early 7th century
Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000-803
Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority / by Nicky Davidov

The painting depicts three figures wearing halos - apparently representing saints -their arms outstretched in an attitude of prayer. Their manner of dress is characteristic of that of Christian clergymen in the Byzantine period. The Greek letters above their heads, which terminate in crosses, indicate their names, as was customary in the art of that period. However, the names are unclear, as only the endings have survived; they appear to have been restored in a later period, in the color green.

This painting is a rare example of monumental art of the Holy Land from the Byzantine period. It was discovered on the wall of a vault that had served as a storeroom in Roman times. We do not know whether the room later served as a church, or whether it had a civil function, in which case the painting would have been simply decorative.

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In the Days of Jesus |In the Early Church |Pilgrimage |Images & Symbols |Monasticism in the Holy Land

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