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For the Stone Shall Cry Out of the Wall: On Floor Mosaics Exiled to the Wall and on a Raw Experience Lost

“[…] On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it […] and literally be in the painting […]”
(Jackson Pollock, 1947)11 Francis Valentine ...

Introduction: The Medium Is the Message

Those who enter the State of Israel via David Ben-Gurion Airport are greeted by a wall decorated with the remains of Roman-Byzantine mosaics from the fifth and sixth centuries AD (Photo 1).22 See IAA, Mosaic ... Not only were they not intended for the decoration of an international terminal building, but instead of the floor, on which they formed a kind of carpet, they are now on a wall, to which they were moved while being anchored on a solid concrete slab foundation. The mosaic explanatory notes clarify for those who rush to the border control gates these are the remains of floor mosaics originating in Beit Shean, Bethlehem of Galilee and Caesarea. Moreover, the few who stop to read the explanations can learn that the (pieces) of the works were hung in memory of Amir Drory (2005-1937), who was, among other things, the founder of Israel’s Antiquity Authority and its first director. Presumably, had these mosaic scraps not been shown here, they would have found themselves tucked away in warehouses to which they had been brought from the original sites, and the general public would not have been able to see them. But, with all due respect to the artwork, on the one hand, and to the late Drory, on the other, this is somewhat disturbing. To clarify, this move is essentially the same as copying the subversive murals of street artist Banksy from the street to the museum (not to mention someone’s private living room), and it is even worse, since a wall is a wall is a wall – it is by no means a floor!

Photo 1: The passageway entry to the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion International Airport

The current paper will seek to examine and reflect upon (perhaps undermine) a fairly common move (and yet one that research tends to ignore) in which floor mosaics, especially from ancient and medieval times, are transferred to a wall to protect them from further erosion and destruction. Make no mistake: the raw stone from which floor mosaics is made to be stepped on. It beseeches, not to say demands, physical contact with all its consequences – wandering back and forth, seeking the right viewing angle (assuming there is one), an option of concealment and interrupted look. As soon as the piece is moved to the wall, it loses even a smidgen of its validity. True, it is protected; it allows for more intensive observation, and, in its new location, may gain greater exposure than it would in its original location (not least in the IAA storage) and upgrade its status as a “canonical” artwork enjoying the museum’s (or any other official institution) patronage and its prestige. But that is not what the “poet” meant. Roman, Byzantine and medieval floor mosaics, as well as those made later in spirit, consciously and explicitly sought to be understood and experienced in the context of the ground – of the place where man lived his physical life and where he was supposed to wonder and blunder. It would be the same, for that matter, if they covered the floors of religious buildings (synagogues as well as churches), private homes or open urban areas. In many ways, the floor mosaic can be considered an interactive work. The wall no longer affords it, as it deprives the work intended for the floor of the authentic raw experience inherent in it, raw in the sense of primeval and unmediated.

Although the focus will be on a group of medieval floor mosaics, I would like to intersperse the paper with additional examples from the history of “high” art, as well as from various fields of “popular” visual culture. Moving back and forth between a specific case study and a general reading will attempt to stress that understanding the affinity between a visual work, whatever it may be, and a floor, whatever it may be, requires us to deal with issues that pertain to the very essence of observation – an observation that encompasses intellectual understanding and emotional experience, which are, among other things, the result of the very physical contact

Thus, the first part of the paper (Chapter I) will be dedicated to site-specific art, and in particular to various issues related to the connection of the work (whatever its medium and purpose) to the floor, as well as the latter’s role, function and meanings in relation to the architectural complex or the public space in which it exist. I would like to specifically address the floors of Christian churches. It seems to me that such a focused discussion could to add a foundation to the discourse about the conceptual place to be given to the physical place in which observation takes place, in part as far as it relates to the intellectual, emotional and physical experience of each of us while visiting a site whose floor is covered with art (and/or text) and urges us to step on it and read the whole out of the direct encounter that takes place between the infrastructure, the cladding given to it and our movement within the image itself.

The second part of the paper (Chapter 2) will focus on a group of medieval floor mosaics from northern Italy. These mosaics will serve as a case study for discussing the aforementioned connection between the work’s content and the location chosen for it, with the understanding that while some topics are inappropriate for the floor, other issues, which accompany the placement of coherent iconographic plans, are not only appropriate for the floor, but they are most appropriate.

The third part of the paper (Chapter 3) will be dedicated to the issue of the physical or mental disconnection of “site-dependent” works from their original abode. The assumption is that the transfer of a work from the site on which it was created and for which it was intended to a “sterile” site is essentially detrimental to its intrinsic truth and the overall experience that it is intended to induce. Naturally, the displacement of works from the floor and the annulment of the raw effect resulting from directly contacting it are particularly problematic.

A. For the Place on Which You Stand…

The term “site-specific art” belongs to the United States of the 1970s, as the term “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) belongs to 19th-century Germany. It is true that they were coined there and then, but they can be borrowed and applied to works from other places and from other eras. Neanderthal cave paintings are no less “site-dependent” works than the productions of Christo and Jeanne Claude.33 “Sit-dependent” ... Such are also the paintings, mosaics, reliefs and sculptures that adorn churches throughout the world from the dawn of Christianity. They were created in a particular site to be experienced in it, and nowhere else. And necessarily, the term “site” is associated not only with the type and purpose of the building (church or baptismal house, for example), but also – and most often – with the identity of the architectural element used as a substrate for the works (ceiling or dome, wall or apse shell, pillar or floor). It goes without saying that the baptismal scene of Christ displayed on the wall of a church nave carries with it a multitude of different sub-meanings than those carried by the baptismal scene displayed on the dome of a baptismal house.44 Thus, for example, ... The function of the structure and the nature of the architectural element are of course accompanied by different ways of looking and acting on the part of the believer-observer. A discussion of the profound meanings given to the creation of “site-dependent” Christian art, in general, and to the church floor mosaics, in particular, requires a preliminary look at the very placement of a work (of any kind) on a floor (of any kind) (Section 1) and to the manner Christian theologians throughout the ages understood and interpreted the church floor (Section 2).

1. An Image or Text on a Floor – to See, to Move, to Touch

As far as works of art and other visual or textual elements spread on a floor (and it is immaterial whether this is an open urban space or any structure and whether it is secular or religious), two issues concerning the relationship between the viewer and the object of view should be examined. Both matters involve the perception of gaze and are intertwined.

Photo 2: The world map made of tiles, Belém, Lisbon, Portugal

The issue thing is related to the gaze itself and to the movement to which the viewer is bound in her search for the right vantage point (which is not necessarily only one). Not only do humans not really tend to look at what is under their feet and their field of vision is limited but also works of art placed on the floor present quite a few difficulties for those who seek to focus on them. More often other people hide parts of the piece and block one’s field of view. When it comes to a closed structure, there are columns and much furniture planted inside the piece itself. And if that is not enough, then the angle of a person’s viewing of the work that unfolds at his feet allows nothing but the grasping of its small parts, whereas reading the assemblage requires gradual progress in various directions – back and forth, right and left. This means that the ability to measure up-down or high-low ratios and to understand the image precisely takes time and requires a process of experimentation and correction to correlate the “environmental orientation” with the “spatial orientation”.55 Rudolph Arnheim, ... Thus, for example, the world map made of tiles (1960), located at the front of Belém’s Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) forces the visitor-viewer to wander about. Precisely because, prima facie, the land or sea voyage allows for movement in countless directions, the understanding that reading this map allows for many perspectives while aiming at a particular one (essential for reading names), makes the experience effective and supportive of the entire space dedicated to Portuguese explorers, who embarked from this point in the 15th-16th centuries to explore the world in search of worthy, unique places (Photo 2). Of course, such an experience is not characteristic of new works. Thus, as part of a study of Roman floor mosaics, Rebecca Molholt relates to an “experience of motion”.66 Rebecca Molholt, ...

The second issue is related to the necessary physical contact. The conventional and apparently self-evident viewing experience, which separates the subject from the object, is here put into question. The “real” reality in which the viewer exists, and the “virtual” reality in which he is viewing, become one. He steps inside it and becomes (perhaps willy-nilly) a participant in the event, not to mention that he is rubbing, literally, against the characters shown. For example, stepping on the floor mosaic in Piazzale dell’Impero at the entrance to the Mussolini Forum (later, the Foro Italico) in Rome (1937) allows a visitor-viewer to become part of the group (or the team of athletes and soldiers) saluting the leader, while in his very action and contact with them he reproduces and relives the event described (Photo 3). In this context, Michael Tymkiw refers to what he calls “engaged spectatorship”. It incorporates in the physical contact a “quasi-processional” ordered movement in a certain direction – towards the Forum itself, as part of the construction of Mussolini’s Italy as an empire in the spirit of ancient Rome and the creation of a “sense of belonging” in the subject. Alongside the regular and linear marching option, which is the result of mosaic placement along the straight central axis, Tymkiw points to another possibility, of circular movement allowing for a slower flow and reflection. This is made possible by the fact that some of the mosaics are at different angles with respect to the same central axis.77 Michael Tymkiw, ... Be that as it may, it is impossible not to mention here the “empathy” of the viewer with the objects of artwork, in the deepest sense of the term.

Photo 3: Scenes from the fascist regime, including the Duce’s name (DVCE), Piazzale dell’Impero, Foro Mussolini (today: Foro Italico), Rome, 1937

These two issues become especially fascinating as the floor itself is that of a specific place, giving extra validity to the discussion of a “site-dependent” work and the experience it produces. Such are, for example, the “Stolpersteine” (stumbling blocks), embedded by German artist Gunter Demnig in sidewalks in various European cities in memory of the victims of Nazism. Each of the concrete and brass slabs is installed at the entrance to the victim’s home and includes the title “Here lived” or “This was the dwelling of” with the person’s name, year of birth and mention of their fate (Photo 4). From the project’s beginning, in 1995, the reactions were mixed and complex. As for the discussion of the substrate, quite a few people have argued that it is inappropriate that victims’ names should be trampled on; as for the discussion of the locale, no one has any doubt that the proximity to the victim’s home is an everlasting and disturbing reminder. Moreover, even if the house itself no longer exists, certainly not in its original form, the land is the same land – this is where the person who was expelled from here, never to return, had trodden. And their voice shouts from the earth, just as it was said in Genesis (4: 10).88 On the stumbling ... Moreover, it is hard not to think that the stumbling block is a proper alternative to the tombstone (and grave) that the person commemorated here never received. No wall will succeed in generating the immense effectiveness of the viewing-moving-touching experience, which is constituted by the precise location chosen for the stumbling blocks.

Photo 4: Stolpersteine in Borsenburg Straat, Amsterdam

Another example that punctuates the complexity, which results of the fact that the gaze comes from above and is sometimes interrupted combined with the puzzlement as to the correct vantage point and the physical contact with the image or the text, is provided by the ten brass buttons affixed at the site where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. These indicate the exact locations of the prime minister, his murderer and eight security guards and escorts (Photo 5) in that fateful second. On one button, Rabin’s name was engraved, while on another button “killer” is written. This decision is astounding in the intellectual and emotional complexity it imposes on the visitor: on the one hand, the explicit name of Yigal Amir seems to be a form of blasphemy, and on the other hand the mention of the name of the person whom the site is intended to commemorate can be trampled on. David Tartakover, who designed the plaza (that also includes the monument and the graffiti wall), sought, of course, to allow all visitors to experience most crudely what actually had transpired here.99 Naomi Meiri-Dann, ... While this is not a “scientific” conclusion, random observations of passersby in the “murder scene” suggest that none of them use the opportunity given to them to put themselves in the place of Rabin, Amir or the bodyguards as they move between the different buttons, immersed in “role-playing” that is the most effective way to deepen the understanding and generate emotion.

Photo 5: The brass buttons embedded in the floor at the posterior plaza of the Tel Aviv Municipality building, the place where Rabin was assassinated (detail: Itzhak Rabin, his assassinator and an arrow marking the place where Commander Yaakov Shoval stood)

In other words, understanding the physical surface that serves as a substrate for the artwork, image, or text, and reference to the indirect interaction that the viewer (supposedly) has with them, should help to shed light on the iconography itself and on the question, whether the floor is appropriate for each subject and whether each subject, in turn, is appropriate for the floor. It is clear beyond all doubt that the contents of the tiles in Lisbon, the mosaics in Rome, the stumbling blocks in Amsterdam and the buttons in Tel Aviv (Photos 2-5, respectively) are not coincidental, just as choosing the floor/pavement is not. It seems that the analysis of the said fascist mosaics as allowing, according to Tymkiw, “corporeal and spiritual engagement”, just like the engagement allowed by the Roman floor mosaics that served as the former’s inspiration,1010 Tymkiw, Floor ... is a correct and relevant analysis for everything mentioned here. One must wonder if this is also the story of the church floor mosaics.

2. The Church’s Floor – Between Respect and Contempt

A thorough study of church mosaics requires that they be viewed just as the monumental Christian art should be viewed, that is, in the context of its specific structural element for which it was designed and that was its close companion. Therefore, consideration should be given to the manner in which Christian theology through the ages understood and interpreted the church floor. From early Christianity, Christian theologians have been unanimous about the idea that each visual image has its own place in the church. This affinity between the artwork and the architectural element is rooted in the conception of the structure itself as a symbol and illustration of the cosmic hierarchy, on the one hand, and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, on the other hand. Every part of the church has a symbolic interpretation, depending on its location in the architectural complex, from the ceiling and domes, to the walls and columns down to the floor. And necessarily, the isolated component must be understood in relation to the components beside it, above it and below it, connecting with it to the complete structure – the physical as well as the ideal.

As far as the church floor is concerned, it seems to have caused many problems. Like any floor, it must be examined in relation to two factors – the architectural and the human. In terms of architecture, this is the building’s infrastructure; and in terms of human experience, it is the only component (!) with which a person comes into physical contact. The understanding of these two is the only thing that will allow the study of the works of art chosen to adorn the floors of medieval churches. The very definition of the floor as the foundation of the building conceals an ambivalence. On the one hand, it is the essential basis for everything, without which the walls will not stand, and the ceiling will not be supported. On the other hand, this is the bottom of the hierarchy; as such, it can be seen as less important, and perhaps as lacking any importance. Moreover, the medieval worldview was not satisfied with editing the cosmic categories according to a gradual vertical axis, but it split the world into polar opposites of “up” and “down”: the heavenly versus the earthly, God versus Satan, the ruler of the underworld, as well as spirit and matter, soul and body and so on. In his book The Worldview of Medieval People, Aaron Gurevich writes, “These are really the defining coordinates of the medieval worldview”.1111 Aaron Gurevich, The ...

As for the indirect contact, which has been discussed above (Section 1 of this chapter): while one must not touch the walls of the building and cannot touch the ceiling, he is bound to the floor with his body. Moreover, this connection between man and the architectural element is easy to interpret ideally. Turning the eyes up, to the walls and the ceiling, is associated with admiration. However, the fact that that person stands on the floor and tramples it with his own feet is associated with victory and humiliation.

In short, the uniqueness of the floor and its secret magic lies in its duality and the contradictions it produces. Naturally, the attitude of the medieval people to the church floor also ranged between these extremes. On the one hand, the floor’s being essential to the existence of the building earns it respect; on the other hand, it was impossible not to despise this element at the bottom of the hierarchy that is destined to be constantly trampled, eroded and tainted incessantly.

The question then arises as to what the symbolic interpretations of this architectural element were. Apart from general references to the church floor as symbolizing the earth (or the earthly sphere), concrete medieval church references to the floor can be found as embodying the masses of the simple believers, “Jesus’ poor: the spiritually poor”, according to the cleric William Durandus (Guliemus Durantis, 1230-1296).1212 William Durandus, ... And he adds, “The floor, trampled by the feet, represents the masses whose toil and their efforts nourish and sustain the Church”.1313 Ibid. The church’s floor was interpreted as both the earth and as the masses of common believers. Both the earth and the believers are indeed at the bottom of the (cosmic and human) hierarchy and are to be trampled (physically) and humiliated (ideally), but at the same time they constitute an essential element of the functioning of the whole.

B. The Case of the Northern Italian Mosaics From the 11th-13th Centuries: Human Life on Earth Is Presented in the Place Most Appropriate

Although mosaics adorn the floors of churches since early Christianity, I would like to focus on a specific group that has not been extensively researched and is obviously fascinating. Floor mosaics were incorporated between the late 11th and early 13th centuries in many churches in Italy’s northern provinces – in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna. Some of the mosaics remain in situ and others have been transferred to the walls of the church or the walls of a museum. Understanding this complex of works requires, of course, a combined examination of the spectrum of recurring themes (Section 1), the possible common denominator of their overall iconographic plans (Section 2), and their relation to the floor, in its (symbolic) role and (material) functioning (Section 3). Only such a discussion will allow the understanding of the “experience of rawness”, so essential to these works, and necessarily of its complete undermining with the dissociation of the work from its natural home.1414 The discussion of ...

1. The Range of Themes

Photo 6: Two warriors dueling, floor mosaic, originally: choir house, Sant’Evasio, Casale Monferrato, second half of the 11th century or first half of the 12th century. Today: the walls of the Ambulatorium.

As far as the themes on the floor mosaics are concerned, it is interesting to find that none of them have any representations of Jesus, Mary and other saints, or stories drawn from the New Testament – themes that are familiar to us from the walls or vaults of contemporaneous churches. Certainly, it is a blatant absence – a lack or exclusion that cannot be ignored. However, in these mosaics we can find again and again descriptions of the earthly sphere, which is the physical space in which humans live their physical and temporal lives, and of various aspects of human existence itself.1515 In this context, it ... The former is represented by the map of the world (the mappamundi), the (anthropomorphic) continents, the sea, the earth (among other things by the personification of Terra) and the labyrinth (in various contexts it is seen as an image of this world, which prima facie looks like a chaotic prison, but in fact it is an embodiment of the perfectly-ordered cosmos, organized and guided by God).1616 Hermann Kern, ... Here and now – on the face of the earth – humans have to work their way before they die and their fate is decided whether for correction or for mercy. The latter are represented by battle scenes and struggles between the forces of good and the forces of evil (Photo 6), on the one hand, and toiling people, as part of the descriptions of “Labors of the Months” (Photo 7), or personifications of “Liberal Arts” (Photo 8), on the other hand.

Photo 7: Labors of the Months, detail: July (harvest) and August (threshing), floor mosaic, choir house (lower level), Duomo (Santa Maria Assunta), Aosta, 12th century

It should be noted that physical conflicts (between humans as well as between legendary creatures and between the former and the latter) were seen in medieval Christian thought as an ineluctable moral war and as a concrete manifestation of the violent struggles in the human psyche between virtue and evil, the “Psychomachia”.1717 Adolf ... Work and study, in turn, are but two facets of the virtuous path that is open to anyone who seeks to break free from the burden of original sin and to open up a way to salvation, as they represent the life of action (vita activa) and the life of reflection (vita contemplativa). To be precise, we should say that the “Labors of the Months” are conventional visual cycles in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, dedicated to the representations of human, mainly agricultural, activity, which typifies each month of the year.1818 James Carson ... The seven “Liberal Arts” (grammar, rhetoric and dialectics or logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) open seven different paths of action to man.1919 David. L. Wagner ... In other words, man should not seek an excuse or pretext in the hardships that await him at every corner, and he should not succumb to the forces of evil threatening to control him, even if it involves a bitter struggle. He is allowed to make use of the means of atonement and the freedom that God awarded him, and to choose from among the paths laid out for him by the church. Only he who follows the right way should have his soul redeemed.

Photo 8: Personifications of four of the seven Liberal Arts and their mother, philosophy, floor mosaic, originally: choir house (?), Duomo, Ivrea, probably early 12th century; today: the wall of the Seminario Vascovile, Ivrea

2. The Iconographic Plans

The examination of those northern Italian floor mosaics, whose state of preservation is acceptable, with the intention of understanding the message each of them sought to convey, on the one hand, and the attempt to ponder the existence of a common and unique denominator for all plans, on the other, reveal that many of them consist of various representatives of the said categories – the earthly sphere, struggles and labor (physical or intellectual). Thus, I would like to argue that time after time the believer is faced with (or, better, steps on?) the story of man’s life – his won – on earth. Alongside scenes of life’s surrounding, the components of life are presented, those imposed on man as well as those of his choice: the bitter and unavoidable struggles that inescapably beset him throughout his life, on the one hand, and the various options available to those who seek to return to the right path and open up a salvation for themselves. I will focus on three of the mosaics remaining in situ. Although the claws of time and human feet have damaged them, it seems to me that the fact that they remain in their original locations allows for a fuller understanding of them.

The mosaic of the floor that adorned the floor of the San Colombano Church in Bobbio (Photo 9) does not feature a concrete description of the earthly sphere, but it is built on pure representations of manifestly earthly events. Thus, we see in it descriptions of the Hasmonean wars against the Greek and scenes of battle and struggle between humans, animals and fantastical creatures, alongside displays of the twelve “Labors of the Months”. With regard to the Hasmonean wars, which are shown quite often on the aforementioned floor mosaics, it should be noted that they were understood both as part of “the sacred history” as an admirable model (exemplum) for contemporary Christian warriors (and especially crusaders) and as an example of the spiritual struggle that takes place forever in the human soul, between the forces of good and those of evil.

Photo 9: A general view of the floor mosaic, the central nave (today: part of the crypt), San Colombano church, Bobbio, the 12th century. A photograph of a reconstruction from an explanatory panel for the floor mosaic located in situ. Execution: GIO. VE, Bologna, 1984

The floor mosaic that adorns the choir house of the San Michele Maggiore church in Pavia can be studied by comparing the surviving remnants (Photo 10) to various drawings made between the late 16th and late 19th century. The combination of the remnants and the drawings (Photo 11) provides a fairly reliable picture of the themes and images and allows one to deduce from them that the iconographic plan seeks to convey a similar message: the round, large labyrinth is at the heart of the work. As mentioned above, it symbolizes the earthly world, which is a mixture of chaos and order: addiction to the whims of chance and fortune as opposed to intelligent action, struggles with the temptations of sin, and endless hardships that shackle man and threaten to annihilate him versus actions that enable him to follow the virtuous path and attain eternal salvation. The strip of sea with its plethora of fish, which occupied a considerable area of ​​the mosaic, is also connected to the earthly world and the environment of human life, while the fish swimming in it are but the believers. The personification of the year and the twelve “Labors of the Months” serves as a title for the work, while the moral struggles that dominate the human soul and life are represented here by Theseus killing the Minotaur (presumably, in the heart of the Labyrinth), David struggling with Goliath (when the battle has not yet been decided), and a naked man fighting a dragon. Regarding the David-and-Goliath war, suffice it to mention here that it was conceived in the context of the war of humiliation (Humilitas) against vanity (Superbia).2020 Joanne S. Norman, ...

Photo 10: A general view of the floor mosaic, choir house, San Michele Maggiore church, Pavia, the 12th century

The same story seems to appear in the floor mosaic floor that adorns the crypt of the church of San Savino in Piacenza (Photo 12). Here, too, we encounter the scene of the twelve “Labors of the Months” against the sea waves. In the lower edge appear descriptions of struggles and violent-filled battles (right): two men armed with a spear and shield dueling, two men pulling one another’s and a horseman swinging his spear, apparently trying to hit someone standing in front of him. Another scene of confrontation (outside the picture) cannot be recognized with certainty, except for the fact that it involves a horse, a whip and perhaps a bow and arrow. It is worth mentioning in this context that there is evidence that a labyrinth was displayed on the floor of the nave.

Photo 11: A hypothetical reconstruction of the floor mosaic, choir house, San Michele Maggiore church, Pavia, the 12th century, from a combination of the remnants and a drawing made in the late 16th century

A comprehensive study of the plans of other medieval floor mosaics in northern Italy can point at the existence of a common feature for the meta-meanings of many of them (as far as their state of preservation allows the drawing of conclusions). The representations of the world map, the continents, the earth, the sea and the labyrinth are but the foundation for human activity (just as in the tile mosaic in Belém, described above).2121 See f.n. 6. This is the stage on which the story of our lives is played out. Here and now, in terries, humans work their way before they die and their fate is decided whether for correction or for mercy; the roads are long and winding, fraught with hardships and dangers; nevertheless, he who desires can find the virtuous path to follow, thus freeing himself from the shackles of sin and reach his destination – the eternal redemption. And so, side by side, many of the northern Italian floor mosaics exhibit the necessity and choice intertwined in human life on earth – the moral struggle, which is endless and inescapable, and work or study, which are the soul’s desire and the jewel in the crown.

Photo 12: Floor mosaic, crypt, San Savino church, Piacenza, late 11th or early 12th century

This Weltanschauung is firmly anchored in the mindset of the 12th century. In his book The Worldview of Medieval People, Aharon Gurevich writes:

“Human life is an arena for the constant struggle of the forces of evil against the forces of good, and all types of human activity should be assessed in light of this conflict and displayed under a determinate moral light. Idleness – ‘the enemy of the soul’ – leads to vice and the loss of the afterlife; whereas work restrains the body and develops self-discipline and diligence. But work is justifiable and necessary didactically only in those dimensions where it leads to these goals and assists on the path to spiritual perfection” (my emphases).2222 Gurevich, The ...

The “arena”, “the constant struggle of the forces of evil against the forces of good” and “work” are but the three categories discussed above, which bind together themes that present the environment of human life, on the one hand, and the components of life, on the other hand.

3. The Mosaic and the Floor – Can Two Walk Together, Unless They Are Agreed?

At this point the two chapters should be linked together, that is, the discussion of the very placement of a work on a floor and especially the interpretation that Christian theology has given to the church floor (Chapter 1), and the group of said mosaics. Surely examining them in the physical context for which they were intended adds a dimension to their understanding by the viewer-believer and to the way he experiences them – an experience that must be called “raw”. I do not intend to refer here to the material component itself. Let me just point out that naturally, the choice of raw materials for the creation of the mosaics considers the substrate. Thus, the raw stone (usually local, available, easy to process and durable) is appropriate ofr adorning floors – a platform for the visitors’ feet.2323 For a general ...

This is not the occasion to discusses the different ways in which Christian theology linked monumental art, with its many manifestations, materials and aspects, with the architectural structure of the church. Suffice it to mention the plethora of Jesus’ descriptions in full glory, ascending to heaven, or judging mankind on the Last Judgment, covering the parts of the church that have – in turn – been interpreted in relation to heaven and celestial entities (the tympana that crowns the gates of churches, their apses shells, or their domes ). The image and the location are mutually supportive and interconnected to convey a coherent message greater than any of its components. One cannot help thinking that such a combination would also occur on the floor of the church; just as the church must be understood in the context of the architectural complex and theological interpretations given to each of its parts, so its mosaics must be understood in the church’s context, in particular, and in the context of the complete decorative plan, in general.

As mentioned, the designers of the iconographic plans of the north Italian Romanesque floor mosaics have avoided introducing issues related to Jesus, Mary and the saints. There is no doubt that the motive for this omission originated in the fear that their trampling by heave feet would result in blasphemy. And yet, it seems to me that the images, figures, and scenes that populate these mosaics are not merely “default” and their selection is not coincidental.

The believer who visits the churches whose floor was covered by mosaics is no longer a passive observer of the image of some reality, but he treads inside it. In other words, just as the image touches on a person, so does the person touches – physically – the image. The floor is the earth and it is the common man; and this man’s life on earth is presented on the earth, while he himself wanders through his “present territory”, straying and wondering back and forth and taking real part in what is happening. The earth is in place and man is in place: at the bottom of the hierarchy, doomed to being trampled and suffer, but at the same time constituting an essential element for the existence of the architectural and social complex, respectively. Here and now, the believer is working his tortuous way that leads, ultimately, to eternal redemption, the same redemption displayed where it is appropriate for it – and only for it – in the higher parts of the church structure. In other words, reality and its image come together; the art creation, the architectural component and the human being become one entity, which is earthly (and present) in all its aspects.

The Christian, who is compelled to move on the floor and gradually discover the mosaic components and its complete plan (Photo 13), feels as though he is actually in the action while actually participating in the spectacle of his life. Walking, which is forced on anyone who wishes to see the mosaic in full, simulates the long, winding path that one has been walking all one’s life, and this is not only said of walking in the Labyrinth. The metaphor of man and life on earth becomes, then, real and tangible to the utmost extent.

Photo 13: A fragmented view of the floor mosaic, central nave (today: part of the crypt), San Colombano church, Bobbio, the 12th century

Thus, the mosaic artists’ choice of themes dedicated to the earthly sphere and the various aspects of human existence should not be admonished or considered pointless, and it is motivated by a desire to refine the message and make it unique. In other words, while the floor, which is subject to erosion and pollution, degrade certain themes, it awards other topics with the most appropriate setting for them, just as they, in turn, enrich its own meanings. The life of a human on earth is displayed on the same earth, on a place perceived both as soil and the one born of it.



C. For Floor You Are, and to Floor You Shall Return. Or Not…

Since these floor mosaics as a platform for people’s feet and for church furniture, they were doomed to damage – some of it patently irreversible. Therefore, during the 20th century, quite a few mosaics were removed from the floor and transferred to the walls of the church itself (Photo 6) or of a building next to it (Photo 8) and sometimes to a museum (Photo 14). It is true that this prevented further trampling and destruction and enabled preservation and restoration work to be carried out. But there is no doubt that in being detached from its original (architectural and human) setting, the artwork loses its overall meaning and the message it seeks to convey is diminished.

Photo 14: The floor mosaics from the Duomo of Reggio-Emilia, today: Museo Civico, Reggio-Emilia

Of course, this is true of any “site-dependent” work of art (see the introduction to Chapter A above), whether it be murals or ceiling paintings from the Middle Ages, or whether they have been (and still are) commissioned for the Tate Modern Museum’s Tribune space or for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. In an article about sculpture-architecture-viewer relations in the 12th century, Willibald Sauerländer wrote: “Monumental Romanesque sculpture is not a mobile. It cannot be removed from its original context and presented elsewhere without destroying the depth of its original meaning. It must remain where it was intended. If taken to the museum, it will lose its sacred character, fall in rank and become nothing more than an interesting artefact […] a kind of objet trouvé […]”.2424 Willibald ... He argued for the existence of “pure unity” of the monumental work with the structure – two entities that are “inseparable”.2525 Ibid., pp. 33, 34. This idea is particularly valid for the church floor mosaics, since beyond their disconnection from the architectural-ornamental complex, one must consider in their case the very conversion of one physical substrate (floor) into another (wall) and the complete neutralization of the raw experience derived from the viewer’s presence inside the work.

In the confines of the present text, it is impossible to expand on copying artworks from their natural and proper site to a foreign home – from the museum, to some public building to a private residence. I shall only note that these are complex issues troubling the world of curatorship, and implicated in the general discussion of the complex web of relations that exists between “Sites of production” and “Sites of audiencing”.2626 Gillian Rose, ... Just as a photo intended to appear on the front page of a newspaper loses its validity (and gains a different one) while framed and hung in the gallery, so the experience of looking at a Romanesque mural collection displayed together at Barcelona’s National Museum of Catalonia is evidently different from the viewing experience available to anyone who visited the different churches where they were placed alongside other artworks and as a background for religious worship.

Photo 15: The entrance building wall, Zippori National Park

Another matter worth mentioning in this context concerns the decades-long profound discussions on the issue of repatriation, i.e., the retrieval of artworks to their original locations and/or owners, whatever the reasons for their removal and transferal have been, with the understanding that ideas about the legitimate ownership of “cultural objects” may contradict the commitment to physically protect them.2727 Eisuke Tanaka, ... That is, both paths – from home and back to it – should be taken into account. In our case, even if the works remain in Italy and even if the museum safeguards them well, this complex discourse may be applied to them while thinking in particular of the church floor, and in general of the floor of a building or a city’s sidewalk, as a home – an irreplaceable one.

Photo 16: The floor of one of the colonnades running along the streets, Zippori National Park

From this perspective it is interesting to examine, if only for a moment, the situation in the Zippori National Park in Israel. Again – this is a random example, one among many other possible example (both in Israel and abroad). The visitor to the site is greeted by a piece of floor mosaic that has been transferred to the wall of the entrance building (Photo 15). Later, the visitor can simply walk on the remains of floor mosaics that were left in place (Photo 16). Undoubtedly, while the wall allows uninterrupted observation, the floor allows for an immediate experience. The first satisfies those for whom physical preservation is at the foremost consideration, even at the expense of the original location; while the other satisfies those who focus on the authentic experience, even if at the expense of the work’s maintenance. The latter considers all the components mentioned earlier: perspective, movement and touch. The visit to Zippori culminates in the “Dionysus House”, with its spectacular third-century floor mosaics that adorn its central lounge (Photo 17). There, the visitor is invited to look at, among other things, the portrait of the so-called “Mona Lisa of Zippori”. The name was given to her, to that lady full of grace, because she looks straight at the viewer. What is forgotten, or neglected, is the fact that a glance is not enough. The direct contact is the heart of the matter. An elevated balcony and a railing that can be comfortably leaned on may protect the piece and afford a comprehensive and uninterrupted view, but they compromise its deepest essence. And yet, this choice may be the best of the options available.

Photo 17: The lounge of Dionysus House, Zippori National Park


“No Place Like Home” is the title of an exhibition held at the Jerusalem Israel Museum in 2017 and dedicated to “the artistic use of household objects since the early 20th century until today”. In the exhibition catalog’s preface, the museum’s director James Snyder wrote, among other things: “For the occasion of the exhibition, the museum halls were transformed to a house containing objects […] returned to their natural place to […] allow, through this process of ‘repatriation’, new thoughts on the links between art and its context”.2828 James Snyder, ... Based on the assumption that there’s “no place like home”, and in light of the understanding by museum directors that sometimes “the home [they provide for the artworks is] away from home”,2929 Ibid., p. 10. it is interesting to examine the possibility of restoring the floor mosaics to their home, even if at the ideal level. If not back to the church (or anywhere else), at least back to the floor; and if not to a floor that can be walked on, at least to a floor surrounded by a rope, fence or guardrail; and if this, too, is impossible, then at least to an open discourse about the experience – raw in a primeval, immediate and direct sense of the word – that is no longer given to the viewer.

I would like to finish with a linguistic reflection. As mentioned above, the mosaic fragments that welcome those entering Israel (Photo 1) are accompanied by explanatory notes that refer to them as “mosaic floor(s)”. While the semantic distinction between a mosaic floor and a stone, marble or granite floor (for example) aims to emphasize materiality, the distinction between a floor mosaic and a wall or dome mosaic (for example) seeks to emphasize the physical location, thus necessarily the viewing experience. Either way, a floor requires contact. The raw material and the raw experience are intertwined. In the age of post-truth, alternative facts and fake news, the planting of floor mosaics on walls betrays the truth. It is a problematic alternative. It is fake.

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1. Francis Valentine O’Connor, Eugene Victor Thaw (eds.), Jackson Pollock – A Catalogue Raisoneé of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978, vol. IV, Chr. D.71, p. 241.
2. See IAA, Mosaic Catalog, Ben-Gurion Int’l Airport, http://www.antiquities.org.il/mosaics_detail_heb.asp?id=32. The texts accompanying the mosaics in BG Airport do note specify which structures they originated in. For local floor mosaics from antiquity until the 8th century AD, see: Rina Talgam, Mosaics of Faith – Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land, Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi Press, 2014.
3. “Sit-dependent” art in its different aspects will not be discussed here. See the following compendium provides a synoptic view of this phenomenon and includes up-to-date bibliography: Inbal Ben-Asher Gitler (ed.), Monuments and Site-Specific Sculpture in Urban and Rural Space, Newcastle upon Tyne (UK): Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
4. Thus, for example, the baptismal scene painted by Giotto painted on the nave’s wall at Cappella Arena [Cappella degli Scrovegni], Padova, in the early 14th century is to be read as part of Jesus’ life cycle, as the viewer moves along the church, toward the apse and back. In contrast, the baptismal scene displayed on the domes of the two baptismal houses in Ravenna (Neonian Baptistery, 450-475; Arian Baptistery, end of 5th century – beginning of 6th century) is to be viewed as the believers stand just below it, while they themselves are baptized and look up to he who is an eternal exemplar for him.
5. Rudolph Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception – A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Berkley: University of California Press, 1974, pp. 30-33.
6. Rebecca Molholt, “Roman Labyrinth and the Experience of Motion”, The Art Bulletin, 93:3 (September 2011), 287-303.
7. Michael Tymkiw, “Floor Mosaics, Romanità, and Spectatorship: The Foro Mussolini’s Piazzale dell’Impero”, Art Bulletin, 101: 2 (May 2019), 109-132.
8. On the stumbling blocks see, among other sources: Adachiara Zevi, “A Ubiquitous Memorial”, in Inbal Ben-Sher Gitler, Monuments and Site-Specific Sculpture in Urban and Rural Space, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 41-67.
9. Naomi Meiri-Dann, “Between Two Cities: Reflections on Commemoration in Pubic Space”, in Dana Arieli (ed.), Twenty Years Later: The Forming of Rabin’s Memory, Holon: HIT, 2015, pp. 45-55 (Hebrew).
10. Tymkiw, Floor Mosaics, Foro Mussolini, 111.
11. Aaron Gurevich, The Worldview of Medieval People, translated by Peter Kriksonov, Jerusalem: Academon, 1993, pp. 63-64.
12. William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments (trans: L.M. Neale, B. Webb), London, 1843 (reprinted: New York: AMS Press, 1973), Ch. 1: Of a Church and its Parts, No. 28, p. 30.
13. Ibid.
14. The discussion of this mosaic group is based on my doctoral dissertation. See: Naomi Meiri-Dann, Figurative Floor Mosaics in Northern-Italian Churches from the 11th and 12th Centuries, supervised by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Tel Aviv University, 2000. Also, Naomi Meiri-Dann, “Twelfth Century North Italian Mosaic Pavements – Are They Really Marginal?”, in Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Asher Ovadiah (eds.), The Metamorphosis of Marginal Images: From Antiquity to Present Time, Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2001, 183-194. In this paper, I contented myself with the insights gained in the above research and did not return to a thorough discussion of all the theological and research sources I used.
15. In this context, it is interesting to note that numerous representations of nature, with its land and marine flora and fauna, have repeatedly been displayed on church floor mosaics since the beginning of Christianity, especially in the 5th and 6th centuries. Many of the works are in Syria, Israel and Trans-Jordan. For the possible meanings of fauna and flora descriptions in early Byzantine art (especially in floor mosaics but not only in them), and for their connection to Christian texts dealing with the natural world, see, for example: Henry Maguire, Earth and Ocean: The Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art, Pennsylvania: The College Art Association of America (XLIII), 1987. I am grateful to a reader of this paper’s manuscript for this reference. In this context, an especially interesting floor mosaic is the one at the northern transept of St. Demetrios church in Nikopolis (ca. 520-550 AD), in which – and in similar mosaics– Ernst Kitzinger saw “an image/picture/diagram of the world”. See: Ernst Kitzinger, “Mosaic Pavements in the Greek East and the Question of ‘Renaissance’ under Justinian”, Actes du VI Congrès International d’Études Byzantines, Paris, 27 juliet-2 aout 1948, II, Paris, 1951, pp. 209-223; Maguire, Earth and Ocean, pp. 21-24, fig. 10.
16. Hermann Kern, Labirinti – forme e interpetazioni 5000 anni di presenza di un archetipo, Milano: Feltrinelli, 1981, esp. pp. 189-190, 194; Penelope Reed-Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth – from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992, esp. pp. 129-130, 133.
17. Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989 (1939), esp. pp. 1-13.
18. James Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Medieval Art to the End of the Twelfth Century, Princeton 1938; Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (trans: Arthur Goldhammer), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
19. David. L. Wagner (ed.), The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1986.
20. Joanne S. Norman, “King David as a Psychomachia Figure”, in Metamorphoses of an Allegory – The Iconography of the Psychomachia in Medieval Art, New York: Peter Lang, 1988, pp. 143-179.
21. See f.n. 6.
22. Gurevich, The Worldview, p. 204 (Hebrew).
23. For a general survey of the materials of which floor mosaics are made and of techniques, see: Ferdinando Rossi, Mosaics – A Survey of Their History and Techniques, New York: Praeger Publishes, 1968.
24. Willibald Sauerländer “Romanesque Sculpture in its Architectural Context”, in Deborah Kahn (ed.), The Romanesque Frieze and its Spectator, London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1992, pp. 22, 43.
25. Ibid., pp. 33, 34.
26. Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies – An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials, London: Sage, 2007, pp. 13-27.
27. Eisuke Tanaka, “Protecting One of the Best Roman Mosaic Collections in the World: Ownership and Protection in the Case of the Roman Mosaics from Zeguma, Turkey”, Stanford Journal of Archeology, vol. 5, 2007, pp. 183-202.
28. James Snyder, “Preface”, in Adina Kamien-Kazhdan (ed.), No Place Like Home, Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2017, p. 5 (Hebrew).
29. Ibid., p. 10.
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