Rome: The wall mosaics in the Santa Maria Maggiore (part 2)

The right wall of the nave of the Santa Maria Maggiore is a bit better off than the one on the left. Here 15 of the original 21 wall mosaics from the fifth century have been preserved. The mosaics tell stories from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. Unfortunately the first mosaic in the series is lost, but it must have depicted how a three-month-old baby Moses, the son of a Levite, was left in a basket among the reeds (Exodus 2:3). The Pharaoh, who was fearful of the growing power of the Israelites, had given orders to throw all newborn baby boys into the river Nile. However, the basket containing Moses was found by the daughter of the Pharaoh, who let the boy be raised by his mother and later took him as her own son. She called the boy Moses, which is the Egyptian word for “child”. In Hebrew his name was Moshe, which is supposed to mean something along the lines of “pulled from the water” (cf. Exodus 2:10).

Moses with the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The adoption of Moses by the Pharaoh’s daughter is depicted in the first panel that has been preserved. The style of the mosaic is hardly reminiscent of Pharaonic Egypt. All figures – the daughter, five other women and Moses – are wearing Roman clothes. The daughter can be seen wearing the beautiful robes of a Byzantine princess, while young Moses has a rectangular piece of golden cloth on his mantle, a so-called tablion. Little more than a century later the emperor Justinianus and the empress Theodora would be depicted in a similar fashion in Ravenna. In the bottom part of the mosaic we see how Moses debates a number of philosophers, in the same way that the young Christ would later debate the doctors of the Temple. This story about Moses is not from the Bible.

Moses marries Zipporah.

The second panel shows Moses in Midian. He had fled Egypt because the Pharaoh had ordered his execution for the murder of an Egyptian. In the upper part of the panel he marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a priest from Midian (Exodus 2:21). Below the marriage scene we see the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2 ff.). Moses is ordered by God to return to Egypt to liberate his people, the Israelites, from slavery and to lead them to a land of milk and honey. The following three mosaics were regretfully lost when the Cappella Sistina was built for Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), but we can reconstruct the story quite well. Moses has now joined his older brother Aaron and together they have gone to the Pharaoh, who refuses to let them leave Egypt. Ten plagues sent by God are needed to make him change his mind, the tenth being the killing of all firstborn sons. God has, however, passed over the houses of which the doors have been marked with the blood of a lamb or goat. Thanks to the mark the Lord knows where the Israelites live. Here we have the origins of the feast of Passover (Pesach).

Moses crosses the Red Sea.

In the third panel we see the crossing of the Reed Sea, i.e. the Red Sea. The Bible states that 600,000 Israelites left Egypt, “besides women and children” (Exodus 12:37). Moses had taken the body of Joseph, the son of Israel, with him (Exodus 13:19). In the meantime the Pharaoh had begun to regret his decision to let the Israelites go. Even though God had killed his son, he decided to send his army after Moses and his people. The Egyptians took their chariots and began pursuing the Israelites. Aided by God Moses then split the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:21), allowing his people to cross safely. But when the Egyptian army tried to cross as well, its men, horses and chariots were engulfed by the water and drowned. In the mosaic we see in the upper part the Pharaoh in the water, among a collection of floating shields. At the bottom is Moses, holding his staff given to him by God. The soldiers of the Pharaoh look quite Macedonian, with linen cuirasses, round shields and Thracian helmets. The man on Moses’ left could be his brother Aaron, the woman next to this man perhaps their sister Miriam.

Miracle of the quails.

The bitter water turned sweet / Moses appoints Joshua to lead the army of Israel against the Amalekites.

The journey of the Israelites then continues through the desert. The people are struck by famine and begin to long back to Egypt, where the meat jars were always filled to the brim. God then sends flocks of quails (Exodus 16:13), so that the people can have their proteins. This can all be seen in the fourth panel.[1] In the fifth panel we take a step back chronologically. The Israelites are now thirsty, but the water of Marah is undrinkable on account of its bitterness. God then shows Moses a piece of wood. If he throws it into the water, the bitter water will all of a sudden turn sweet so that the people can drink it (Exodus 15:22-25). The wandering Israelites then get into conflict with the Amalekites. Moses chooses Joshua to lead the army of Israel (Exodus 17:9), which is visible in the lower part of the fifth panel. The armed encounter with Amalek is depicted in the sixth panel. The two armies clash, while in the upper part we see Moses, flanked by Aaron and Hur. The two man are there to support Moses’ arms, for as long as these are raised Israel is winning (Exodus 17:12-13). What is remarkable, is that Moses is standing on a stone: according to the bible he sat on it. The city we see must be Rephidim, where the battle was fought.

Battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim.

Scouts return from Canaan (above), rebellion against Moses (below).

The seventh panel is one of the most beautiful of the whole series. In the top part the scouts that Moses had sent to Canaan return from their forty-day mission. They tell awesome stories, as Canaan has turned out to be truly a land of milk and honey. To prove their words they have brought along gigantic clusters of grapes from the Valley of Eshkol (Numbers 13:23). But Canaan is also home to many strong peoples, who live in fortified cities. One of these cities (possibly Jericho) can be seen in the top right corner, with the river Jordan in front of it. The scouts Joshua and Caleb believe that the Israelites can conquer the Promised Land with the help of God, but the other scouts are pessimistic. The people are desperate and restless. “But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites (Numbers 14:10)”. The attempted stoning is visible in the lower part of the mosaic. Moses, Joshua and Caleb are protected by some kind of energy field, created by the Hand of God. On the right is the tent of meeting, the tabernacle. Inside it the Ark of the Covenant can be seen, the chest containing the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.

Moses gives the Law to the Levites (top left) / Moses dies on Mount Nebo (top right) / preparations for entering the Promised Land (below).

Crossing the river Jordan / Joshua sends scouts to Jericho.

We now come to the end of Moses’ life. In the eighth panel we see him giving the Levites the corpus of Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 31:24-25). Moses has wandered in the desert for forty years, but will not live long enough to see the Promised Land: in the top right corner he dies on Mount Nebo, at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:1-7). The Israelites are now led by Joshua and in the lower part of the mosaic they are preparing to enter Canaan. The Ark of the Covenant is equipped with staves, so they can easily carry it with them. In the ninth panel the Israelites are crossing the river Jordan with the Ark, as is described in Joshua 3. Joshua is depicted on the right, dressed as a Roman general. In the lower part of the mosaic Joshua sends two scouts to Jericho (Joshua 2:1). The city, which is visible from Mount Nebo, can be seen on the right.

Joshua meets an angel of the Lord / scouts report to Joshua.

The Siege of Jericho.

The King of Jericho learns of the presence of the spies and orders their arrest. The men are, however, protected and hidden by Rahab, a prostitute who lives in a house in the city wall. She lets the spies escape by a rope (Joshua 2:15). After three days spent in the mountains, the spies return to Joshua to report. This story is depicted in the bottom part of the tenth panel. The upper part has Joshua at the head of his army meeting an angel of the Lord, who is holding a spear in his hand (Joshua 5:13 mentions a sword). The attack on Jericho is now imminent. In the eleventh panel the Israelites march around the city with the Ark of the Covenant. Priests are blowing on rams’ horns (shofar) and the walls of Jericho collapse as is written in Joshua 6. The Israelites then enter the city and kill everyone they meet, not just the people, but also the animals. Only Rahab the prostitute and her family are left alive.

The Amorites lay siege to Gibeon, Joshua comes to the rescue.

Victory over the Amorites / miracle of the hailstones.

Joshua’s victory causes unrest among the people of Canaan. They decide to work together, but the Hivites of the large and important city of Gibeon pretend they are a people living far away and thus manage to make a peace treaty with the Israelites. Five kings of the Amorites then lay siege to Gibeon, and the Gibeonites send a messenger to Joshua (Joshua 10:5-6). This can be seen in the upper part of the twelfth panel. In the lower part God promises the Israelites a victory. That victory over the Amorites is depicted in the thirteenth panel. Fighting like Alexander the Great at the head of his troops, Joshua crushes the army of the enemy. The pass in the background is probably that of Beth Horon, for there “the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them” (Joshua 10:11).

Something extraordinary then happens at Gibeon, which has been depicted in the fourteenth panel: Joshua orders the sun to stand still. His order can be found in Joshua 10:12-13:

““Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies”

The Sun stands still at Gibeon.

The five Amorite kings taken to Joshua.

Sun and moon are clearly visible in the sky. Joshua is in the centre, between the fighting men. The mosaic is still largely intact, but in the lower part and on the right side some parts have been painted. This looks a bit silly, but at least the paint is still good here, much unlike in the fifteenth and final panel, where the paint is a complete mess. The panel tells the story of the five Amorite kings who went into hiding in a cave after the battle. They are led from the cave and brought before Joshua. Joshua is not in any way inclined to show mercy. He has the kings executed and their bodies hung from trees. Only after sunset does he give the order to take the bodies down and to throw them into the cave where the kings had been hiding (Joshua 10:22-27).


[1] The miracle of the quails is repeated in Numbers 11:31-33.

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