The Petra Church has two large elaborate mosaics in its north and south aisles, and a smaller section of mosaic in front of the south apse featuring a series of animals, which is the earliest mosaic in the church.
Smaller semi-circular mosaics are found the north and south apses. Fragmentary sections of wall mosaic were retrieved during excavations, including colored glass and gold-glass tesserae; these feature human images and attest to the highly elaborate decoration once present within the church. There was originally an elaborate marble opus sectile pavement throughout the nave, chancel and atrium, most of which was robbed in antiquity. Remaining fragments and traces of the pattern on the mortar bedding have allowed ten sections to be identified.
Because the church was not rebuilt at the end of the 6th century, the mosaics were not deliberately damaged, as commonly happened at other churches in the region over subsequent centuries. The church’s destruction therefore contributed to their present remarkable state of preservation.
Most of the south aisle is occupied by the Mosaic of the Seasons — so called due to the four figures in the central column identified by Greek inscriptions as female personifications of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, perhaps symbolizing the passage of time through a calendar of agricultural activities. These figures have interesting details of dress and jewelry. Between them are representations of a fisherman, Wisdom, Earth, and Ocean, flanked by images of mammals, birds, and fish. The themes and images represented follow well-established classical traditions that continued into the Byzantine period. The style of the mosaics points to features common in Madaba and Gaza.
The mosaic design on the north side is composed of a pattern called an inhabited vine scroll, in which vine tendrils emerge from a vase at the western end and form frames for medallions that feature pairs of animals, six human figures, and baskets filled with produce. The animals are a range of creatures, from familiar horses, donkeys, and bulls, to more exotic lions, giraffes, and elephants. The images of giraffes are interesting, as they combine the form of a camel with the spots of a leopard, reflecting the ancient Greek name for the giraffe: camelopardalis, or camel-leopard. Human figures include shepherds, camel drivers, and servants. The human figures show the mastery of the mosaicists, who could create facial features with very small tesserae and impart a sense of animation within the very tight spaces.
You can see the mosaics of the north aisle and south aisle in detail online. Many of the mosaic tiles have been “adopted” by supporters of a previous campaign to raise funds for the preservation and maintenance of the Petra Church. For more information about supporting the Petra Church’s conservation needs today, please visit our donation page.