Tag Archives: Dictionary

The Holy Land Translated into a Mosaic of the Church

It was the end of January when my group was travelling north from Petra through the King’s Highway, in Jordan. It was the very moment when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had started and we learnt about it a few days earlier, while crossing the Israelite-Jordan border (see Mount Sinai Trekking). But we did not stop our study trip and continued to discover Jordan’s archaeological treasure till the time we had to come back to Sinai, in Egypt.

Travelling around Jordan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Madaba in Jordan

After having stopped at one of large Crusader castles – the Kerak, we headed off to Madaba, the city situated  half an hour south of the capital. “It is a relatively small [urban area] that is nowadays home to around 60,000 people” (Esparza 2017). Throughout history, the site has been populated by “the Moabites, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Rashidun and the Umayyad” (Ibid.). It “is now home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around [ten percent] of the total population of Madaba (Ibid.) and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ (Mack 2018). “Archaeologists affirm Madaba has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age” (Esparza 2017). The Bible itself mentions Madaba twice (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9) (Ibid.). “The city then stood in the very borders of the Moabite empire [but] during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the [second to the seventh], when the Christian community of the city established itself” (Ibid.).

The nineteenth century Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint George. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What did the Middle East and, precisely, the Holy Land look like in the early days of Christianity (till around 614 AD)? Today,  those days are brought to life by a legendary, ancient mosaic forming a map on the floor of Saint George’s Church in Madaba, in Jordan (Stakelbeck 2018).

Early Christian mosaic map within a modern church

MOSAIC a design made by cementing small pieces (tesserae) of hard, coloured substances (e.g. marble, glass, ceramic or semi-prcious stones) to a base.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:141)
Dr. Merav Mack showing the patches of the mosaic under the carpet; in the shot from the documentary: “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” Source: Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land”. In: Stakelbeck, E. (2018) The Watchman with Erick Stakelbeck.

Dr. Merav Mack (2018), a research associate from German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman, calls the mosaic one of the oldest maps in history of the Holy Land. “Originally, the map measured 21×7 meters, and was made with more than two million ‘tesserae’ (mosaic stones)” (Esparza 2017). Nowadays, its patches cover of the floor space in the apse of the active and rather modest nineteenth century Greek Orthodox church, yet adorned with some of the most beautiful icons in the region (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018; Raezer 2020). The modern church was built on the site of the sixth century Byzantine temple (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018). There, the mosaic map was originally designed on the floor of the apse. While a service is going on in the church, carpets are rolled down all over to protect the remains of the mosaic, and when the service is over, the carpets are rolled up again for visitors coming inside the church to expose the mosaic map (Mack 2018).

Intriguing characteristics

“Interestingly, the map is not oriented northwards, like modern maps are” (Esparza 2017) but to the East, towards the altar of the church (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018). In its center, there is an elliptical layout of the Holy City – Jerusalem (Sani 2014; Mack 2018). And although the map also features other famous and significant cities of the region, such as Jericho, Ascalon and Gaza (Mack 2018), it especially constitutes a unique guide to the Old City of Jerusalem, represented with all its major characteristics (Rogoff 2013). And irrespective of some minor errors in its layout (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995), the Madaba map remains one of the most important and revealing representation of the sixth century Christian Middle East (Esparza 2017). It is features more than one hundred and fifty cities, towns, and villages (Ibid.), “including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places” (Ibid.).

One of the boats floating on the Dead Sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the top of the map, there is a representation of the Dead Sea with the blue horizontal stripes symbolising waves, on which two boats are floating (Mack 2018). Inside them, there are sitting human figures (Ibid.). They are now defaced, which is apparently the result of the Muslim rule in the area (Ibid.). In the sixth century, when the map was created, the whole depicted land was under the Eastern Christianized Roman Empire: there were monasteries scattered densely around, especially in the desert, housing around five thousands monks (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018).

The River Jordan with two fishes facing each other. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The map also shows the part of land where the mosaic is preserved today, which is in the hills, on the eastern side of the River Jordan (Mack 2018). The latter is shown as a ribbon of water with depictions of fishes (Ibid.). Actually, in one section, there are “two fishes facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea […] Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians” (Ibid.), for one of their early symbols was fish. Additionally, the River Jordan is important as the site of Jesus’ Baptism (Mack 2018). The city of Madaba, itself should be located somewhere in the hills, at the point where the map is unfortunately cut off and ruined (Ibid.). Generally, “much of the map’s tiles have been chipped away or been destroyed but a large contiguous piece of the map still exists illustrating both locations and names ranging from geographic features to cities” (Liza B 2020).

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΠΟΛΙϹ ΊΈΡΟΥϹΑ[ΛΗΜ] (Greek: The Holy City of Jerusalem)

The Holy City of Jerusalem in the sixth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, “the mosaic covers lands from Egypt to Lebanon, including sites such as Bethlehem and Gethsemane, but [as it is underlined above], the gem of the mosaic is the detailed representation of the city of Jerusalem” (Liza B 2020). The picture of Jerusalem is additionally highly ideological (Mack 2018). The city “was considered the navel of the earth, [as the place] of God’s salvation history” (Sani 2014), and so physically and metaphorically situated at the very heart of the contemporary Christian world (Mack 2018). And although it was depicted “completely out of proportion to the scale of the map, [it was] entirely in proportion to its historical and spiritual significance. [Accordingly], the detail of the Holy City is remarkable, down to the level of identifiable structures” (Rogoff 2013). Jerusalem of the sixth century “was an expansion of the Aelia Capitolina, as it was rebuilt and renamed by pagan Rome 400 years earlier” (Ibid.).

From a general layout to details

The Madaba map reflects Jerusalem’s contemporary landmarks: the Holy City is surrounded around by thick walls, protected by nineteen towers (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). “The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left)” (Raezer 2020). Actually, “a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople” (Ibid.). According to the perspective applied in the Madaba map, “the western part of the city-wall is shown from outside, the eastern part from inside” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995).  

Starting from left, that is to say, the north part of the city, there is the largest gate of Jerusalem consistent with Damascus Gate (1), and called Saint Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century (Rogoff 2013; Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). The gate is flanked by two towers and leads to an oval square with the tall column topped probably with the statue of the emperor Hadrian (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). The Arabic name of the gate, Bab el-Amud, which means the Gate of the Column, indicates that it existed yet after the Arabs’ invasion in the seventh century (Rogoff 2013). From the east, the city is opened by the so-called Gate of the Sheep Pool (2) (today’s Saint Stephen’s Gate) (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). To the south of it, there is the Gate Beautiful (3), aka Golden Gate, leading to the temple area, and farther, there is Dung Gate (4), seen from a different perspective than the previous three (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem on the Madaba Map. Photo by Unknown author (2005). Public domain. Photo source: “Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the south of the city, there is Sion Gate (5), from which the main street goes across the city to Damascus Gate (1) (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the west, there is Jaffa Gate (6), called Gate of the Tower in the sixth century, which is depicted here from the front. (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

From north to south

The Cardo Maximus (the main street in Ancient Roman cities) is running across the city, from north to south, that is to say, from Damascus Gate (1) to Sion Gate (5) (Mack 2018; Liza B 2020). It is lined with a row of columns on each side and covered with a roof (Ibid.). “Its western colonnade is interrupted by the staircase of the Anastasis-Church (7), known as the Church of Holy Sepulchre [whereas] the eastern one ends in front of the Nea Theotokos-Church (12)” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apparently, the mosaicist’s aim was to point out to the fact that the Cardo leads from both sides to the middle of the city, which is actually marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Mack 2018). In reality, the Church has never been centrally placed in the city (Ibid.). However, by placing it in the center of the map, the very idea of Christianity was expressed, namely the picture of heavenly Jerusalem with the holiest sites of Christian faith, where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he finally resurrected (Ibid.). Authors of the mosaic also represented the Church’s details, such as four steps leading to its three gates, and at its top – the golden dome, which is hovering above the tomb of Christ (Ibid.; also see the illustration: “Jerusalem with its landmarks in Madaba Map”. In: David, Jennifer Raezer (2020). “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides).

Jerusalem with the main street (Cardo Maximus) across the city; from northern Damascus Gate to the southern Sion Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The surprising fact is that “the street network of Byzantine Jerusalem remains essentially unchanged today, even in the modern Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Old City” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apart from the Cardo, there are four other streets depicted: the “second street begins on the east side of the oval square under an arch and runs to the south until the Dung Gate (4). It is colonnaded as well, but only the eastern colonnade is visible. […] The third street, starting from [the Gate of the Sheep Pool (St. Stephen’s Gate)] (2), is the beginning of the Christian ‘Via Dolorosa.’ [The] fourth street without columns — the Decumanus of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem – starts from Jaffa Gate (6) and runs to the east. It seems to end at the main street (Cardo Maximus). The fifth street, finally, branches off the Decumanus to the south: this is, probably, the Armenian Street” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Single buildings and constructions

Apart from centrally positioned Church of Holy Sepulchre, other main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem are also represented by the mosaicist (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Baptistery of the Church of the Anastasis (8) “stands west of a light-brown trapezoidal space, probably the market-place(Forum) of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). However, “its identification with the baptistery of the Holy Sepulchre [remains] uncertain. [Then, there is the] Church of the Sheep Pool (Probatica) (10), built in the first half of the [fifth] century over [the site] where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, [but it] was destroyed by the Persians in 614” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem shown “upside down” with the golden dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (visible above it). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another church is the already mentioned “New Church of the Mother of God (Nea Theotokos) (12), built by the emperor Justinian and consecrated on November 20, 542, [which is] a fact important for dating the Madaba [map. Next, there are the] Basilica on Mount Sion (14), one of the most important churches in Jerusalem, second only to that of the Holy Sepulchre, [and] Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mount Sion (15), attached to the basilica in the south, for a time used as the Martyrium of St. Stephen. [Finally, there are also depicted the] Church of the House of Caiphas (16), [then the] Church of St. Sophia (17) [possibly standing] on the ruins of Pilate’s Praetorium, [and], the Church of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus (18)” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Old photograph from the “American Colony Photo Department”. Title: Madaba map mosaic, Jordan Abstract/medium: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection Physical description: 1 negative. Photo by Matson Collection – Library of Congress Catalog. Created: between 1898 and 1946. Public domain. Photo source: “Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are also two other buildings identifiable in the Madaba map (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). In the eastern part of the map, there is “Temple Esplanade (22), indicated by a black line of cubes only [and the] Citadel (al-Qalca) (19), [situated in the west] on the right side of the Jaffa Gate (6). The Citadel of Jerusalem had been improved by Herod the Great. The Herodian Citadel was protected by three strong towers. […] Two of them are represented on the Madaba map, the bigger one identical with what is still called the ‘Tower of David” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Madaba map’s dating

Preserved patches of the precious mosaic on the floor of the apse. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The mosaic map was uncovered in Madaba in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1897 (Donner 1992-1995:13; Esparza 2017). It is dated back to the second half of the sixth century, which is also ascribed to its general style and special contents (Ibid.:13). By all accounts, the map tiles may have been composed into the floor mosaic probably during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian (527-565), and before 614, when Palestine was devastated by the Islamic Persians (Ibid.:14). Some observations on the map are also very useful in its dating (Ibid.:14). As mentioned above, in the depiction of Jerusalem, there is already the New Basilica of the Mother of God (Nea-Theotokos), which was consecrated in 542 (Ibid.:14). It is hence clear that the map itself was made later (Ibid.:14). Moreover, there are four churches on the map, which had been first mentioned in circa 570, namely the churches of Galgala, of the Egyptian Martyrs near Ascalon, of Saint Victor near Gaza, and the church of Zacharias (Ibid.:14).

Maps of the Mediterranean

Today, the map is one of the most significant archaeological “sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine both west and east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, as well as of Lower Egypt” (Donner 1992-1995:13). Consequently, it is the oldest known geographic map of Palestine in existence, except for “a small section of the so-called Peutinger Plates” (Donner 1992-1995:13). The latter comes from the fourth century A.D. and constitutes a road map of the Roman Empire, now preserved in Vienna, in Austria, as a medieval parchment copy of a possible Roman original record (Ibid.:13).

One side of the Jordan River. The Madaba map gives astonishingly many details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such mosaic pavements as the Madaba map were widely common in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially in the Mediterranean region and among them, there are also analogous mosaic representations of cities or even villages, for example the sixth century mosaics from Antioch or Jerash (Donner 1992-1995:13). However, the way in which they are represented substantially differs from the map depicted in the mosaic of Madaba (Ibid.:13). Mostly, the former give a more pictorial view of cities mainly depicted from the front (Ibid.:13). This manner of representation is also observed on the Madaba map but to a smaller degree (Ibid.:13). Yet more significant elements of the map under study, such as large cities, are usually depicted from above, which is a manner typical of a modern cartography (Ibid.:13). Additionally, all illustrated landmarks are accompanied by the Greek inscriptions for a better understanding of the picture. The writings are in different style (Ibid.:18): “black on a bright background, white on a dark background, red for texts of special importance. Some belong to cities or villages, others recall Biblical events or quote Biblical texts” (Ibid.:18).

Inferior and superior purposes of the Madaba map

The Holy Land seen in a bird’s eye view for the very first time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Even if the sixth century examples are similar in style to the Madaba map, contemporary exact parallels depicted in a bird’s eye view are not known (Donner 1992-1995:13). As far as the Madaba map’ contents are concerned, it could have been made for different purposes (Ibid.:14). One of them, although interior, “was surely the intention to offer  information for Christian pilgrims” (Ibid.:30). Herbert Donner (1992-1995:14) claims that the Madaba map itself “looks like a cartographic illustration of two pilgrims’ reports from the sixth century: the first one written by the archdeacon Theodosius, […] the other one by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, [the so-called Anonymous of Piacenza]. We may add the so-called Breviarius de Hierosolyma (Short Description of Jerusalem), […] containing only a description of the Holy City. Naturally, not everything that these reports describe can be found on the Madaba map” (Ibid.:14). Apart from being just a guide for contemporary pilgrims, one of the superior purposes of the map was “the realisation of the exceptional idea, totally unknown before the [sixth] century, to illustrate God’s salvation history in a map. On the mosaic map both Testaments […] are represented and the holy sites are [fully] displayed to the spectator’s eyes. Further purposes can be considered, for example, a clear liturgical [and symbolical] function” (Ibid.:30).

An original illustration of God’s salvation history in a map. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the Madaba map was not just a metaphorical collections of Biblical illustrations with inscriptions but a real geographical and topographical map of the Holy Land (Ibid.:18). Accordingly, “it is not only the oldest but also the most exact map” (Ibid.:18) of the region before the appearance of modern cartography in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:18).

Madaba in the past and today

Madaba deliberately surrendered to the Muslims in 614. Consequently, the city was not destroyed and so the temple of Madaba, which was also dedicated to Saint George, may have been still used as an active church (Donner 1992-1995:14). Unfortunately, the eighth century brought an earthquake [and the fire] destroyed the temple. The city had subsequently been abandoned until the nineteenth century (Esparza 2017). “In the year 1884, when the new church of [Saint] George was being built in the place in which the old basilica stood, the mosaic was [uncovered], and incorporated in the new building across from the church’s magnificent iconostasis” (Ibid.). And even if it was made for the purposes of the early Christian Church, it is still valued in the eyes of modern pilgrims coming to the Holy Land, and visiting Madaba itself.

Christians made ten percent of the total population of Madaba and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having left Saint George’s church, we also studied another sixth century mosaic work, namely the so-called Hippolytus Hall mosaic in Madaba’s Archaeological Park. This time, however, the intricate floor mosaic was not designed for the church but for a Byzantine private villa, and represents not a Christian story, but an ancient myth. Such a melange is in abundance in Jordan and everywhere in the Middle East, where various aspects of different cultures, traditions and religions have collided or intertwined for centuries.

Featured image: Madaba Mosaics in the early Byzantine church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


“Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bi5x0h>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Donner, H. (1992-1995) The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Palestina Aniqua 7. The Netherlands, Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Esparza, D. (2017) “The ‘Madaba Map’ is the oldest surviving original cartographic description of the Holy Land.” In: Aleteia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XGi9sj>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Liza B (2020) ”Madaba Mosaic Map” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V6c4U8>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land”. In: Stakelbeck, E. (2018) The Watchman with Erick Stakelbeck. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Raezer D., J. (2020) “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a469XF>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Rogoff, M. (2013) “A Mosaic of Jerusalem on the Ancient Madaba Map” In: Haaretz. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a7gRJs>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sani, E. (2014) “Madaba Map: The Holy City of Jerusalem” In: Flickr. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ydxrKr>. [Accessed 15th April, 2020].

Stakelbeck, E. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: The Watchman. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Squared Humanity inscribed in the Universe of God

Among art works preserved in the Condé Museum in Chantilly, in France, there is a lavishly illuminated and decorated manuscript created at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Commonly known from French as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry [The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry], the bookcontains undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and important cycle of Gothic miniatures shaped by the Late Middle Ages (Żylińska 1986:236; Białostocki 2008:213).

The Limbourg Brothers and the Duke of Berry

Jean de Berry, the Duke. Detail from January. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo source: “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is believed that the medieval masterpiece was produced by the three Limbourg brothers who came from the Low Countries. The authorship of the Book of Hours is also ascribed to other great contemporary illuminators, namely Barthélemy d’Eyck and Jean Colombe, who successively illuminated the manuscript after the death of the Limbourg, in the years between 1440s and 1480s (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). As a matter of fact, it took a number of skillful craftsmen to produce a manuscript of that kind. (Husband, Cambell 2010). The writing, the calligraphy and the text was done by scribes (Ibid.). Somebody else did the decorating of the letters, the line enders and all the decorations within the text (Ibid.). Yet other craftsmen did all the rest of the borders (Ibid.).

The duc d’Aumale with a friend in his study at Chantilly. By Gabriel Ferrier – Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly (created circa 1880). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the name of the book indicates, the manuscript was commissioned by a well-known great patron of the arts Jean, Duke of Berry. Although he had already owned a few books of such kind, he was always eager to get involved in a new ambitious project. (Secomska 1972:14-25; Husband, Cambell 2010). One can almost envisage the Duke flicking through his precious books by candlelight, savouring their charming illuminations (Husband, Cambell 2010). One of his other famous manuscripts, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was also painted by the brothers Limbourg, between 1405 and 1409 (Ibid.). What makes the manuscript really unique among other Books of Hours is that it consists of seven inserted “story-like cycles that read like picture books” (“Belles Heures …” 2018; see Husband, Cambell 2010). They are devoted to saints, particularly venerated by the Valois princes, and to other important historical moments in Christianity (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Each section of the Belle Heures is customized to the personal wishes of its patron” (“Belles Heures …” 2018) and the Duke’s ownership of the book is indicated by representations of his coat of arms and personal emblems, namely the swans and bears, in each elaborate border of its pages (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Along with the Très Riches Heures, […] the Belles Heures ranks among the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The manuscript is now in The Cloisters in New York (“Belles Heures …” 2018).

The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. (Husband, Cambell 2010). Video source: Husband, T., Cambell, T. (2010) “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry”. In: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In: The Met Youtube Channel.

The Very Rich Book of Hours was painted by the Limbourg between circa 1412 and 1416 but eventually, the manuscript could not be finished by the three brothers who died, as their patron, in 1416 (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). In 1856, the masterpiece was acquired by the Duke of Aumale and now it is preserved as the MS 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (Ibid.).

Livres D’Heures

BOOK OF HOURS A book of prayers to be said at the canonical Hours, intended for a lay person’s private devotion (e.g. Hours of the Blessed Virgin). Popular in the Late Middle Ages and often containing rich ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:36)

Books of Hours were used as prayer books that developed in late medieval Europe World (Digital Library 2017). Although they were made for the wealthy laity and so were used for private devotion, it had been based on the books used by the clergy but much simplified (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010). Accordingly, they were devotional manuals used as personal prayer books; usually beautifully covered in jewels and with a silver fastening (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213). Sometimes they open with a portrait of an owner and of their patron saint (Ibid.).

Books of Hours universally include a register of Church feasts together with multiple texts of everyday prayers (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Digital Library 2017). The text is accompanied by rich miniature cycles, representing the Christian iconography characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the Life of Christ, the Virgin, various Saints, and sometimes also scenes depicting episodes of the Old Testament (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Illuminated manuscript page illustrating the Annunciation from the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. Photo from “Belles Heures …” 2018. Books of Hours were mainly dedicated to the “Hours of the Virgin”. That component begins in the Belles Heures with the scene of the “Annunciation” (Husband, Cambell 2010). By Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). Public domain. Photo source: “Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (2018) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One of the most dominant and significant parts of Book of Hours, particularly in the case of the Très Riches Heures, is unquestionably a multi-coloured calendar year with vibrantly dynamic miniatures (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Owning such a manuscript was also a way for wealthy individuals to establish a more direct relationship with the God than exclusively through the Church, and in particular to express a more personal prayer to the Virgin Mary for at the core of each Book of Hours, there are the “Hours of the Virgin” (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010).

Art of Luxury

The Reign of Saint Louis the Ninth in France (1226-1270) was the very peak for medieval illumination being developed mainly in Paris. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, describes the moment while he meets the most famous illuminator of his times in Purgatory and pays honour to this art (Pijoan 2006:56), which “is in Paris called illuminating” (Alighieri: CantoX:79).

ILLUMINATION The illustrations and book decorations found in medieval and later manuscripts, usually painted in GOUACHE or TEMPERA with gold highlights – hence the name. Synonym of ILLUMINATIONMINIATURE.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:117,139)

Not only the Bible and canonical books were decorated at that time – like in the Carolingian epoch – but there were also various texts, psalters and prayer books for a personal use. The most characteristic books of the times of Philip August and Louis IX were definitely psalters illuminated with two kinds of miniatures. Some in their forms imitating stained glasses cover the pages in circles, within which various episodes are told; in others, the entire compositions of scenes are enclosed in an intricate frame of Gothic architectural motifs: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arcades with flying buttresses (Pijoan 2006:56).

Château de Saumur, France. Its representation is shown in the miniature of September. Photo by Kamel15 (2008). R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: Château de Saumur (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, in the miniature of June. View of the chapel from approximate position of the Palace gateway (lower parts obscured by much later buildings). Photo by Beckstet (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Sainte-Chapelle” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After a thousand years, non-religious themes in art had reappeared and the Limbourg brothers painted the Duke’s properties: castles, lands and peasants (Beckett 1996). Towers, battlements, pinnacles – a castle seems the main witness to events illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and the Duke of Berry actually owned seventeen castles (Ibid.). Regrettably, not much original architecture depicted has been preserved; some of the examples painted by the artists that survived to our times are the castle of Saumur by the River Loire (Ibid.), the castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, and St. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Château de Vincennes, shown by the miniature of December. Photo by Selbymay (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Château de Vincennes” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the artwork commissioned by the Duke of Berry, his Very Rich Book of Hours also “celebrates the luxuries and sophistication of court life. Partially, it was designed to delight, flatter and amuse the patron” (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

European Courts of the Late Middle Ages

The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry was created in the Late Middle Ages where the world of art was becoming smaller (Beckett 1996). Artists were travelling and meeting one another (Ibid.). Consequently, the so-called international style had been born (Ibid.).

The Nativity of Jesus, folio 44v. By Limbourg brothers (created between 1411 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the span of the years 1320-1420, royal and duke’s courts, mainly of Paris, Berry, Dijon, Burgundy and Low Countries, started to witness an unusual florescence of miniature painting within contemporary manuscripts. In the fourteenth century, together with a transformation of the feudal society hierarchical structure and a formation of a new social stratum, namely the rich intellectuals, a considerable need for a decorated book substantially increased. In about one hundred years the same need would result in the invention of the printing press, which rapid development consequently brought the end to the illuminated manuscript (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

In the heyday of the medieval handwritten book, there was also a rapid artistic growth of illustrations within its frame. With the development of a medieval image in wooden panel paintings, the illustration had also flourished on parchment or vellum used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, particularly lavishly in prayers books of hours, called in French, livres d’heures. Their rich and intricate decorations at the time constituted a manifestation of a luxury and personal wealth, and even satisfied snobbery (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Calendar in Medieval Art aka Labours of the Months

Life at the Duke’s Court is the subject of the secular scenes that portray the seasons (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). “The pictorial calendar convention […] has a very long history and a very wide circulation” (Henisch 1999:vii). In Western Europe its origins date back to “the ninth century onwards; by the twelve century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England and Flanders” (Ibid.:5). Medieval calendar year not only was represented on sheet of vellum inside devotional books but also designed by skillful artists in wood, stone, glass, and woven into mosaics, most universally, however, used in the magnificent sculpture of Gothic cathedrals (Henisch 1999:4; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

The Limbourg brothers. Christ Led to Judgment, folio 143r. Uploaded by the User: Petrusbarbygere (2005). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Wherever it is depicted, and irrespective of small deviations in its details, the calendar pattern always consists of twenty-four scenes. Twelve of them stands for each month of the year. Correspondingly, they unfold tasks, popular occupations at the countryside, detailed scenery landmarks, and all other features characteristic of a given month (Henisch 1999:vii-3; Białostocki 2008:213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69). The successive months of the year chase one another like shifting scenes in a wheel of a vibrant kaleidoscope, “and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society” (Henisch 1999:vii). Hence the medieval calendar year is also known as the “labours cycle” or the “Labours of the Months” (Ibid.:vii).

“As the year unfolds, each season has its own character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early work spring begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn fields are plowed and seed in sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

General plan

The overall pattern of the monthly labours inscribed in the framework of the calendar was thoroughly set up, conventionally repeated by artists throughout centuries, and therefore recognized elsewhere by the medieval mind (Henisch 1999:3-7).

“Little jingles, [usually chanted by children] – like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth century England – also served to make the general plan well known and easy to remember” (Henisch 1999:3).

January: By thys fyre I warme my handys

Februar: And with my spade I delfe my landys.

Marche: Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;

Aprile: And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.

Maij: I am as light as byrde in bowe;

Junij: And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].

Julij: With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];

Auguste: And here I shere my corne full lowe.

September: With my flyll I erne my brede:

October: And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.

November: At Martynessmasse I kylle my swine;

December: And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne” (Henisch 1999:3)

Reliefs of the Zodiac signs and Labors of the months at Portal of Saint Fermin, Amiens Cathedral. Photo by Olivier (2010-2015). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Photo cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

From Labours of the Months to the Cycle of Occupations

LABOURS OF THE MONTHS A series of twelve scenes, one for each month, each showing a different country occupation, and usually accompanied by the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Found in medieval sculpture and STAINED GLASS and often in the calendar of the BOOK OF HOURS decorated with ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:127)

By the end of the epoch in question, however, a set of the illustrations – traditionally called the Labours of the Months – had become more often known as  “a cycle of occupations than labors” (Henisch 1999:7). It was because instead of duties people usually carried out in due seasons, artists started to illustrate seasonal activities and pleasures the contemporary society themselves indulged in with a full engagement and fantasy (Ibid.:7) “from snowball fights in December to boating parties in May” (Ibid.:7).

Photos by Martin Greslou (2013). Public domain. Photos source: “Zodiac on Chartres cathedral stained-glass windows.” In: Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of the Zodiac

In the medieval calendar the twelve scenes of the Labours or Occupations of the Months are always matched pair with the remaining twelve scenes representing each month’s principal zodiac sign (Henisch 1999:vii-3). It is because every month is identified with a certain planet and the divine power, an influence of which was believed to be very present in the world of nature and human disposition (Battistini 2005:47). In view of that, “the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity of the year’s map” (Henisch 1999:2). Just as it is illustrated by the cycle of stained glass scenes depicted in the Cathedral of Chartres in France, where a particular zodiac sign on the right is ascribe to each of monthly human occupations on the left.

“January – Aquarius, the Water Carrier,

 February – Pisces, the Fish,

 March – Aries, the Ram,

 April – Taurus, the Bull,

 May – Gemini, the Twins,

 June – Cancer, the Crab,

 July – Leo, the Lion,

 August – Virgo, the Maiden,

 September – Libra, the Scales,

 October – Scorpio, the Scorpion,

 November – Sagittarius, the Archer,

 December – Capricorn, the Goat” (Henisch 1999:2-3).

The Anatomical Zodiac Man, folio 14. By Limbourg brothers (created between 1411 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Very Rich Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page tract the cycle of months represented below (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

Long Ancient Tradition Inscribed in the Medieval Iconography

As the tradition goes, the zodiac signs were first of all to represent the endless, subsequent cycle of the passing time. Still they also gave the evidence of a close and harmonious relation between human activities and the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Their origins reach the ancient civilizations, such as of Egypt, China, Persia, and India. The zodiac was then adapted by the Christianity on the way of the religious syncretism, to eventually find its central place in the medieval iconography, where it was linked to twelve labours depictions characterizing twelve months of the year. As it was said above, the calendar year was being commonly worked out in the stones of Gothic cathedrals where, like in the late medieval illuminations, the zodiac signs correspond to human occupations (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Accordingly, while the sign of Aries, the Ram is joined with March’s activity of trimming the Vines, Libra, the Scales illustrates a grape picking in September (Maye, Stones 2009). Sometimes, the zodiac signs are placed in a tympanum semicircle, surrounding the figure of Christ; in this case they show a close connection between the earth and the Heavens, people and God, and so they illustrate that the actual order of the Creation and events on the earth meets the order imposed by the Creator (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Angers Cathedral South Rose Window of Christ (centre) with elders (bottom half) and Zodiac (top half). Medieval stained glass by Andre Robin after the fire of 1451. Photo by Chiswick Chap (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Zodiac” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky, in which the sun, the moon and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation, whose position once, long ago lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was all-important in the life of men and women, its movement was studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting, that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

Square and Cycle Intertwined

January: A New Year’s Day feast including Jean de Berry. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The zodiac signs and labours of the medieval calendar many a time were represented as scenes inscribed in the forms of cycles (medallions or quatrefoils). A cycle – an ideal geometrical figure – was believed to have been created to reflect the perfection of God. Correspondingly, its shape incorporated into art assured the balance of the universe, and so regulated the cycle of life (Cerinotti 2009:68-69). In this context, the shape of a square on the other side stands for the earthly world and human sphere of influence. Not without reason these two geometrical figures predominate in the calendar illuminations of the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The entire composition of the calendar including two scenes is thus divided into two geometrical zones: at the bottom of the framework there is a square-shaped image of human labours, whereas at the top – a semi-circular forms with zodiac signs and the symbols of the planets (Białostocki 2008:213). In each of the zodiac spheres, there is additionally a representation of “the Greek deity Apollo who rides his [heavenly] chariot while carrying the Sun across the sky (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). Such an illustration referring to the ancient tradition not only introduces a divine element in the human everyday life but also it is a sing of the coming Renaissance.

December: Château de Vincennes. By Barthélemy d’Eyck– R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda (created circa 1440). Public domain. Photo source: “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The overall set of illustrations in the Book of Hours successfully “depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land, […] almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, [which sequence] represents the annual, endlessly repeated cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table” (Henisch 1999:vii,1-2). On the other side, all the human occupations framed in the squares are regulated by the divine element above – the earthly world of a human being inscribed into the sphere and order of God.

Featured image: The upper semi-circular frame of the scene of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: “January”, representing the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page, assigned to the month of January and its occupations, represented below. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Zodiac signs and Labors of the months at Amiens Cathedral” (2010-2015). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Qv8d32>. [Accessed on 16th April, 2021].

“Zodiac on Chartres cathedral stained-glass windows” (2013). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RG7pJt>. [Accessed on 4th April, 2020].

“Zodiac” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gg12qr>. [Accessed on 4th April, 2020].

“Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (2018) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/39I0DWE>. [Accessed on 4th April, 2020].

“Château de Saumur” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RwUdq1>. [Accessed on 4th April, 2020].

“Château de Vincennes” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RB7xKe>. [Accessed on 15th April, 2021].

“Sainte-Chapelle” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/32ddmQ6>. [Accessed on 15th April, 2021].

“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7xQIK>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2020].

Alighieri, D. “Purgatorio: Canto X:79” in Dante Alighieri, “The Divine Comedy”, Wadsworth, H. Longfellow trans. In: everypoet.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bLuaAv>. [Accessed on 1st April, 2020].

Baez, R. (2020) “Miniatures of the twelve Zodiac signs from the Hunterian Psalter, AD 1170, England”. In: “Medieval Enchantment”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/345Xy1w>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2020].

Battistini, M. (2005) “Symbole i alegorie.” In Leksykon, historia, sztuka, ikonografia [Dizionari dell’Arte], Dyjas, K. trans. Warszawa: Arkady.

Beckett, W. (1996) Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, Episode 1: “The Mists of Time.” Rossiter, N., Robinson T. BBC Production.

Beckett, W. (2001) Sister Wendy’s 1000 arcydzieł. Warszawa: Arkady.

Białostocki, J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Cerinotti, A. ed. (2009) Tajemnicze katedry [Cattedrali del mistero]. Cieśla, H. trans. Warszawa: Bellona.

Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.

Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Husband, T., Cambell, T. (2010) “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry”. In: “Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”. In: Met Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JANBzY>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Maye, P., Stones, A. Vadnal, J. (2009) ”West Façade: Sculptural Panels: Astrological Table of Zodiac Signs and Labors.” In: Images of Medieval Art and Architecture. France, Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UCFk4R>. [Accessed on 1st April, 2020].

Pijoan, J. (2006) ”Sztuka gotycka. Sztuka gotycka we Francji.” In: Sztuka świata vol. IV [Historia del Arte, vol. IV], Machowski, M. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Prof. Elizabeth (2019) “The Tres Riches Heures of Jean Duke of Berry”. In: Professor Elisabeth. Available at <https://bit.ly/2w8sP7v>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2020].

Secomska, K. (1972) Mistrzowie i książęta malarstwo francuskie XV i XVI wieku. Warszawa.

World Digital Library (2017) “Book of Hours.” In: Library of Congress. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X3sxtR>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2020].

Żylińska, J. (1986) Spotkania po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic

Civilizations primary arising from agriculture have often believed that the creator of all things is the feminine element. Earth, the source of life, was imagined as the holy and fertile mother who was the matrix of all creation. In many myths of ancient civilizations, such as Babylonian or Hebrew, there are echoes of worship and faith in Magna Mater – the Great Mother, the creator of the world, which naturally resulted from her feminine ability to give life. In pre-patriarchal times, goddesses – not gods – were supposed to be  supreme powers. Hence there are many stories about the goddesses-creators of the world (Leeming 1999). However, with the rise of patriarchal cultures, they were supplanted in favour of more desirable tales about almighty gods and their male prophets.

From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

The etymology of the word matriarchy is derived from Latin and Greek: mater, matris – mother and arche – power (Jabłońska 2010). The period of matriarchy dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, and can still be observed in the late Neolithic period – the younger Stone Age – when a visible transition to patriarchy follows. In the Bronze Age, patriarchy is definitely dominating, which is associated with changes in the understanding of higher beings and religion in general. The way of life in the matriarchate differs significantly from the one prevailing in the patriarchate. At the time of patriarchy, life and culture were dominated by venerating harsh and ruthless male divinities (Ibid.) – warriors who slay the bodies of snake-like monsters. Simultaneously, the latter were associated in many myths with the female aspect, present in the elements of water, fire, earth and air (Absalon, Canard 2006:15-23). The tradition of the male creator god continues in monotheistic religions. In Judeo-Christian culture it is Yahweh, and for Muslims it is Allah (Jabłońska 2010).

Magna Mater and her Origins

The beginnings of Mother-Earth veneration were already visible in the older Stone Age, when the Paleolithic hunter worshiped the Moon, observed its phases and cyclical nature. The lunar worship of that time was undeniably associated with devotion to life and fertility, and thus dedicated to womanhood and menstrual cycle that has always corresponded to subsequent phases of the Moon (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31-32; Frazer 1971:378- 381).

Echoes of the Paleolithic connection of Magna Mater with the worship of the Moon resound in the pantheon of ancient lunar goddesses; the moon lady is Syrian Astarte and Egyptian Isis or Hathor with the ears and horns of a cow symbolizing the Moon. The next incarnation of the Great Mother is Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar, similar to Sumerian Inanna (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010; Żak-Bucholc 2003, “Astarte” 2010) and the Greek Selene – the personification of the Moon par excellence. In Roman mythology the goddess was known as Luna – the Moon. Her cult was associated with the cult of Artemis, in Roman mythology most often associated with Diana – the goddess of fertility and moonlight, and with the Greek Hekate – the goddess of death and magic. The most common attribute of lunar goddesses was the lunar sickle in their hair (“Artemida” 2010; ”Diana” 2010; ”Selene” 2010). Diana herself even took the form of the Moon and sailing into the cloudless sky, she looked with pleasure at her beautiful reflection in the calm shimmering surface of the lake, the mirror of the goddess (Frazer 1971:366-367). It is not surprising that today many scholars consider Paleolithic lunar worship as the source and foundation of all subsequent mythology (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010).

Goddess in the Darkness of Caves

At the time of lunar worship, the female element hid in the dark, underground channels of cave-sanctuaries. From her womb all creation was born: mammoths, horses and bison are still emerging from the underground wells and are swirling in the colours of the cave ceilings – a gift from the Mother Goddess, which was invoked by magical rituals of the Paleolithic hunter (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:32-39; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33). The naturalistic art of Paleolithic is dominated by the animal which had a sacred dimension at that time. Compared to realistically depicted images of animals, man was represented very schematically, and even in a caricatural way. On the verge of a flourishing matriarchate, among a few anthropomorphic performances, the image of a naked woman definitely dominates (Nougier 1989:39; Osińska 2004:14-16).

Palaeolithic Venus

Commonly known as Paleolithic Venus, female representations in the form of small sculpture or relief do not bring to mind ancient goddesses of beauty. Still the name of the statuettes refers to the famous statue of Venus of Milo, because, like the statue itself, figurines of Paleolithic Venus are basically devoid of arms (“Wenus Paleolityczna” 2010). The so-called Venus figurines occur across Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Baikal, and given that the creators of these carvings were separated by hundreds of kilometers, it is remarkable that so many of statuettes share the same traits (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

They are generally quite small with sizes typically ranging from 2.5 cm to 10 cm though a few examples are as large as 24 cm but they are mostly small enough to be held in the hand (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). The most common material used to carve these statuettes is mammoth tusk, horse teeth, hematite, antlers, bone, limonite and stone (Ibid.). A very small number of sites produced clay figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of ceramic art. Some of their features are greatly exaggerated while other are absent or downplayed (Ibid.).

Upper Paleolithic Europe with some locations of sites where Venus figurines were found. 1. 1. Brassempouy, France; 2. Lespugue, France; 3. Laussel, France; 4. Grimaldi Caves, Italy; 5. Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic; 6. Pavlov, Czech Republic; 7. Willendorf, Austria; 8. Avdeevo, Russia; 9. Kostenki, Russia; 10. Gagarino, Kazakhstan. Map from Soffer et al. (2000) “The ‘Venus” Figurines’. Current Anthropology 41(4), pp. 511-537.

Paleolithic Venus image is dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics: exaggerated buttocks, abdomen, thighs and womb may indicate a body deformed by frequent births (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Due to such characteristics, Paleolithic figurines are sometimes referred to as Steatopygian Venus figures as they expose body features typical of African women, namely an excessive fat accumulation in and around the buttocks (“Steatopygia” 2020). Additionally, it is quite common for the figurines to be faceless with poorly defined arms (hence their name) and legs and a silhouette that is tapered at the top and bottom. The carvings often lack defined hands and feet (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Bias interpretations

Venuses’ physical appearance provoke different interpretation (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Venus from Savignano, Italy (c. 25 000-20 000 BC). Photo from Biologus.eu. Figurine with a silhouette tapered at the top and bottom . The middle depiction is displaying steatopygia.

They may stand for :

  1. Fertility symbols,
  2. Mother goddess,
  3. Paleoerotica,
  4. Self-portraiture,
  5. Beauty standards,
  6. Protective talismans,
  7. Good luck amulets playing religious and ritual functions,
  8. Ancestors,
  9. Women throughout the lifespan,
  10. Puppets, dolls,
  11. Witches keeping strangers away (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).
Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia.” Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

Those bias interpretations result from different aspects of gender(Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). There were androcentric (men as creators of figurines with an objectified understanding of representations of females) and feminist interpretations and approaches to the subject (Ibid.). Moreover, great number of found figurines and their realistic features contrast with the scarcity of depictions of males whose representation are usually schematic, stylised or abstract (Ibid.).

Notion of Motherhood and Self-Representation

Statues are characterized by the lack of facial features, which may indicate their character and purpose; Venus is not a beauty with individual features, but a notion of motherhood in general (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Simultaneously, her major features express respect and reverence for a woman as a source of life and refer to the cult of fertility. In the image of Paleolithic Venus, one can see a goddess taking care of women during pregnancy and childbirth, which was justified in the period of low birth rate and high mortality among new-born children (Ibid.).

Venus of Willendorf. Photo by MatthiasKabel (2007). Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the figurines may have been self-representations by female creators (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). This assumption is supported by statuettes’ proportions (Ibid.). Their bodies were shaped as if they were observed from the top down (Ibid.). At the time for a woman to know what she looked like, she could only look down upon herself (Ibid.). That would explain lack their faces, smaller heads, and why legs seem to disappear (Ibid.).

Worldwide worship

Due to a wide number of Paleolithic female statuettes – from Western Europe to Siberia – the conclusion is that their worship was highly widespread in the whole contemporary world (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Venus figurines are one of the most distinctive components of Stone Age material culture and the earliest examples of art created in the human image (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Those remarkable statuettes were created in Upper Paleolithic 50 000 – 10 000, mostly by Gravettian people who spread out all over Europe around 33000 to 22000 or even 17000 BP(Ibid.). Some statuettes have been found inside dwellings, in pits, some come from cultural layers (Ibid.).  They were first brought to the attention of modern society during 1890s when they were discovered in southwestern France and northern Italy by Edouard Petite and Salomon Reinach. The oldest was discovered in 2008 in Germany, dated to over 35 000 years old (Ibid.).

Venus of Kostenki; c. 23 000 BC. Photo from: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenki. Upper body decorations – linear wedge-shaped notching looking like bandeaux, usually present on Eastern European figurines with headgear. When such clothing is absent, it is probably replaced by the hands folded on top of the breasts (e.g. Venus of Willendorf).

Palaeolithic fashion

Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” Photo by Cohen (2003). In: Venus figures from the Kostenki.

Decorations on the Venus bodies suggest some of them might represent clothing (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).It was generally thought that Venus, if dressed, should have worn animal furs, leathers or hides (Ibid.).According to information from burials, the dead were fully clad with abundance of bracelets and necklaces (Ibid.). Venus figurines reflect plant based textiles and basketry (Ibid.). According to undertaken studies, there are at least three different types of dressed female depictions: different headgear, body bandeaux and at least one type of skirt (Ibid.).

Venus of Brassempouy , France 22 000 BC; head covering: stylized and indistinct in detail, rather hairnets or netted snoods. Photo source: “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins.

Venuses’ dressing underlines the importance of textile industry in Upper Paleolithic cultures, which must have been associated with women, and stood for their prestige in a society (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).Similar value can be given to basketry: apparently weaving of textiles, plaiting and coiling of baskets were dominant female occupations employed already in Upper Palaeolith (50 000-10 000 BP). It is the earliest evidence of technologies such as textile – usually much more associated with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (Ibid.).Factually, the stone age probably produced more wood tools and fibre artefacts than lithic items (Ibid.).

Venus of Lespugue, France, 26 000 BC : belts attached to string skirts, low on the hips with a high attention to detail. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 7. In: Slide Share.

No detail is accidental

The figurines of  the Upper Paleolithic may be unclad or partially clad and the modelling of their bodies differs. Such a depiction is not random but rigidly patterned within one particular type (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Among a massive number of figurines, they represent a female image of different functions; each has got its own symbolic meaning conveyed by the pose and underlined body parts (Ibid.). No detail is accidental; their creators made a selection of attributes and human identity (Ibid.). The Venus body becomes a medium to reflect social differences, also by means of their attire (Ibid.). Paleolithic imagery associates the wearing of clothing with a category of women whose attire included basket hats or caps, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts (Ibid.). These garments may have been of a ritual wear, which served as a notion of distinct social categories (Ibid.). Creators of clad Venuses must have been well familiar with the art of making textiles and fiber technology in general, or they could have been guided by such experts (Ibid.).

Venus of Laussel, France, on the left (c. 25 000-23 000 BC) and Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Rebublic, on the right (34 000-26 500 BC) with highly abstracted horizontal lines girdling the body . Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 6. In. Slide Share.

Venus from Laussel

Among most famous prehistoric statuettes of Venus of the Paleolithic period there is undoubtedly the relief of Venus from Laussel, Aquitaine, dating from 22 000 to the 18 000 BC. Currently, the object, commonly known as Venus with the Horn, is a part of the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. An iconographic analysis of the relief indicates a close relationship between Venus, the lunar cult discussed above and the mystery of the Great Mother. While the naked woman’s left hand rests on her swollen womb, in her right hand she holds a buffalo’s horn with thirteen cuts. A woman’s womb may stand for the matrix of all creation, while the horn is interpreted as a crescent moon – a symbol of chthonic and lunar powers (“Kult lunarny” 2009; Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16, “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:9). The thirteen marks on the horn refer to the thirteen days in which the moon is in the growing phase and the thirteen lunar cycles making up the solar year. All this testifies not only to the Paleolithic knowledge of the lunar month, but also to the fact that makers of the relief must have understood the connection between the woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar month (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

Venus of Moravany, Czech Republic (c. 24 000-24 000 BC) Statuette dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 4. In. Slide Share.

The buffalo horn held by Venus of Laussel is also of great iconographic significance: horned animals such as a bull, cow or buffalo are often attributed to fertility goddesses and were once used as sacrificial animals. It was believed that their blood was a source of purification, spiritual strength and life. Menstrual blood was interpreted similarly, given that the lush shapes of Venus with a horn were once covered by a red layer of ochre (Nougier 1989:9; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

There are apparently complicated relationships between women, Paleolithic Venuses, red colour, the Moon, fertility cycle, the first attempts to control nature and the very first beliefs.

“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, Austria (c. 28,000 –25,000 BC ). Her heads depicted with radially or spirally produced hair gear or a fiber based woven cap or hat with a knotted center, which looks like a coiled basket with circuits encircling the head. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 2. In: Slide Share.

One of the most famous Paleolithic female mothers, Venus of Willendorf, also has traces of red dye. Dated to the period between 32 000 and 30 000 BC, it is now kept among the collections of the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The figurine is one of the first images of this type found by archaeologists, thanks to which it became a kind of an ambassador of the prehistoric art. Like her Paleolithic sisters, Venus of Willendorf boasts a lush shape of thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts and abdomen with a clearly enhanced womb. The author did not show the woman’s face (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2016; Pastuszka 2010). Her whole head is adorned with a haircut in a form of rollers surrounding most of the head with concentric circles (Szombathy 2010), or a round-like headgear (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Pastuszka 2010; “Wenus z Willendorfu” 2010). As it is described above, it may have been also a kind of a head cover. Unlike most figurines, the Willendorf statuette has the outline of small arms falling on the chest (Ibid.).

Venus figurine from Kostenki, Russia (c. 23 000-21 000 BC). Like in the case of Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Kostenki features a coiled basket around the head but with extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck.Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 5. In: Slide Share.

Venus’ Evolution from Paleolithic to Neolithic

Venus of Lespugue, France. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

In addition to the two Paleolithic figurines described more closely, one should also mention the mammoth Venus of Lespugue and Venus of Kostenki, the burnt clay Venus of Dolni Vestovice, the serpentine Venus of Savignano or the ivory Venus of Gagarino. Regardless of the origin and material from which they were made, the number of figurines found proves their mass production, and so a large demand for this type of product. Findings of single statues in houses, near hearths and in sacrificial places could testify to their relationship with domestic worship. Probably prehistoric Venus was used in rites of ancestor and fertility cult as art products associated with the household. As it is mentioned above, there is also a theory that they served as votive gifts, fetishes, or – due to their small size and convenience – they may have been amulets.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice , Czech Republic. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

When the Paleolithic passed away, the image of the Great Mother gradually evolved acquiring new values in Neolithic (Jabłońska 2010; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:25). In conjunction with that evolution, we cannot reject Magna Mater’s firmly sexual connotations. At the beginning of Neolithic, some artistic streams formed more abstract and stylized expressions in sculpture that existed and developed alongside more naturalistic expressions  – clothing disappears but sexual attributes remain (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Featured image: Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images. Photo source: In: K. Kris Hirst (2019). “History of Alcohol: A Timeline How Long Have Humans Been Consuming Alcohol?” In: Thought.Co.


“Artemida” (2010). In:  Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QxaB6P>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Astarte” (2010) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2whaTI9>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Bóstwa lunarne” (2010) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QtpPtt>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Diana (bogini)” (2010) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xdmvMl>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Kult lunarny” (2009). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bkx66Z>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Paleolityczne Wenus” (2003). In: Historia kobiet. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a9vnRw>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

”Selene (mitologia)” (2010) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xiwb83>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

“Steatopygia” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UoLdRS>. [Accessed 21st March, 2020].

“Wenus paleolityczna” (2010). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UqgAex >. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

Absalon, P., Canard, F. (2006) Des monstres au pays des hommes. Paris: Découvertes Gallimard.

Burda, B., Halczak, R. M. Józefiak, M. Szymczak (2002) Historia. Od dziejów najdawniejszych do schyłku starożytności. Gdynia: Wydawnictwo Pedagogiczne Operon.

Frazer, J. G. (1971) Złota gałąź, tom I, II [The Golden Bough, vol. I, II], Krzeczkowski, H. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytu Wydawniczy.

Jabłońska, N.(2010)Matriarchart”. In: Wiedza i Edukacja. Świat Wirtualnej Nauki. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U8tfEf>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

Leeming, Adams, D., M Adams (1999) “Mity o sworzeniu świata i ludzi“. In: Przegląd Encyklopedyczny, [Encyclopedia of Creation Myths], Zakrzewicz, A. trans. Poznań: Oficyna Wydawnicza Atena.

Louis-René Nougier (1989) ”Sztuka pradziejowa” In: Sztuka świata, tom 1, [Historia del Arte, vol. 1], Marzyńska, T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Osińska, B. (2004) Sztuka i czas. Od prehistorii do rokoka. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Szkolne i pedagogiczne.

Pastuszka, W. (2010) “Wenus z Willendorfu.” In: Powazek, D. Cuda świata. Available at <https://bit.ly/398i3f0>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

Photo: Cohen (2003) “Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” In: Venus figures from the Kostenki – Borshevo region on the Don River. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U9somx>. [Accessed 21st March, 2020].

Photo: “Diana the Moon Goddess.” In: Rachel A. Dian (2020). The Phases of Diana. Goddess in Flux. Available at <https://bit.ly/33FpQjs>. [Accessed 21st March, 2020].

Photo: “Lascaux cave paintings.” In: “Lascaux Cave Paintings Discovered” (2009). In: History Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3be2qEg>. [Accessed 20th February, 2020].

Photo: “Wounded Bull, Man & Bird, Lascaux Cave.” By Peter80 (2016). Uploaded by Emma Groeneveld, published on 02 September 2016 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/33D2Lxu>. [Accessed 21st March, 2020].

Photo: “Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic and Hulton Archive. Getty Images.” In: K. Kris Hirst (2019). “History of Alcohol: A Timeline How Long Have Humans Been Consuming Alcohol?” In: Thought.Co. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wr3tSp>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) “St. George Striking the Dragon” In: Fox, M. “Slaying The Dragons That Are Within & Without”. In: InnerSelf. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dhJ4jm>. [Accessed 21st March, 2020].

Photo: “The Venus Figurines of the European Palaeolithic Era.” In: McBride, K. Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JfhllP>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J3oXaY>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus from Savignano.” In: Biologus.eu. Available at <https://bit.ly/33G69be>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000 BCE). First known work of ceramic art.” In: Venus Figurines. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U9IOM1>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia.” In: Venus Figurines. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U9IOM1>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus of Kostenky.” In: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenky. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wrgV8R>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus of Lespugue (23,000 BCE).” In: Venus Figurines. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U9IOM1>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photo: “Venus of Willendorf”. Photo by MatthiasKabel (2007). Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xccOhb>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Photos: “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slides: 2,4-7. In: In. Slide Share. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UlzK5v>. [Accessed 20th March, 2020].

Soffer et al. (2000) “The ‘Venus” Figurines’. Current Anthropology 41(4), pp. 511-537.

Szombathy, J. (2010) “Dyskusja. Wenus paleolityczna.” In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at  <https://bit.ly/33zHaGf>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

Vandewettering, K. R. (2015) “Upper Palaeolithic Venus figurines and Interpretation of Prehistoric Gender Representations”. In: Pure Insights, vol. 4, article 7. Department of Anthropology, Western Oregon University.

Żak-Bucholc, J. (2003) “Kult świętej krowy” In: Racjonalista. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xbYl4H>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

Debate on the Paintings of Damsels Flying on the Clouds

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo source: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide.

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

Lucie-Smith (2003:195).
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo source: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art.from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -1512 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Public domain. Photo source: “Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BC., Thera. Public domain. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco). Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Public domain. Photo and caption source: Dr. Santa German, (2020). “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy (2020).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

Decorated prayer niche. Inv. No. 7987. Tempera Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah, cell 1725, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Coptic Cairo). Photo source: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum (2020).

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

Lucie-Smith (2003:213).

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera? Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

Ajanta painting. Photo source: Josh Hortman (2020). “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest.

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.). A separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over fifty meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013). It is also worth mentioning that no trace of rock-cut stairs have ever been found in the proximity of the painted granite wall, hence ancient viewers could only observe the paintings from the ground (Ibid.). This, however, would not have been possible to do without using some type of binoculars (Ibid.). Today, on the third level of the Rock of Sigiriya, which is fenced by the Mirror Wall, there is a spiral metal staircase for modern-day visitors, so they are able to climb deeper twenty metres up to see the paintings in detail (Ibid.). But how were they reached to be admired fifteen hundred years ago?

Additionally, although there are today just few left examples of such paintings in Sigiriya, originally, it is said to have been about five hundred of similar scenes, apparently surrounding the rock like a colourful belt (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco. Photo by Artur Maltsau (2015). Free images at Pixabay.

Pigments used

Dhanapala observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020) . “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67).

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … (Image modified from the original – the size reduced). Photo source: Jenny Rainbow (2020). In: Fineartamerica.

Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

Havel (1905). In: Dhanapala:66.
“Gallery of Art” at Sigiriya. Photo source: Dustbowl_Debutante (aka Jeanne), Joseph Cator (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery.

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana), also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unsolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented, and the purpose they were made for at all.

Featured image: Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


Image: “Cupola decoration” (6th century; mural painting in Coptic Museum, Cairo) (1996-2020). In: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T9xCOB>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Image: “Decorated prayer niche” (Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah) (2020) In: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uJZQq0>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

“Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/396c1fR>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Image: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide. Available at <https://bit.ly/37bujh9>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Dalrymple, W. (2014) “The Ajanta cave murals: ‘nothing less than the birth of Indian art’.” In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pu9pAB>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

De Silva, R. (2019) “The Sigiriya Ladies: Who were they, why were they painted?” Available at <https://bit.ly/388vTxC>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Debutante D. (aka Jeanne), Cator J. (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T90uXi>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Dhanapala, D.B. (Date is not provided) A Short Note on the Technique of the Sigiriya Pictures. University of Ceylon Review, pp. 64-68.

Free photo of “Sigiriya fresco” by Maltsau, A. (2015). Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3oFsizq>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

German S. (Dr) (2020) “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Hortman, J. “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/39d6PGK >. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Jaspal, N. (2007) “Frescoes vs Tempera”. In: Heritage Preservation Atelier. Virtus and Labor. Available at <https://bit.ly/37XeEPy>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Kovalsky, V. (2013) “Chapter 2 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/32AEaZR>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

MacTaggart, J. (2020) “Italian Renaissance Art – Fresco Painting”. In: Artfactory. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wRxril>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Rainbow. J. (2020) “Apsara With Flowers. Sigiriya Cave Painting Art Print”. In: Fineartamerica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2I10NgK>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KfYLO0>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Sekhon, B. (2020) “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Vtr27t>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Somathilake, M. (2007) Further Analysis on Fresco and Tempera: An Analysis of the Technique of Murals in South Asia. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 53, pp. 109-132.