Archaeological research conducted between 1972 and 1991 showed that the Church of the Virgin was built above the hall of a Madaba mansion which had been decorated with lavish mosaics. The mansion was built in the first half of the VIth century over a Roman temple. Both the temple, which was round and had a high podium, and the Hippolytus Hall are on the south side of a paved courtyard. The western section of the Hippolytus mosaic was found 1.3 m below the mosaic floor of the church in 1905 by Sulayman Sunna', then the property owner. In 1982, the eastern section was unearthed.
The mosaic,, inspired by the Greek tragedy Hippolytus, decorates a hall of irregular dimensions: 7.3m wide on the eastern side and approximately 9.5 m long from east to west. The hall was originally covered by four north-south arches and was entered from the mansion's courtyard by a door on the north side of the northeast corner. Birds facing a flower decorate the intercolumnar spaces between the side pillars of the arches.
A wide border of acanthus scrolls frames the central field of the mosaic which is sub-divided into three rectangular panels. The figures of the central panel of the carpet were partially destroyed when the hall was divided into two rooms in antiquity.
Acanthus scrolls framing the central field incorporate hunting and pastoral scenes against a dark background. The four scrolls in the corners are decorated with personifications of the Seasons: Spring and Autumn are on the west side, while Summer and Winter are to the east. All four are represented as Tyche in half bust, and each wears a turreted crown.
In the grid of the west panel of the carpet, a section which was discovered in 1905, there are nilotic motifs: flowers and plants which alternate with aquatic birds. Two sea gulls with extended wings glide over the water.
As noted, the central panel was partially damaged by a secondary wall, but it shows some of the major characters of the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, a tragedy known to us from Euripides in Greek and Seneca in Latin. Captions reveal the names of the characters in the scene which shows handmaidens assisting Phaedra. Meanwhile a wet nurse turns toward Hippolytus who is accompanied by his ministers and a servant holding his mount.
In the third panel, Aphrodite sits on a throne next to Adonis who holds a lance. A Grace presents to her a Cupid whom she threatens with a sandal. A second Cupid supports Aphrodite's bare foot, while a third watches, and a fourth has his head in a basket from which flowers fall; the basket and flowers allude to a poem in which a honeycomb with bees flying away is used to symbolize both the sweetness and sting of love. A second Grace grasps the foot of yet another Cupid who attempts to take refuge among the branches of a tree, and a third Grace chases a sixth Cupid. In order to show that this scene takes place in the open countryside, the artist added a bare-footed peasant girl carrying a basket with fruit on her shoulder and a partridge in her right hand. Again, all the characters are identified by captions.
An irregular area of the pavement near the entrance is decorated with a medallion in which a pair of sandals is framed by four birds.
Along the eastern wall, there are personifications of three cities together with two sea monsters who challenge each other, as well as flowers and birds. The cities are Rome, Gregoria and Madaba. They are each depicted as Tyche seated on a throne and each holds a small cross on a long stuff in her right hand. Gregoria and Madaba wear turreted crowns on their heads, while Rome wears a helmet of a style which is typical in the official iconography of the era.
© Michele Piccirillo
Franciscan Archaeological Institute on Mount Nebo