The polychrome mosaic of the cella trichora
Of the mosaiced floor in the cella trichora only four surviving portions of a certain consistency remain. From these we can reconstruct a tetraconch composition in the form of a Greek cross enclosed by a cordon woven using the rainbow technique. Five short rays formed by alternate lines of red, black and yellow colours are added to the outer part between the enclosing cordon and the first step of the synthronon at the centre of the eastern semicircle. Figurative motifs are included at the inside of the wings with geometric motifs at the outside.
In the western wing of the tetraconch, which is best preserved, the remains of the northern half of a specular composition survive. This is made up of two facing eagles across a handled amphora on a moulded pedestal. Two vine shoots sprout from the neck of the amphora with leaves on the extremities which form four scrolls.
The surviving handle of the amphora, with its spiral ends, goes from the rim to the shoulder. The bellied body of the amphora is rendered with coloured bands, departing from the lower end, of shades from red to pink and grey to white. The shoulder of the amphora is rendered by a checkered stripe in which frames of red and white tesserae are alternated by frames of white and black tesserae, a motif which is repeated at the base.
The vine shoot which moves towards the north forms a larger scroll, which encircles the head of the eagle and ends with a tuft of leaves, and a second smaller scroll in which two facing birds are depicted. The birds are rendered very schematically with red tesserae. From the small scroll a tendril, made up of red tesserae, sprouts terminating with two pomegranates of the same colour in the resulting space on the side. In a specular way a second shoot forms a small scroll in which a bird is rendered with grey tesserae with two white tesseraed stripes on the tail and neck. The white background of the composition is enlivened by diamond shaped flowers. A cock figures in a terminal scroll of an autonomous composition near the base. This is rendered with a predominant use of grey tesserae where the red and yellow tesserae of the crest, neck, the wings' feathers and the tail stand out.
Based on the remains preserved in the other three semicircles, even if in a very fragmentary way, the composition at the inside of the three-apsed construction was based on scrolls created by vine shoots with the addition of animals. In one of the two scrolls of the southern semicircle the hind of a wild beast survived. The beast has its tail raised and its body and legs are rendered in a schematic way which the mosaicist tried to individualize with the insertion of white tesserae to give the impression of spotted fur . Outside the vine shoot the rainbow motif of the enclosing cordon of the tetraconch is interrupted by a vegetable motif.
The mosaicist inserted in a disorderly manner the two dedicatory inscriptions enclosed in motifs from the geometric repertoire in the resulting corners on the sides of the western semicircle, which is not affected, like the other three semicircles by the stonework of the steps of the synthronon or the benches. The best preserved inscription is that of Abbot Alexios which is inserted in a tabula ansata in the southern corner.
In the white border between the cordon of the tetraconch and the masonry, we find small palm trees and small geometric panels all of which are summarily executed.
Fr. Saller had already noted the many restorations, to which the mosaic of the cella trichora was subjected during the centuries, which included the use of glass tesserae, as well as the damage caused by the kindling of bonfires by the people who occasionally found refuge there after the abandonment of the church .
From the titles added to the names of the benefactors in the northern inscription, all described as "most illustrious" one can conclude that the renovation work of the sanctuary carried out by the abbot Alexios, was sponsored by officers of the imperial administration of the province.
According to the new discoveries I believe that we can keep the dating of Fr. Saller, the second half of the IV century - beginning of the V century. The mosaic fits well within the most ancient mosaics found to date in the Madaba region. I am referring particularly to the lower mosaic of Massuh which I have dated, for stratigraphic reasons, to the first half of the V century . This mosaic too is based on the geometric motif repertoire to which three figurative motifs are added. These are a ram tied to a shrub at the centre of the composition and two couples of birds facing a flower. Particularly we would like to point out the same figurative and technical characteristics such as the chromatic tonality of the detail of the rooster at the foot of the amphora of the mosaic of Nebo and the roosters of the church at Massuh.
The most determining element for the dating is the inscription read by Fr. Corbo in the third mosaic of the southern baptistery directly in contact with the tufa of the mountain which he dated to the second half of the IV century due to the presence of a small coin discovered in the bedding of the mosaic . In the inscription, with the name of the benefactor Caesar, one can read the names of the presbyters Alexios and Theophilus who are probably to be recognized as two abbots of the monastery . Accepting, with Fr. Corbo, that Alexios mentioned in this mosaic is the presbyter and egumen Alexios during whose time the sanctuary was renovated, the surviving portions of mosaic in the cella trichora are to be dated to the same period.
From the stratigraphic and structural examination it results that the mosaic belongs to a remaking of the cella trichora and not to the original structure. The discovery of polychromed tesserae in the filling soil underneath brings to mind the possibility that the mosaic of the first phase of the cella trichora was a polychromed mosaic, contemporary to the white mosaics of the surrounding areas.