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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Floor-mosaics with Greek inscriptions from the rotunda church of *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033) in Madaba (Roman province of Arabia/Jordan), with a poem praising Mary as the Mother of God and possibly indicating the presence of her image, a dedicatory text dated probably 767, and an invocation to her (probably c. 607/608).

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)

Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea)

Images and objects - Wall paintings and mosaics

Images and objects - Images described in texts

Literary - Poems

The inscriptions were first published by Joseph Germer-Durand in 1890 in the journal Le Cosmos from a copy by an unnamed 'Latin missionary'. Inscription 3 was also independently published that year by Marie-Joseph Lagrange (Dominican and founder of the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem) in the journal La Science catholique. Among authors of early copies we also have: Giuseppe Manfredi and E. Zaccaria (their transcription was edited by Giovanni Battista de Rossi), and Paul Séjourné. Since then the texts have been many times re-published and commented on. Here we follow the most recent edition by Andreas Rhoby (for Inscription 1) and the edition by Pierre-Louis Gatier (for Inscriptions 2 and 3). For a list of earlier editions, alternative readings and restorations, see I. Jordanie 2, nos. 130-132.

Inscription 1:

Medallion set in the middle of the floor-mosaic of the rotunda. Framed by a circular braid, a chevron, and a square inscribed into another circle decorated with depictions of flowers and leaves. Diameter: 1.36 m. Letter height 0.11 m. Black letters in white background.

Four verses of hexameters. Here set out in verse form.

παρθενι|κὴν Μαρίην θεο|μήτορα καὶ ὃν ἔτικ|τεν
Χ(ριστὸ)ν παμβασιλῆα θε|οῦ μόνον υἱέα μούνου |
δερκόμενος καθάρευ|ε νόον καὶ σάρκα καὶ ἔ|ργα
ὡς καθαραῖς | εὐχαῖς αὐτὸν | θ(εὸ)ν <ἵ>λαον <εὕρῃς> (palm)

v.4 θ(εὸ)ν Rhoby, θ[νήτο]ν Séjourné, θ(εῖο)ν Piccirillo,
SEG, Buschhausen, Gatier, Michel || <ἵ>λαον <εὕρῃς> Rhoby, λαόν other editors

'Beholding Mary, the virginal mother of God (
theometor), and the one she bore, Christ, the King of All, the only son of the only God, purify your mind and body, and acts, so that by pure prayers you <may find> the merciful God himself.'

Text: Rhoby 2009, no. M7. Translation: P. Nowakowski.

Inscription 2:

Fragmentary rectangular mosaic panel framed by a
tabula ansata. H. 1.10 m; W. 3.07 m. Letter height 0.09 m. Set in the floor-mosaic of the rotunda, in front of the chancel screen. The left-hand end of the panel was originally covered by a modern building. Together with line 1 it was uncovered only in 1978 during the excavations by Michele Piccirillo.

palm) ἐπὶ τοῦ ὡσιω(τάτου) πατρὸς ἡμῶν Θεοφάνους ἐπησκώπου
̣ἐ[γέν]̣ητω τὸ πᾶν καλὸν ἔργον τοῦτο τῆς ψιφώ-
[σεως τοῦ ἐ]νδώξου κ(αὶ) σεπτοῦ ὔκου τῆς ἁγίας (καὶ) ἀχράντου δεσποί-
[νης ....] Θεοτώκου σπουδῇ (καὶ) προθυμίᾳ τοῦ φιλωχ(ρίστο)υ λαοῦ ταύ(τη)ς
[τῆς πόλε]
̣ος Μιδάβων ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας (καὶ) ἀντιλήμσεος (καὶ) ἀφέ-
[σ(εως) ἁμαρτ]ιῶν τῶν καρποφωρησάντων (καὶ) καρποφω-
̣ν τῷ ἁγίο τώπο τούτῳ· ἀμήν, Κ(ύρι)ε. ἐταιλιώ-
[θη χάρ]ιτη θεοῦ μινὴ Φεβρουαρήο ἔτους ,ς<σ>οδ΄ ἰνδ(ι)κ(τιῶνος) ε΄

8. ,ς<σ>οδ΄ Di Segni, ϡοδ΄ Gatier

'Under our most venerable father, bishop Theophanes, was made all this beautiful work of the mosaic of the glorious and venerable house (
oikos) of the holy and immaculate Lady (despoina) [- - -] the God-Bearer (Theotokos), by the care and zeal of the Christ-loving people of this [city] of Madaba, as a vow for the salvation and succour and the remission [of sins] of those who offered and offer to this holy place (hagios topos). Amen, O Lord! It was completed by the grace of God in the month of February of the year 6<2>74, in the 5th indiction.'

I. Jordanie 2, no. 131 with a different reading of the date in line 8 by Leah Di Segni. Translation: L. Di Segni, lightly modified.

Inscription 3:

Mosaic panel set in the floor at the entrance to the nave. One line. Red letters on black background. The right-hand end is covered by an arch. Dimensions not specified.

ἁγία Μαρία, βοήθι Μηνᾷ τῷ δ[- - -]νον

usually completed as τῷ δ[ούλῳ σου

'O Holy Mary, help Menas, [your servant (?) - - -]!'

I. Jordanie, no. 132.

Cult Places

Cult building - independent (church)
Cult building - dependent (chapel, baptistery, etc.)

Use of Images

Public display of an image
Descriptions of images of saints
Praying before an image

Non Liturgical Activity

Saint as patron - of a community
Renovation and embellishment of cult buildings
Bequests, donations, gifts and offerings


Miraculous protection - of communities, towns, armies

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops
Other lay individuals/ people


The church, usually called the church of Mary, based on the contents of our texts, is sited in the northeast sector of the town, near a road, just opposite the so-called 'church of the Prophet Elijah' (see E02464).

The church superseded an earlier Roman structure. As there are traces of a semicircular wall beneath the north part of the building and no parallel remnants to the south, it has been suggested that it was a semicircular nymphaeum, opening to the adjacent street. Piccirillo argued alternatively that this could have been a circular temple, from which spolia were used for the construction of our church and that of the Holy Martyrs (see E02425), and that the west doorway of our church might actually have been a refurbished entrance to the original building.

The church has an interesting three part structure: vestibule, rotunda and chancel. The westernmost room ('vestibule') was built over the so-called 'room of Hippolytus'. It was a rectangular chamber measuring 7.30 m x 9.50 m, that was connected to a complex of rooms, paved courtyard and cisterns, probably in a house or houses. Based on the style of its mosaic pavements, the complex was dated to the mid-6th c. as it resembles frames of a mosaic from the church of Theodore (E02424; AD 562), but the excavations of 1991/1992 suggested that it could be of an earlier date.

The 'vestibule' of the church measures 4.60 m x 10.60 m. It was accessible through three doorways and incorporated walls of an earlier structure in its west part. From the 'vestibule' one could access the rotunda (which formed the body of the church) through a
tribelon supported by two pairs of columns. The diameter of the rotunda was 9.70 m. It had a doorway in its north wall and has a semicircular niche in the south wall, immediately above a rectangular cavity in the floor. The south wall is preserved up to a height of c. 2.00 m. The chancel (5.80 m x 7.10 m) was a square with a raised floor, ending with an apse inscribed in a semi-hexagon. It was separated from the rotunda by a chancel screen.

The rotunda contains well preserved floor-mosaics decorated with geometric patterns and a centrally positioned panel with Inscription 1 (the poem). Inscription 2 was set in front of the chancel screen. The
tribelon doorway was also paved with mosaics, but they are severely damaged.

It is believed that the church was constructed in the late 6th c. (probably in the same period as the nearby 'crypt of Ailianos', dated 595/596, E02464), paved in c. 607/608, and refurbished in c. 757, possibly to remove figural depictions in the floor-mosaics.

The site has been known since the late 19th c., but the building itself has been relatively poorly studied, while it was the inscriptions that originally attracted the attention of scholars. We owe the first description of the architecture of the shrine to Meletios Metaxakis who surveyed it in 1905. Preliminary excavations were initiated by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan in 1973/1974 (but this campaign was mostly focused on the nearby church of Elijah) and resumed by the DAJ together with the Franciscan Archaeological Institute in 1979-1982 under the supervision of Michele Piccirillo. Further research was done in 1991/1992 by the DAJ and the Franciscan Institute (with funding by the Canada Fund and United States Agency for International Development) when the area was converted to an archaeological park.

For a description of the site, see Michel 2001, 314-319, no. 120.


Inscription 1 is a poem consisting of four hexameter verses. It praises Mary as the Mother of the only Son of the One God. The emphasis put on the uniqueness of Christ and his Father led Gautier to suggest that the inscription might be of miaphysite origin, but this possibility was rejected by Piccirillo. Since the reader is described as 'beholding' (δερκόμενος) the Virgin and her Child, one can assume that an image of Mary was also present in the church, probably in the form or a wall painting or a mosaic on a wall, or in the conch of the apse (cf. E02633 from el-Rashidiyah in south Jordan with a similar motif). The author of the poem uses a peculiar term to name Mary as Mother of God, θεομήτωρ (Mother of God) instead of the usual Θεοτόκος (Bearer of God). Andreas Rhoby points out that verse two resembles a poem in the church of the Apostles in the Quarter of Hormisdas in Constantinople by an unknown author, preserved in the Greek Anthology (I 8, see E00551), and the ending of verse four ('you <may find> the merciful God himself') is paralleled in a verse of an epigram by Gregory of Nazianzus, also included in the Greek Anthology (VIII 37). The latter supposition requires, however, an editorial intervention in the text of our inscription (which we follow in the main text), and other editors preferred to read here a different expression referring to the 'divine' or 'mortal folk' (θ(εῖο)ν or θ[νήτο]ν λαόν).

Inscription 2 commemorates the re-paving of the shrine. It says explicitly that the church was dedicated to Mary whom it calls 'the Holy and Immaculate Lady, the God-Bearer' (ἡ ἁγία καὶ ἄχραντος δέσποινα [ἡμῶν?] Θεοτόκος). We learn that the work was completed under bishop Theophanes as a vow for present and former donors to the church. The last line contains an era year. There have been several attempts to read and convert it, and consequently several different dates for this re-paving have been suggested. The main reason was the 'enigmatic first digit' of the number of the era year, the existence of faulty copies, and the uncertainty which era was actually used by the author of the system. All the possibilities were re-assessed and thoroughly discussed by Leah Di Segni in 1992 and her dating of the mosaic is now the universally accepted one. The suggested dates ranged from the mid-4th c. (AD 362 argued by Séjourné) to mid-7th c., and the system of time reckoning was identified as the Seleucid (Séjourné), a presumed Constantinian era allegedly starting in AD 313 (Germer Durnad), an unknown local era (Michon and Vincent), or an
anno mundi year. The most influential edition (in I. Jordanie 2 by Pierre-Louis Gatier) adopted the supposition of Clermont Ganneau that the number of the year reads ϡοδ΄ = 974 and that it was computed according to the Seleucid era, which corresponds to AD 662/663 (namely February AD 663). This view was accepted also by Michele Piccirillo and one can find this date in a number of other works discussing our text. Leah Di Segni, however, rightly points out that February AD 663 does not fall in the 5th indiction year, and that the Seleucid era is never used in known late antique inscriptions of the region. She argues that we should read the date as a year of an anno mundi era (probably the Byzantine one rather than the Alexandrine), as suggested by Batiffol in 1895. But whereas Batiffol read the era year as ,ςοδ΄ = 6074 and converted the date to AD 566, Di Segni suggested that the mosaicist omitted the number of hundreds in the date, and that we should add sigma (= 200) between stigma and οmicron. Thus she reaches the date 6274 = AD 766/767. The reason is that AD 566, argued by Batiffol does not fall in the 5th indiction year, while the addition of sigma (200) to the preserved number is the only emendation that is compatible with a fifth indiction year. Di Segni's dating agrees with the stratigraphy of the floor-mosaics, and it is highly probable that the floor of the rotunda was repaved precisely in February 767. The use of the Byzantine creation era in the territory of Madaba in the mid-8th c. is documented by an inscription from Wadi 'Ayn al-Kanisah at Mount Nebo (see E02563). Di Segni adds that a date in 767 places our inscription after the iconoclastic edict of Yazid II, while it openly praises an image of Mary. The scholar, however, comments that the edict did not result in an immediate destruction of all Christian depictions but rather started a controversy, and that we have literary evidence that Palestinian (Jordanian) bishops were fierce defenders of images. Garth Fowden (2004) accepted this reasoning, but Gatier 2011, 12, note 54 and 16, note 86 considers Di Segni's solution 'problematic'. He is also skeptical about the possibility that the poem from Inscription 1 would have been composed in such a late period, as one can hardly expect hexameter verses in mid-8th c. dedicatory inscriptions. Gatier suggests that the poem, and therefore, the image it describes, must be of a significantly earlier date than Inscription 2, even if the date of 767 is correct.

Inscription 3 belongs to a layer of mosaics that are earlier than Inscriptions 1 and 2. It is possible that Menas, who is the supplicant in our invocation, is the person appearing in the dedicatory inscription from the church of Elijah (E02464), dated AD 607/608.


Inscription 1:
Rhoby, A., Byzantinische Epigramme in inschriflticher Überlieferung, vol. 1: Byzantinische Epigramme auf Fresken und Mosaiken (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009), no. M7.

Merkelbach, R., Stauber, J.,
Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten, vol. 4 (Stuttgart: Teubner, 2002), no. 22/56/01.

Gatier, P.-L.,
Inscriptions de la Jordanie, vol. 2: Région centrale (Amman, Hesban, Madaba, Main, Dhiban) (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1986), no. 130 (with further bibliography) and Pl. XXVI.

Buschhausen, H., "Die Marienkirche von Madaba und der Saal des Hippolytos", in:
Byzantinische Mosaiken aus Jordanien (Ausstellung Schallaburg – NÖ, 9.8.1986 – 2.11. 1986), (Vienna: Amt der Nö. Landesregierung, 1986), 140-141.

Piccirillo, M., "La chiesa della Vergine a Madaba",
Liber Annuus 32 (1982), 383.

Séjourné, P.-M., "", La Revue biblique 1 (1892), 639-640.

Inscription 2:
Gatier, P.-L.,
Inscriptions de la Jordanie, vol. 2: Région centrale (Amman, Hesban, Madaba, Main, Dhiban) (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1986), no. 131 (with further bibliography).

Inscription 3:
Gatier, P.-L., Inscriptions de la Jordanie, vol. 2: Région centrale (Amman, Hesban, Madaba, Main, Dhiban) (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1986), no. 132 (with further bibliography) and Pl. XXVI.

Further reading:
Devreesse, R.,
Le patriarcat d'Antioche depuis la paix de l'Église jusqu'à la conquête arabe (Paris: J. Gabalda et cie, 1945), 221.

Di Segni, L., "The date of the church of the Virgin in Madaba",
Liber Annuus 42 (1992), 251-257 and Pl. 25-26.

Di Segni, L., "The use of chronological systems in sixth-eight centuries Palestine",
Aram 18-19 (2006-2007), 115.

Fowden, G., "Late-antique art in Syria and its Umayyad evolutions",
Journal of Roman Archaeology 17 (2004), 295-296.

Gatier, P.-L., "Inscriptions grecques, mosaïques et églises des débuts de l'époque islamique au Proche-Orient (VIIe-VIIIe) siècles", in: A. Borrut, M. Debié, A. Papaconstantinou, D. Pieri, J.-P. Sodini (eds.),
Le Proche-Orient de Justinien aux Abassides : peuplement et dynamiques spatiales : actes du colloque "Continuités de l'occupation entre les périodes byzantine et abbasside au Proche-Orient, VIIe-IXe siècles," Paris, 18-20 octobre 2007 (Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité tardive 19, Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 12, 16, 21.

Michel, A.,
Les églises d'époque byzantine et umayyade de Jordanie (provinces d'Arabie et de Palestine), Ve-VIIIe siècle: typologie architecturale et aménagements liturgiques (avec catalogue des monuments; préface de Noël Duval; premessa di Michele Piccirillo) (Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité tardive 2, Turnhout: Brepols, 2001), 314-319, no. 120 (with further bibliography).

Piccirillo, M.,
The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman, Jordan: American Center of Oriental Research, 1992 [2008, 3rd ed.])

Piccirillo, M., "The Province of Arabia during the Persian Invasion (613-629/630)", in: K.G. Holum, H. Lapin (eds.),
Shaping the Middle East. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in an Age of Transition, 400-800 C.E. (Bethesda, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2011), 101.

Sartre-Fauriat, A., "Georges, Serge, Élie et quelques autres saints connus et inédits de la province d'Arabie", in: Fr. Prévot (ed.),
Romanité et cité chrétienne. Permances et mutations. Intégration et exclusion du Ier au VIe siècle. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Yvette Duval (Paris: De Boccard, 2000), 309.

Reference works:
Bulletin épigraphique (1994), 665; (1996), 504; (2003), 604.

Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 30, 1709; 32, 1545-1546.


Photograph of Inscription 1. From: Piccirillo 1992 [3rd ed. 2008].

Photograph of Inscription 2. From: Piccirillo 1992 [3rd ed. 2008], 64.

Drawing of Inscription 2. From: Di Segni 1992, 251.

Photograph of Inscription 3. From: I. Jordanie 2, Pl. XXVI.

Plan of the church. From: Michel 2001, 315.

Reconstruction of the church of Mary (to the left) and of Elijah (to the right). From: Michel 2001, 321.

Photograph of the church. From: Michel 2001, 317.

Photograph of the church. From: Michel 2001, 317.

Plan of the city. From: Michel 2001, 303.

Photograph of the rotunda with Inscription 1. From:

Photograph of the mosaic in the 'room of Hippolyte'. From:

Record Created By

Paweł Nowakowski

Date Last Modified


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristΜαρίαCertain

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