Kartmin, Monastery of Mar Gabriel

Era 6AD
Location Güngören Mahallesi, 47510 Midyat/Mardin, Turkey
Placement Lateral lunettes and vaults of the old church

The monastery of Mar Gabriel was founded in 397 and is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. It is an important centre for the Syrian Christians of the region (the Tur Abdin, right in the south of Turkey), a working monastic community.

The church was built in c512. The mosaics that survive are in the small, dark back end of the church, on the lateral lunettes and vaults. There was probably a mosaic in the apse (because the apse is the most important part of a church and so if there are mosaics in other parts, it would be very odd not to have them in the apse too).

These mosaics are all aniconic (no humans/animals). In the vault, grape vines spring from amphorae and form rinceaux patterns across the surface. In the centre is a medallion with a rayed, jewelled cross. Gold tesserae make a background in the vault, and the amphorae are silver, decorated with gold. The branches of the vine are made from a coarse brown ceramic with green and blue glass intermingled, as well as pink marble. Each lunette depicts a domed ciborium (an architectural feature usually located over a tomb, and so making reference to Christ’s burial) resting on four columns with swirly Corinthian capitals. At each side of the dome is an arched lamp. Under the ciborium of the south lunette is an altar table with three vessels on it, perhaps a Eucharistic and so Christological reference; whatever was under the north ciborium is now missing. The background of these mosaics is again gold, but there are details of a low hilly landscape and tree and plants. The gold tesserae are angled to catch and reflect light, evidence of sophisticated artistry. Silver glass is also employed, but some limestone tesserae are painted red, suggesting that red glass was not available. Look for the clever use of gold for highlighting details, on the amphorae for example, and in the border patterns of the vaults – the use of darts of silver, light brown, pink, red, gold and their modulation into each other works very well, as do the silver tesserae radiating out into spaces between the stars of the inner border. In this enclosed church, with the materials available, this liberal use of highlights counteracts the darkness of the space.

The church as a whole was well-furnished: the walls, for example, may well have been revetted in marble, which elsewhere has been taken as an indication of considerable cost devoted to the building.

There is an unexpected element to these mosaics; today they exist in splendid isolation, an anomaly, seemingly miles from anywhere, certainly miles from any other surviving mosaic still on its wall. The nearest are perhaps those in Cyprus. But to the south and west of Mar Gabriel, there is archaeological evidence suggesting that wall mosaics were used – to the south in modern Syria, at Qal’at Sem’ān, the church of the famous stylite saint, Symeon the Elder, Sergiopolis and Bosra; to the west, Jerash in Jordan. Here and elsewhere, enough tesserae, including gold and silver, have been found to imply mosaics. So rather than an outlier, Kartmin and its mosaics may well have been a part of a wider mosaic industry in the Levant and south east Asia Minor. And in the sixth century, Mar Gabriel was a place of pilgrimage. It had sponsorship from emperors in Constantinople. Most notable was Anastasios I who sent (or funded) workmen for the construction. But it was a Syriac Christian monastery and both its imperial patron and its mosaics have been associated with Monophysitism, a theological dispute of considerable importance in the Empire.

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