This is from Janet Laisch:
One winter in Rome, on my way to research at the Vatican Photo Archives, I stopped and requested a ticket to attend Papal Mass. On that third Sunday of Advent, I arrived early enough to enter the Vatican and find a vantage point of the Pope. However, the Pope’s proclamation was well beyond my understanding of Italian.
Rather than leave my seat, I reviewed my camera’s images.
These images depicted the story I had hoped to hear.
The advent story continues about a week prior to Christmas with Mary and Joseph on a journey to Bethlehem as Luke win 2.1-5.
“At that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own hometown. Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David. Joseph went there because he was a descendant of David. He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant…”
Only about a week before Mary gave birth, with a full, round belly and a desire to nest rather than undertake dangerous, unplanned travel, Mary and Joseph journeyed 70 miles south through rocky terrain and dangerous circumstances to fulfill Biblical prophecy.
Very few art pieces exist showing the Journey to Bethlehem. Thus, I appreciated this mosaic at the Chora Church in Turkey dating from the twelfth century even more for its rarity. Entering the Chora Church is different from entering the Vatican. To walk through the Chora Church is like entering a life size jeweled box where every surface sparkles as colored glass, gold and semi-precious stones reflect and refract light. The artisans achieved this shimmery quality using chisel blades to hammer stones or tesserae into varying sizes and shapes.
Next, they incised this image using a sharp instrument and laid pigments to guide the placement of tesserae. The team climbed scaffolding to reach the upper walls and carefully placed thousands of tesserae into a wet plaster foundation.
At the Chora Church, large gold tesserae sparkle in the background of the Journey to Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, depicted on the left, is the smallest image of the mosaic which helps create a sense of three-dimensional space. Smaller glass tesserae represent red roof tiles, stucco townhomes, towering stone walls, and soaring cypress trees. In the middle-ground, gray, with accents of blue and white tesserae represent the rocky terrain from Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey.
In the foreground, green tesserae depict lush grass rather than dry, desert more typical of topography near Bethlehem. A life size Mary has the most convincing proportions whereas a haloed Joseph following behind Mary is elongated.
Typical to Joseph imagery, he walks with a slight stoop of an elderly man. The smallest tesserae in varying shades depict detailed and loving expressions on their faces. Joseph’s eyes are turned toward Mary who has her head turned towards him. One of Joseph’s sons is leading them carrying a small knapsack.
The next mosaic, at the Chora Church, depicts the registration for their taxes. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, sits on a throne at the left flanked by an armed military guard. In the middle, scribes hold a scroll recording names and taxes paid. On the right, Mary is standing tall with her head bowed toward the officers. Joseph is shown with his sons helping her. As in the previous mosaic, the background shimmers in pure gold tesserae.
Light is an integral medium of these mosaics; it not only enhances color and tonality, it makes surfaces kinetic like a hologram.
This kinetic quality encourages the believer to reach out and touch the rough and smooth surfaces and feel the stones dip and climb beneath their fingers.
Before church leaders proclaimed the Gospel in vernacular, one significant way Christians learned Bible stories was by interacting with images like these. Christians must have had a similar experience as I had, listening to the Pope speak in a language other than their native tongue. The message was lost.
Art, as a universal language, illustrates the Bible– stories so vital to knowing God.