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Examination of mosaic making in the Holy Land earns Hebrew University the Polonsky Prize

Historical survey of excavated mosaic art of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims earns Hebrew University professor the first prize in this year's Polonsky Awards

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


IMAGE: Prof. Rina Talgam receives the Polonsky Prize from Marc Polonsky during an award ceremony at the Hebrew University view more

Credit: Douglas Guthrie

Mosaics are not mere decorations, for when approached critically they can be read as first-rate historical documents that sharpen and refine our understanding of societies, their ideologies, institutions and liturgies.

The Holy Land (present day Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority) has been a central arena where different faiths met, communicated, competed and conflicted with each other. It boasts a plethora of ancient mosaics from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Early Abbasid periods.

Prof. Rina Talgam, the Alice and Edward J. Winant Family Professor of Art History, in the History of Art Department in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Faculty of Humanities, has been following the intricate visual dialogues among Paganism, Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity and Islam in the Holy Land from before the Roman Empire to after the Muslim conquests.

"Mosaics located in private and public spheres, in both secular and religious buildings, played an important role in constructing cultural, religious and ethnic identities in a multicultural society, often intended to reflect the difference among the various communities, but also testified to the existence of an extensive commonality," Talgam said.

In her recent book -- Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land (Penn State University Press, July 2014) -- Talgam offers comprehensive analytical history of mosaics from a wide chronological range (a millennium), reviewing all aspects of the floor mosaics in their multicultural contexts.

"The discussion of the mosaics touches upon a long list of questions and deals with all aspects of the mosaics. Alongside the study of iconographic aspects, it examined the compositional characteristics, the style and the technique of the mosaic," said Talgam, a highly experienced archaeologist specializing in ancient art of the Middle East.

The book examines the relations between the religious and secular spheres and indicates a considerable degree of dynamism in the drawing of the boundaries between them over the course of time. What make this endeavor both timely and imperative are recent archeological discoveries that have considerably enriched the existing corpora and, above all, have challenged prevailing assumptions.

"The inclusion of mosaics in the scholarly discourse makes possible a richer perception of the past and sheds light on both the intimate links and the disjunctions between art and text," Talgam said.

Talgam's research has earned her the First Prize of the Polonsky Prizes for Creativity & Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines for the year 2016. The prize was presented to her at the Hebrew University's 79th annual meeting of the Board of Governors in Jerusalem, by Marc Polonsky, Associate Governor of the Hebrew University and former trustee of the British Friends of the Hebrew University

The Polonsky Prizes were initiated by Dr. Leonard S. Polonsky, a devoted, long serving former Trustee, now Patron of the British Friends of the Hebrew University. Dr. Polonsky is a Hebrew University Governor and Honorary Governor recipient whose charitable foundation has been funding such prizes for over 20 years in order to highlight the originality and creativity of scholarship in the humanities at the Hebrew University. The Prizes are awarded for creative endeavors in all areas of the humanities that were written or published during the past five years.

Dr. Polonsky holds an Honorary Doctorate from the Hebrew University, of which he is a Governor and where he serves on the Board of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. At the Hebrew University he established the Polonsky Prizes for Creativity and Originality in the Hmanitiewhich have been awarded annually since 2004. Other support for the Hebrew University includes awards for study in China and scholarships for undergraduates of Ethiopian background.


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Israel's leading academic and research institution, producing one-third of all civilian research in Israel. For more information, visit

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