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Fr Michele Piccirillo

Franciscan priest and archaeologist who became an expert on the mosaics of early churches in Jordan.

Father Michele Piccarillo, who died on 26 October 2008, aged 63, was a Franciscan priest, biblical scholar, field archaeologist, mosaic specialist, Greek epigraphist and restoration expert of the Christian Holy Land.

As director of the Archaeological Institute on Mount Nebo, in Jordan, during the 1980s and 1990s, Piccirillo presided over a succession of startling discoveries that have changed radically our perception of the status quo of the Christian communities of Jordan after the Muslim Conquest in AD 636, demonstrating that they were in fact both economically flourishing and artistically creative.

At Madaba, Phaedra's incestuous passion for her son-in-law Hippolytus was colourfully depicted on mosaic cubes, while intricate geometric designs (in keeping with the Abbassid Caliphs' prohibition of figurative art) dominated the paved floor of the Church of the Virgin, erected in AD 767.

At Umm er-Rasas (declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 2004) on the semi-arid Jordanian plateau, he discovered striking mosaics in the church of St Stephen, depicting 28 cities of Palestine, Jordan and the Egyptian Delta, along with hunting, pastoral and harvesting scenes, as well as inscriptions which provided the date of AD 785.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in order to publicise the importance of Jordan's mosaics, Piccirillo organised exhibitions (usually associated with day schools and lectures for the general public) across Europe, from Iceland to Austria. Particularly memorable were the 1991 Liverpool exhibition Treasures from an Ancient Land and the 1993 Manchester exhibition Christian Mosaics from Jordan.

Michele Piccirillo was born on November 18 1944 in Casananova di Carnola in south-west Italy. He joined the Franciscan Order, and at the age of 16 was sent to Jerusalem to study at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (SBF) in the Flagellation Monastery on the Via Dolorosa, beginning an association with the Holy Land that was to last until his death.

After being ordained priest in 1969, Piccirillo quickly garnered a series of academic distinctions: in 1970 he received the Licentiate in Theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum, and four years later the Licentiate in Holy Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, both in Rome; in 1975 he was awarded a doctorate in archaeology from the Institute of Near Eastern Studies at La Sapienza University in Rome for his thesis on Israelite pottery, which he had written under the supervision of the distinguished Orientalist Professor Paolo Matthiae.

In 1974 Piccirillo was appointed curator of the SBF Archaeological Museum where, single-handedly, he re-ordered the very considerable collections of its archaeological finds – the results of excavations at the Herodian fortresses of Machaerus in Moab (where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded); the Herodion (Herod the Great's palace and fortress in the Judaean Hills); the "Dominus Flevit" site on the Mount of Olives and in the Constantinian basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In addition to his role as curator, he became Professor of Biblical History and Geography at the SBF, guiding its students on unforgettable field trips to Sinai and Jordan.

In 1973 emergency conservation work had to be undertaken on the fragile 6th-century mosaics uncovered in the 1930s in the Church of the Holy Martyrs Lot and Procopius at Khirbet al-Mekhayyat in central Jordan, and subsequently, in 1976, in the 4th- to 6th-century memorial church of Moses on Mount Nebo. It was during the course of these conservation activities that Piccirillo's genius and reputation as a field archaeologist began. The discovery, a metre below the surface of the memorial church of Moses, of a mosaic-paved baptistery depicting hunting and pastoral scenes as well as exotic beasts and a Greek inscription dating the baptistery to AD 530, launched Piccirillo on his career. Anxious to protect the antiquities which he had discovered and to train locally conservationists and restorers (thus generating work opportunities in impoverished communities), in 1992 Piccirillo founded the Madaba Mosaic School (now an institute recognized by the high council of education in Jordan), with the support and funds of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the department of antiquities in the Jordanian ministry of tourism.

In 2000, in cooperation with the Palestinian department of antiquities and with a grant from Italy, he established the Jericho Workshop for Mosaic Restoration, which now trains and employs several young Palestinians.

In Bethlehem, Piccirillo's Documentation Centre for local scholars and students serves also as a training centre in traditional crafts. With the support of the Syrian, Palestinian and Jordanian authorities, Piccirillo conceived the Bilad al-Sham Project to bring young people together from the three countries and train them in ancient mosaic conservation.

In latter years, Piccirillo launched the Magdala Project on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to map and preserve the ruins of the city of Mary Magdelene before the start of a new campaign of excavations.

Piccirillo's publications, in Italian, French and English, were numerous and wide-ranging. But among his scores of books, catalogues and articles, the following stand out: Chiese e Mosaici della Giordania Settentrionale (1981); Chiese e mosaici di Madaba (1989); The Mosaics of Jordan (1993); and L'Arabie chrétienne (2002). There were also (in collaboration with his Fransciscan colleague, Father Eugenio Alliata) Mayfa'ah Umm el-Rasas I: Complesso di Santo Stefano (1993); Mount Nebo: New Archaeological Excavations (1967-1997), published in 1998; and The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997 (1999).

A long-standing friend of the Jordanian royal family, who valued his contribution to archaeology in Jordan, Father Piccirillo could boast of having introduced a multitude of dignitaries – including Pope John Paul II, President Carlo Ciampi of Italy, and Laura Bush – to the sites of Nebo and Madaba. Yet at heart he was the humblest of scholars, committed, industrious and single-minded. In an area torn apart by strife and division, he was respectful of all religious traditions and was in turn, respected by Jew, Muslim and Christian alike.

His contagious enthusiasm and warm personality endeared him to all; he gave his time unstintingly to visiting scholars, students and pilgrims, delighting them with his ability to explain complex archaeological sites in the easiest and most fascinating ways. His teaching and influence will be perpetuated by the younger generation of local archaeologists, architects and restorers whom he inspired and trained.

Michele Piccirillo was laid to rest on All Saints Day on Mount Nebo in Jordan, from where, according to biblical tradition, Moses had his first glimpse of the Promised Land and where he too is buried.

From the Daily Telegraph website - Last Updated: 7:13PM GMT 14 Nov 2008

See also "Mosaics as History" in our Book Reviews



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