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