Remembering Father Michele Piccirillo

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By Father Rosario Pierri, Dean of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. This blog post is adapted from Father Pieri’s remarks at ACOR’s public lecture, “A Memorial Evening for Father Michele Piccirillo,” on September 19, 2018.

Father Piccirillo at Mt. Nebo.

This year we commemorate Michele Piccirillo’s life on the 10th anniversary of his death. Father Piccirillo was a Franciscan priest by vocation, and an archaeologist by mission. When he was a boy and he first came to the Holy Land, it was because he wanted to be a Franciscan, and as a Franciscan Michele lived until the end of his life on earth. But why did he dedicate himself to archaeology? What were the decisive encounters that led him on this path?

In Jerusalem, during his theological studies, he came into contact with the professors of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, and in particular with Father Bellarmino Bagatti. In those years he began the journey which led him to become an archaeologist. His first articles of historical and artistic interest appeared in the magazine La Terra Santa. The general examinations produced excellent results, the road was already prepared. In Rome he studied first at the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum, where he obtained a Licentiate in Theology, then at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, specializing in Sacred Scripture, and finally at the State University “La Sapienza”, where he furthered his studies on the Near East.

His archaeological debut came in the summer of 1972, when he was entrusted by the superiors of the Custody with the restoration of the mosaics of the Church of Saints Lot and Procopius at Khirbet el-Mukhayyet in Jordan.

Father Piccirillo at Khirbet el-Mukhayyat in 1973. Photo courtesy of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

With the titles he had obtained, in the academic year 1974–1975, Father Michele became part of the teaching staff of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and of the Studium Theologicum Jerosolymitanum. In 1974 he was appointed director of the archaeological museum of the Flagellation Monastery. He taught Biblical Geography, to which study excursions were connected, and also Introduction to the Old Testament. Later he also dedicated himself to Biblical History. For the academic authority acquired over decades of studies, he was entrusted with a course on Archeology and Biblical Geography from the 1990s to 2000 at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Gifted with a great spirit of initiative, Father Michele was the promoter of numerous projects. His hyperactivity is well-known and this sometimes aroused some perplexity among his confreres, who suggested that he not exaggerate and think a little more about his own health. These words fell on deaf ears. The Holy Land offered him continuous possibilities that he could not ignore, so he fully devoted himself to his research, both in body and soul.

Jordan is undoubtedly the country in which Michele worked the most and in which he spent most of his life. Jordan was his passion. As I mentioned, he started out as an archaeologist with the excavation campaign at Khirbet el-Mukhayyet in 1972. Later, Mount Nebo became his primary focus. He devoted years of work and publications to this site, to the point that with time, a symbiosis developed between him and the site: the figure of Michele inextricably linked to Mount Nebo. From 1976 he became an official responsible for the Custody of the Holy Land. A large number of collaborators from all over the world gradually grew up around him, including archaeologists, architects, restorers, conservators, designers, students and friends. The friendship that bound them to Michele is evidenced by the numerous meetings organized during this year, the tenth anniversary of his death, in his memory.

An archaeologist does not seek; he discovers, he is guided and provoked, questioned by what he brings to light. If magnificent mosaics emerge from the excavations, it is natural that an archaeologist lets himself be dragged into the world that produced them. It is true that Michele had published studies on ceramics and on periods before the fourth century, but it was the encounter with the Byzantine strata, with the priceless treasures of that splendid period, that marked his scholarly activity. It is clear to everyone that this encounter was propitious. If one looks at his scientific production on the mosaics and on what he did to make these treasures known in the world, one will be astonished. And one senses that it was intuition and a great inner strength that pushed it forward. Those mosaics were not only studied according to aesthetic standards, they were above all a creative reflection of a society that entrusted to those works the expression of their faith, their memories, their desires, and their everyday life. It was thus that pages of civil and ecclesiastical history were rewritten, some clichés were debunked, and the phenomenon of iconoclasm which profoundly marked the regions east of the Jordan was discussed.

Mosaic floor of the diakonicon at the Memorial of Moses, Mt. Nebo. Photo courtesy of Franco Sciorilli.

Michele had excavations to his credit that led to the discovery of magnificent mosaics and inscriptions that have provided names of bishops, donors, and mosaicists, and dates that have helped to reconstruct the picture of four centuries of history. He brought to light the mosaic in the diakonicon at the Memorial of Moses in Nebo. He completed the excavation of the Church of the Virgin at Madaba with the complete reading of the dedicatory inscription. He identified the city of Um er-Rasas – Kastron Mefaa mentioned in several passages of the Old Testament (see Jos 13.18, 21.37, Jer 31.21, 48.21). These are just some of his main contributions. It would have been enough to define the brilliant career of Michele. I believe, however, that there is more, something more personal.

His skill, and herein lies his biggest merit, was to contribute to the consideration of the mosaics of Jordan not as individual works or documents in themselves, but as an expression of a school. This is no small feat. It may appear as a secondary aspect to the interpretation of the designs and the message of the inscriptions, but it is not. For an art critic or historian, it is essential to assign a product to a school or to a movement. With mosaics, we cannot speak of an artistic current, but of a school. The masters who composed the mosaic floors in the countless churches and other buildings that dotted Jordan in the Byzantine era learned their art in a shop; and Michele, great admirer of those ancient masters, was inspired by their example. So, together with his close collaborators, he founded the Madaba and Jericho Mosaic Schools.

Exhibition in Berlin at the Bode Museum, organized by Father Piccirillo. Photo courtesy of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

Michele organized exhibitions in various parts of the world, enabling a vast public audience to discover one of the most precious treasures of Jordan: its mosaics. In 1993, his enthusiastic research culminated in a volume entitled The Mosaics of Jordan, sponsored by the American Center of Oriental Research, whose preface even bears the signature of His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan. Four years later, Michele was the main promoter of the international congress organized to commemorate the centenary of the discovery of the Madaba Map, an event that was a great success and saw the participation of scholars from various countries of the Near East.

The cover of The Mosaics of Jordan, written by Father Piccirillo and published by ACOR in 1993.

For years, Mount Nebo has been a top destination for pilgrims and tourists who visit Jordan. If we think that in Jordan there are cities like Petra and Jerash, which are true world-class archaeological gems, we should also remember Gadara, Pella and Kerak, which are slightly lesser-known, and Mount Nebo is very small in comparison. However if we count the number of pilgrims and tourists who visit Mount Nebo, we will be amazed. It should be acknowledged that its height of popularity was perhaps reached with the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 2000, whose pilgrimage to the Holy Land began on Mount Nebo. It is due to the foresight of Michele, however, that a park was created which, at least according to his intentions, protected the site from the assault of concrete preserved as intact as possible the surrounding landscape. Michele realized that, to safeguard the major remains of the site, consolidation work and a new roof were needed. Once again his organizational talent was proven. He managed to involve several architectural studios, which presented their respective projects. To ensure that none of their excellent work was lost or forgotten, Michele had the brilliant idea of publishing their works in a volume and at the same time documenting the restoration work carried out until 2004 in the area of the Memorial site. It was undoubtedly a worthy initiative to commemorate the seventieth year since the beginning of archaeological research on Mount Nebo.

Mt. Nebo as it appeared in 1963 (left) and 2018 (right). Photos courtesy of Franco Sciorilli.

The mission of a true humanist is not for everyone. It demands loyalty, personal commitment, a wide-ranging knowledge of history and identities of peoples and places, a real militancy which is not always understood. It involves the denial of easy success, improvisation and compromise. A true humanist does not look away from the horizon, but is set to defend who and what has been entrusted to him and can see what others do not see.

Michele has been resting next to brother Girolamo Mihaic on Mount Nebo since 2008. It is from that mountain peak that these two friars continue to watch with their remains, that place and this land that they have deeply respected and loved.

The grave sites of Father Mihaic and Father Piccirillo at Mt. Nebo. Photo by Barbara A. Porter, 2009.

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