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A Brief History Of Early Jewish Art

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A Brief History Of Early Jewish Art

Up until the 18 th century, Rabbinical authorities believed that visual Jewish art was prohibited by the Second Commandment. Around this time visual Jewish art qualified as “graven images” and Jewish artists were rare until they were found living within assimilated European communities. Despite early religious community fears that the art could be used for the purpose of idol worshiping, evidence has been found that Jewish sacred art has been recorded in Tanakh and is shown to exist through Jewish Antiquity and throughout the middle ages.

The two temples in Jerusalem and the Tabernacle form what is said to be the first known “Jewish Art” examples that existed. During the Common Era’s first centuries, religious Jewish art was also found to be created in Greece and Syria. Frescoes, or mural paintings which were painted on freshly laid lime plaster, were found on the Dura Europas Synagogue wall.

The Jewish tradition of illuminating manuscripts during the ancient time can be seen from the borrowings of the Early Medieval Christian Art. Rabbinical and Kabbalistic literature from the Middle Ages also contains graphic art, textural art, and manuscripts like the Nuremberg Mahzor and the illuminated Haggadahs like the Sarajevo Haggadah. Some illustrations that were done were by Jewish artists, others by Christian and vice versa.

Byzantine synagogues feature elaborate mosaic floor tiles. The 6th century synagogue remains were uncovered in Sepphoris. This was an important part of Jewish culture between the 3 rd and 7th century. The mosaic offers a reflection of an interesting partnership between pagan and Jewish beliefs. The depiction of a Zodiac wheel was found in the center of the floor. Helios the Sun God sits in his chariot while each Zodiac matches with a Jewish Month. The binding of Isaac and other biblical scenes can be see along-side the mosaic in strips.

Built during the Reign of Justin I (518-27), the Beth Alpha synagogue floor also features elaborate nave mosaics. Different scenes are depicted from the 3 panels. These include the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, the zodiac, and the Holy Ark. The centre features Helios the Sun God while the four women on the mosaic’s corners represent the 4 seasons.

The figurative depiction ban was not taken as serious for the Jews who were living in Byzantine Gaza. In the regions ancient harbor area, the remains of the Gaza synagogue were found in 1965. The depiction of this mosaic floor shows King David as Orpheus. This was identified by his name found in Hebrew letters. Near King David sits a giraffe, lion cubs, and a snake which are depicted as listening to him as he plays the lyre. A larger portion of the floor is divided into medallions which are formed by leaves of a vine. Each of these contains an animal including a zebra, bears, panthers, peacocks, a giraffe, and a lioness suckling her cubs and so on.

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