Ancient Jewish Art

Posted by Yevgeni Kuritski on 22nd Aug 2014

While in other communities, ancient art consists of paintings on cave walls or any other surfaces and sculptures, in the Jewish case, such drawings and sculptures were considered to be interfering with the second commandment on the interdiction of “graven images of God”. Thus, ancient Jewish art was moved onto ceremonial objects which would be richly adorned with different traditional motifs. The Jewish ancient art can be found on ceremonial objects as well as in the planning and construction of temples and synagogues.

The need to express the interest in art and beauty is documented firstly by the Torah. Its text gives evidence of the construction of altars, temples, as well as of a tabernacle, which the Israelites would be carrying with them in the desert when they fled Egypt. The Torah also provides evidence on the works of Bezalel, the first historically recorded Jewish artist. His skills were multiple as he dabbled in architecture, sculpture and the designing of holy garments. His most famous work was the designing of the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was deposited.

On account of the exile and the persecution which Jews suffered throughout the centuries, many of their artistically adorned objects were destroyed in the process and the only preserved pieces of art remain the ruins of ancient synagogues. The Beth Alpha synagogue of Israel has wonderful mosaics and so does the Duro-Europos synagogue of Syria. In addition to this, after the Babylonian captivity which led to further scattering of the people all over the globe, the Jewish artistic development came to a halt. Later on, during the Roman period, Jews were spread throughout the empire and their works are presented in the documents of the time. Approximately 150 synagogues had been built within the Roman Empire, and scattered further than the borders of Roman Palestine. Remnants of synagogues are to be found in Turkey, Italy, Tunisia and Hungary.

The Greek-Roman style was influential in the building of these synagogues, as many had floors decorated with mosaics, wheels of the zodiac with human faces instead of the zodiac signs, scenes depicted in the Torah and even allegorical drawings of the River Nile. Later on, in the Byzantine period, Jewish symbols began appearing along with more casual ornaments, such as birds, flowers, lions, fountains, etc. In synagogues such as Hamman Lif of Northern Africa, Hammath Tiberias and Sepphoris in Israel, one can find representations of traditional Jewish symbols – the “shofarot” (ram’s horns), the “menorot” (branched lamps) and even Torah shrines.

The presence of the Jews in the Roman Empire was influential to the artistic movement of both peoples. When the Second Temple was destroyed by Emperor Titus in 70 C.E., the event was represented by the building of the Arch of Titus in Rome and the adoption of elements of the Temple’s furnishing as Jewish symbols: the golden menorah, the lamp bearing seven arms, etc. The further representations of symbols and elements from the Temple need to be seen here both in an artistic manner, as well as in a religious one – Jews expressed thus their belief in the coming of a time when the Temple would be re-established.

It was also customary for the Jews of the Roman Empire to decorate their tombs: they would use the marble sarcophagi which were common to the wealthy Roman funerals and they decorated them with the menorah symbols. Also, those Jews buried in the catacombs would have plates with an engraved menorah placed over their tombs, just as the Christian Romans had plates with images of saints.

Representations of the menorah were common even in the early Byzantine years, and they would be found on plaques, seals, glass bottles or as decorations in the catacombs. The fact that these representations survived until present are an indicator of how integrated the Jewish population was within the Empire.

The synagogue art was also influenced by the Greek mythology. For instance, the synagogue of Hamat Tiberias has a representation of Helios, the Sun God, accompanied by his chariot. Another, more ample representation of Helios can be found in the Bet Alpha synagogue, where he is presented leading his sun chariot driven by four horses. The Tzipporit synagogue contains an image of a zodiac circle on a floor, depicting the Sun himself as the driver of the chariot. Such representations managed to make their way into the Jewish folklore and even in the passages of the Talmud.

The Torah is an incredibly rich source of details on Jewish ancient art. For instance, most sculptural works which have been achieved in the ancient days are mentioned in the Torah. Thus, there are mentions regarding the sculptures adorning Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem – twelve oxen, carrying an impressive water tank intended to be a metaphor for the “sea” described in Kings 7:25. There are also references to the presence of a bronze serpent, created by Moses himself, and of the embroidered tapestries which decorated the Temple’s walls.

Also, according to historians of religion and researchers who studied the Torah texts, sculpture was performed as a common craft, as the early Israelites were keen on building representations of local deities, such as Baal, Ashtoreth and Asherah, which they placed in sanctuaries built especially for them. Every house had small statues of the house protection deities – called teraphim- which would be carried around by the house owners whenever they left for a long trip.

The destruction of the Second Temple led to the disappearance of the figures, sculptures and statues of the deities worshipped by the Canaanites. The artistic movement continued to develop unconsciously, as the floors of the newly-built synagogues depicted images of characters and scenes from the Torah.

The later Hellenistic influence manifested when King Herod restored the Jerusalem Temple and later in the Synagogue built at the Cave of Mahpellah in Hebron, in the amphitheaters found in Caesarea and Bet She’an. Such buildings were dedicated to the public use- worship and study, which means that the art they contained was able to influence a high number of people, even though the latter only perceived it as a form of religious manifestation.