Jewish Art c100-300 CE

Time Line
Ancient Greece 100 B.C.
Golden Age of Pericles- 500 B.C.
High Hellenistic Period- 350 B.C.- 100 B.C.
Beginning of Pagan Roman Empire- 200 B.C.
Roman Empire- 200 B.C.- 315 A.D.
Early Christian Era- 315 A.D. - 800 A.D.

Context: Notes on Judaism (the Jewish Religion)

Judaism is similar to Islam in that the Jewish people are not a race but a people who share a religion and a culture.  Judaism began around the time that Egypt and Mesopotamia were rising in power.  It begins with a single patriarch named Abraham, who in some ways has a very similar story to the Islamic Mohammed.  According  to the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible called the Torah, Abraham was instructed directly by god to found a monotheist faith and nation, which would eventually become the nation of Israel (Gen. ch. 2). From Isaac, the son of Abraham, came fourth the nation of Israel (Gen. ch.21). However, Abraham also had a son with one of his servants (Gen. ch. 16). This son, Ishmael, became the father of the Arabs. Mohammed, one of his descendants, founded Islam. The Jews, like many other nations and groups, were conquered by the Roman Empire. The Jews were conquered because of the tremendous force and power of the Romans but although the Jews offered cultural resistance to the hegemonic powers of the Roman Empire often they adapted and adopted some of the values of the peoples with whom they lived.  Judaism and Islam also both share in many of the same laws, philosophies and even dietary restrictions.  The most relevant to art is that Judaism's Second Commandment forbids the creation of graven images.

The injunction against image making continued during the late 2nd Temple period to exercise a significant degree of influence on the cultural preferences of the Israelites. In fact the Greek and the Roman conquests periods that parallel the late 2nd Temple Period were pierced through by a series of high profile clashes over the use of figurative images in religious and semi-religious contexts. Such theological clashes were also often the cause or pretext for political confrontations, insurgencies or outright revolts.

As of the second to third century C.E. onwards there was against all expectations, a noticeable shift/relaxation in the application of the 2nd commandment. A distinction was drawn up between images in the context of decoration and images in the context of adoration or ritual, and a greater acceptance of figurative images in a decorative context made itself felt. The change in attitude may have been partly connected to the disappearance of Israel as a physical entity. It led to a flowering of mosaic art in the synagogues of the third to the sixth centuries C.E., and in instances such as Dura Europos Synagogue and possibly others, to the introduction of images into worship itself.
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Wall with Torah niche, from a house synagogue,
Dura Europos, Syria 244-45 CE, tempera on plaster.
reconstructed at the National Museum, Damascus,
Syria. 40' long

Dura Europos, Syria 244-45 CE
Plan of Synagogue

Form:  These wall paintings are not buon or true fresco painting.  The paint was probably applied when the plaster was already dry with tempera paint.  Tempera is a combination of ground pigments (made from minerals usually) egg and sometimes a bit of glue made from animal hide or dairy products.  This kind of "fresco" is closer to fresco secco.

The wall is arranged almost like a comic book with episodes framed with squared off geometric frames.  Within each of the frames are wavelike patterns.  In the center of the main altar wall is a niche (a semicircular indentation very similar to the Islamic mihrab) that would have been used to hold the sacred scrolls of the Torah.  The over all design of the synagogue (temple) is based on secular architecture.  It was once a private atrium style house with a central courtyard.

Iconography:  The placement of the Torah in a niche at the center of the wall full of narratives focusses the worshippers on the book from where the illustrations were inspired.  The Torah is a sacred scroll that is created in a similar way to the manner in which the Islamic Koran is created.  Placing it in a special setting is symbolic of its status in Jewish worship.

Context: The name Dura Europos is a composite of two names.  The Romans called it Dura and the Greeks Europos.  Gardner refers to Dura Europos as the "Pompeii of the desert" because it is so well preserved.  The history of the site has a lot to do with its preservation.  It was originally a distant Roman outpost that was invaded by the Parthians (Persians under Shapur I) around 256 or after.  When the Romans liberated the town they evacuated all the residents and so the site was left relatively undisturbed for centuries until a French soldier in the 1920's noticed some mosaic in the ground and then the site was excavated.

There is also a Christian community house at Dura Europos and what is a bit strange is the apparent peaceful coexistence of Romans, Christians and Jews in the same outpost town.  Janson describes the influence of the interaction of the cultures as a melting pot which influenced the styles of the art found there.


Torah niche, from a house synagogue,
Dura Europos, Syria 244-45 CE, 
tempera on plaster.
reconstructed at the National Museum, Damascus,Syria. 

Detail from the Arch of Titus, Rome 1st century CE
Roman soldiers carrying off the Menorah, the 
even-branched candelabra, and other spoils from 
the Temple in Jerusalem. The Roman general Titus 
had the Temple destroyed (7O CE) and the Jewish 
population expelled. Jews began to settle throughout the Roman Empire, along the coast of North Africa, in Italy and Spain, along the river Rhine and in France.
quote from

Forms:  This niche is in the form of a Roman arch.  The columns and all the ornamentation on and around the niche are painted in tempera.  Some of the ornamentation, specifically inside the niche and on the columns is meant to simulate marble inlay.  This kind of fake finish is sometimes referred to as faux finish.

Above the niche is a scene bordered with a thin holding line that represents a candelabra on the left called a menorah, an image of an arched doorway, which is probably a representation of the ark of the covenant and a scene depicting the Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac.

Iconography:  The niche's shape and placement in the temple emulates the shape and placement of the apse in Roman and Christian basilican style architecture.  The use of a Roman arch and Roman columns is probably an adaptation of Roman and Greek iconography to show honor to the sacred scrolls.

The temple or ark in the center of the image is centrally located because it is central to the Jewish faith.  The destruction of the Temple in Israel in 70 CE marked a tragic loss for many Jews.  The idea of all the Jews returning to the land of Israel and reestablishing the temple there is part of religious doctrine.  It is believed that this will mark a new age.

The story of the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac is symbolic of faith and echoes the ideas expressed by the candelabra across from it.  Abraham was called on by god to sacrifice his son Isaac.  He brought Isaac to the altar and just before he did, an angel came and stopped him.  A lamb was provided for the sacrifice which is in the lower right hand of the composition.

The candelabra, called a menorah, is a symbol of Judaism that specifically represents a resistance to outside forces or enemies.  The sacred flame is a symbol of faith in many cultures and it is also a symbol of enlightenment.  The menorah is a lamp that was used in the original temple of Israel before its destruction in 70 CE. The tree like appearance could be a representation of the branches of the 12 tribes of Israel.  The shape of the menorah at Dura Europos was already well established and has its roots somewhat in the holiday of Chanukah or Hanukah.

Context:  The following is a direct quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica: 

Menorah also spelled MENORA, multibranched candelabrum used by Jews in rites during the eight-day festival of Hanukka. It has taken many forms throughout the ages, but its essential feature has always been eight receptacles for oil or candles (one lit the first day, two the second, etc.) and a further receptacle for the shammash ("servant") light, which is set apart and used for kindling the other lights.

This menorah is an imitation of the seven-branched golden candelabrum of the Tabernacle, which signified, among other things, the seven days of creation. The cup atop the central shaft, which is somewhat elevated to signify the Sabbath, was flanked by three lights on each side. The seven-branched menorah is mentioned in the Talmud and has long been used in art as an iconographic symbol signifying Judaism. 

The Consecration of the Temple and its Priests
Dura Europos, Syria 244-45 CE, 
tempera on plaster  4'8"x7'8"
reconstructed at the National Museum, Damascus,
Form: Overall there is no cohesive narrative or illusion of space or light to unify this composition.  The scene is a fairly flat image that attempts to communicate the idea of space through vertical perspective with a bit of overlapping.  The size scale relationships of the figures do not correspond accurately from one figure to the next.    The anatomy and postures of the figures refer to Roman and Greek contrapposto but just don't seem to get it right.  Some of the figures cast shadows, but, the use of light is not consistent throughout the image.

The temple is depicted as a typical ashlar wall with Roman style arches cut into the wall.  The ark inside depicted as Greek style temple.  The clothing style of the incidental figures (not of Aaron) is Persian and the name Aaron is inscribed above the largest figure in Greek.

Iconography:  Janson describes the organization of space as iconic rather than illusionistic.  It is designed according to importance rather than illusionism.  The tabernacle and menorah are placed in the center of the composition which indicates their significance.  Aaron is depicted as the largest figure and he sports a beard which may symbolize his age and his wisdom.  His clothing is depicted in detail because it is the costume of a priest.

The depiction of the ark as a Greek temple somewhat in the style of the Parthenon is incorrect according to biblical descriptions of the ark or tabernacle because according to Janson,  "our artist could not imagine it, in accordance with the biblical description as a tent like construction of poles and goat's-hair curtains."  Nevertheless, the reason is more complex than that.  The depiction of the tabernacle is in the vocabulary of the people of Dura Europos who would have identified the Classical vocabulary as honoring the tabernacle.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the red heifer in the lower left hand corner 

Hebrew PARA ADUMMA, in Jewish history, unblemished, never-before-yoked animal that was slaughtered and burned to restore ritual purity to those who had become unclean through contact with the dead (Numbers 19). Certain spoils of war and captives were also purified in this way. After the blood of the red heifer had been sprinkled by a priest, the carcass was totally immolated with cedarwood, hyssop, and a scarlet thread. The ashes were then carried to a clean spot and mixed with fresh water in an earthen vessel. A sprinkling of the mixture restored purity to all who had taken part in the ritual.

The significance of the ceremony has been related analogously to the scapegoat, to the heifer sacrificed near the scene of a murder (Deuteronomy 21:3), and to the idolatrous worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32). In synagogues the command to sacrifice a red heifer to restore ritual purity is read on Shabbat Para, a special sabbath that precedes by a few weeks the festival of Passover (Pesah).


Elijah (top) 
Baby Moses and Pharaoh's Daughter (bottom)
Dura Europos, Syria 244-45 CE, 
tempera on plaster  4'8"x7'8"
reconstructed at the National Museum, Damascus,
Form: Both of these images are fairly flat and diagrammatic.  The space and costuming are similar to the image of The Consecration of the Temple and its Priests.  The compositions are both fairly symmetrical with the most important action taking place in the center.

The style of drapery and pose of the Pharaoh's daughter who reclines on the couch references the drapery style of Byzantine manuscripts and poses from classical sculpture.  Particularly those from the three figures from the pediment of the Parthenon.

The narrative of these images, also similar to The Consecration of the Temple and its Priests, is that several ideas or moments in time are depicted all at once. In the the bottom scene, the child Moses is brought in at left, held in the center by the Pharaoh's daughter, and held by an attendant at right.  (see Stokstad page 296)

Context and Iconography:

The story of Moses can be found in Stokstad.

The scene from Elijah here is taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

When the Baalists had failed, Elijah rebuilt an old altar of Yahweh, poured water on the wood three times (perhaps a remnant of an ancient rainmaking ceremony?), and prayed to Yahweh to answer his servant; "the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench." Though some authorities explain the action by suggesting that Elijah poured naphtha on the wood, this does not explain the ignition of the wood at that particular time and that particular place even if by a bolt of lightning. The Deuteronomic historian emphasized the miracle wrought by Yahweh. The people, upon witnessing the miracle, cried out, "Yahweh, he is God," and proceeded to annihilate the prophets of Baal.

Both of these images rely on their own iconic system traditions but supplement this by sharing or borrowing from the cultures they have interactions with.  The menorah is an obvious example of a Jewish icon, the orant poses in the scene from Elijah are shared,  but the clothing styles and poses are borrowed.  Possibly this occurred because Jews originally were barred from developing their own visual traditions by the Second Commandment and complex narratives were hard to develop independently.