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Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology by Steven Fine

Yitzchak Schwartz, Intern, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012

«In Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, Steven Fine tackles the question of what ancient Jewish art meant to the people who experienced and made it.»

Throughout the last century, many questioned the existence of a Jewish art. To most German art historians, Jews were not a nation and hence could not possess an art of their own, and Protestant scholars considered ancient Judaism the forerunner of their own non-iconic religious beliefs. Archaeological finds in the late nineteenth century, however, demonstrated the existence of a rich Jewish artistic tradition in ancient times.

To Jewish scholars, particularly in British Palestine, these finds confirmed the existence of a Jewish national art in antiquity, bolstering the case for the modern Jewish national movement, Zionism. After World War II, these discoveries were interpreted by some American scholars as evidence for "non-rabbinic" forms of Judaism in antiquity, asserting that the Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis would not have tolerated the use of images. Fine contextualizes and critiques both of these approaches, offering in their place a cultural interpretation of Jewish art during this period.

Fine argues that Jewish art in late Roman and Byzantine Palestine was an "ethnic art," which participated in Roman material culture, but did so in ways that reflected the attitudes and needs of each Jewish community. The art he discusses ranges from the architecture of first-century Jerusalem to synagogue wall paintings, and from Babylonia to Visigothic Spain. In the final section, Fine discusses the art of the synagogue, reconstructing the way synagogues were experienced as sacred spaces.

Art & Judaism integrates Roman-period, Talmudic, early Christian, and modern archival materials seamlessly, and has been foundational in reassessing the history of both late antique Judaism and modern scholarship on that period. The conception of Jewish art advocated in the book is the guiding principle for how Judaism is presented in Byzantium and Islam: Jewish art reflects the ways that one small though significant minority culture changed during this "age of transition," even as Jews strove for continuity with the world gone by.

About the Book
Steven Fine, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, (Revised Edition 2010)

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About the Author

Yitzchak Schwartz is a student at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, as well as Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, where he researches Jewish material culture and cultural history. He is also a Research Associate at the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, where, among other projects, he is working on the exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People, which will open at the Museum of Biblical Art in Fall 2014.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.