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Press release

Judaica from Byzantium and Medieval Europe On View at Metropolitan Museum

Nearly a dozen examples of early Jewish art—dating from the first through the seventh century C.E.—are on view in the south gallery of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine art and the Medieval Europe Gallery. Works on loan from the Jewish Theological Seminary, The American Numismatic Society, and the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Collection, New York, are shown alongside objects from the holdings of the Metropolitan.

The earliest works in the display are coins on loan from The American Numismatic Society. A silver tetradrachm—minted for the Second Jewish War against Rome—is a Roman coin that was overstruck in 133 C.E. in Roman Palestine (modern Israel). The coin depicts the façade of the Temple in Jerusalem. A copper sestertius—minted in 71 C.E. in Rome records the violent destruction of the Second Temple in the previous year.

From the collection of the Metropolitan comes a rare, fragmentary example of Jewish gold glass. It is one of many bases of glass vessels with designs worked in gold foil that have been found in catacombs, the underground burial chambers used by all religions in the late Roman and early Byzantine era. The Museum's collection of these works, mostly from Rome, includes a variety of images. The Jewish gold glass shows an open Torah ark with rolled scrolls on shelves flanked by the ritual implements of the temple in the upper zone and a banquet scene, with a fish on a tripod table in front of a cushion below. Other glass vessels with Jewish images—including a menorah (candelabra), shofar (ram's horn), lulav (palm branch), and incense shovel—that were made in the mid-fifth to mid-seventh century C.E. in Jerusalem are also on display. They too may have been used in burials. Also on view is a clay lamp from the Byzantine period bearing Jewish symbols. A rare example of this type, it is particularly appropriate for display during Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

On loan from the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Collection are two carved marble plaques and a stamp seal. The first plaque—which dates to the early second century C.E.—praises a contribution to the repair of the porch of the Temple by a Jewish temple official and his family, and is decorated with symbols of the Temple that appear frequently in the Roman and Byzantine periods: a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog (citron). These four symbols are also found on the second plaque—carved between the fourth to the eighth century C.E., possibly in Asia Minor—where they stand between palm trees with dates, which are thought to be a symbol of Judea and Judaism in this period. The copper stamp seal bears the images of the menorah, shofar, lulav, and etrog, and was probably used to seal amphorae containing wine used by the Jewish communities.

Scenes from the Hebrew Bible were often depicted in Byzantine art. Particularly noteworthy is the set of six plates from the Metropolitan's collection that depict the early life of King David. Associated with the Emperor Heraclius's defeat of a Persian general, the choice of Biblical imagery identified the imperial image of an ideal king with that of King David.

On loan from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary until January 6, 2010, is one book of the Mishneh Torah—literally the "Second Law"—the first complete codification of Jewish law. The Mishneh-Torah was compiled by Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) between 1170 and 1180. Written in Hebrew, it is organized into fourteen books. The eighth book or Sefer Avodah (the Book of Divine Service) shown at the Metropolitan Museum contains the laws of the Temple in Jerusalem. The large and colorful image on view represents the temple's great menorah, a particularly compelling image for Hannukah which commemorates the restoration of the Temple. Made in tempera and ink on parchment between 1200 and 1400 in northern France or Germany, it was intended for use in the Ashkenazic community.

It is shown in proximity to monumental limestone statues of the Hebrew prophets Moses and Aaron, carved about 1170, from the French cathedral of Noyon. Also on view nearby is a richly decorated folio from a royal psalter that was made about 1250–70 for an English monarch, probably Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III. King David is traditionally considered to have been the author of the psalms.

Featured on the Museum's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History ( are two essays on Jewish art—"Jewish Art in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium" and "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe"—written by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, of the Museum's Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. Both curators have participated in the Institute in Jewish Art of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Relevant works in the Museum's collection are listed, along with suggested further readings and additional resources.

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November 23, 2009

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