Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Jewish Art in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium

In the first centuries C.E., Jewish communities could be found in every corner of the Roman empire, from Sardis (Turkey) to Ostia (Italy), from Hamman Lif (Tunisia) to Intercisa (Hungary). The archaeological remnants and literary attestations of more than 150 synagogues throughout the empire make clear that Jews were integral to the urban landscape of late antiquity, well beyond the borders of Roman Palestine.

Asia Minor, in particular, boasted numerous, and often prosperous, Jewish communities. The third-century synagogue in the Roman garrison town of Dura-Europos, like the Christian meeting house and the shrine devoted to the Persian god Mithras that stood just yards away, was adorned with sumptuous painting. Splendid murals with narrative scenes from the Bible covered the synagogue’s walls; painted tiles of zodiacal symbols ornamented its ceiling. Plaques with dedicatory inscriptions give some indication of the individuals and families who funded the building of such synagogues.

In building their monuments, Jews often embraced the Greco-Roman practice of paving the floor with elaborate mosaics, many of which demonstrate an understanding of the second commandment injunction against image making that may surprise today’s viewer. In early Byzantine synagogues such as Hamman Lif in North Africa and Beth Alpha, Hammath Tiberias, and Sepphoris in Israel, specifically Jewish symbols—shofarot (ram’s horns), menorot (branched lamps), and Torah shrines—might appear alongside pomegranates, birds, lions, and fountains. Zodiac wheels with human figures also find a prominent place in the pavements of several synagogues, dated from the fourth to the sixth centuries, as do scenes drawn from the Bible or allegorized images of the River Nile.

After the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman emperor Titus in 70 C.E—an event commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome and in Jewish liturgy—images of the Temple’s furnishings, especially the celebrated gold menorah, or seven-branched lamp, became emblematic of Jewish religion. Marble sarcophagi favored by wealthy Romans were adapted for Jewish use by incorporating a stylized relief image of a menorah. In the catacombs of Rome, Jews placed gold glass disks representing the menorah and Torah arks at their tombs, as well as symbols of the festival of Sukkot (18.145.1a,b), just as Christians placed glass disks showing saints (16.174.3). All these images reference the destroyed Temple and invoke a hoped-for messianic age when the Temple would be restored. So wide-ranging are the contexts for the menorot that it is clear the symbol frequently served merely to distinguish a Jewish monument or a Jewish patron. Seven-branched candlesticks appear in Roman and Byzantine art: in graffiti in the catacombs, inscribed on plaques, as a motif on seals, as decoration on glass bottles (1972.118.180) and on clay lamps (91.1.1621), all further testimony to the integration of Jews into late Roman and early Byzantine society.