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Ancient Israel Art & Architecture: History & Style

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ancient Israel was active in art and architecture. Their designs for their buildings and products weren't just to look appealing, but were also for practical purposes, like food, storage, and water supplies.

Purpose in Art

Have you ever made a piece of art? Maybe you made a wall hanging or other decorative thing. But maybe you added art to something functional.

The ancient Israelites were fairly artistic, but their art and architecture was not just made for art's sake. They served a practical purpose as well.

Art

Pottery, for example, was one of the most common types of art in ancient Israel, but also was important for everyday use. Pottery products would hold goods like oil, wine, and food. The craftsmen often decorated the clay pots and vessels by adding handles and engravings or by adding some red clay to change the color. Afterwards, the craftsmen might paint on the outside of the product, typically in lines, and polish it so it would not be just dull clay.

Reproduction of what ancient Israelite pottery might have looked like
Reproduction of what ancient Israelite pottery might have looked like

Another practical art form of the ancient Israelites was sculpting. They used sculpting not just for statues and reliefs, which we will discuss in a moment, but also for making seals for signet rings. Signet rings were used by rulers to seal a piece of clay or wax on a scroll or letter to show the ruler authorized whatever message was being sent.

This is similar to getting something notarized today. The seals on signet rings were specific to the ruler and were carved to reflect something important about the ruler that made them identifiable to others.

Architecture

Sculpture and Materials

Sculpture, besides being an important part of Israelite art was used in architecture to add detail to important buildings. While you might think of sculptures being made of marble and stone, like the Greeks and Romans later used, the ancient Israelites did not have the ability to carve these stones.

Instead, they used wood, ivory, and basalt (a dark rock made from volcanoes). Reliefs, carvings with raised figures and objects, were typically used to depict rulers and important people and were often carved in basalt in ancient Israel.

Example of a relief from Column of Trajan in the 2nd century CE
relief Column of Trajan

Ivory, another common medium for sculpting, was used for details in important buildings and palaces. King Ahab, an infamous ruler of Israel, supposedly had an ivory palace built in the capital city of Samaria.

This ''ivory palace'' was probably not completely built from ivory, as many have suggested, but rather contained large ivory sculptures mounted on wood. These are collectively called the 'Samarian ivories' and have given archaeologists a glimpse into some of the architectural trends of ancient Israel.

Ivory sculpture from Assyria around the same time as the Samarian ivories were carved
Ivory sculpture from Assyria

The earliest buildings in ancient Israel - and still many Israelites' homes later - were typically made of mudbrick, essentially mud and various other materials baked into bricks, as these were easy and cheap to make.

Later in Israel's history, dressed stone, stone that was cut into brick shapes, was used to build important buildings like palaces.

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