TK Waters has been an adjunct professor of religion at Western Kentucky University for six years. They have a master's degree in religious studies from Western Kentucky University and a bachelor's degree in English literature and religious studies from Western Kentucky University.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A notable feature of ancient Israelite cities was the inclusion of ways to provide fresh water to the Israelites. In the military city of Tel Megiddo, a water system was in place that flowed from an outside spring through underground tunnels into the city itself to supply fresh water without requiring trips to a well or spring.
The city of Jezreel, an important city during the time of King Ahab, did not have a ''running'' water system like Tel Megiddo. Instead, there were many cisterns, pool-like structures that were carved into rock, which collected rain water to provide a water supply to the citizens of Jezreel.
Ancient Israelite art was mostly practical, such as pottery for food and storage, and sculpting to create:
- signet rings for royals to seal clay or wax with
- to provide details on important buildings.
Some Israelite buildings contained reliefs carved into basalt. One of the most famous sculpted architectural building of the time was King Ahab's palace where the 'Samarian ivories' were found.
Most buildings were made of mudbrick (mud materials baked into brick) or dressed stone (brick-shaped stone) at the time. Some cities, like Tel Megiddo and Jezreel had water systems or cisterns (pool-like structures) in place to provide fresh water to the Israelites.
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