Jewish Art in Late Antiquity: History & Overview

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  • 0:04 Jewish Art History
  • 1:04 Religious Inspiration
  • 2:07 Synagogues
  • 3:01 Illuminated Manuscripts
  • 3:31 Murals, Mosaics & Objects
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the Jewish Art produced during the Roman occupation of Israel in Late Antiquity. Learn about the different visual arts that Jewish groups developed during this period and discover how religion influenced them.

Jewish Art History

The Jewish community is one of the oldest human groups still in existence. However, not many people are familiar with their art, especially the Jewish art of the Roman Empire. The limited existence of art pieces is partially attributed to the prohibition of idols and human figures. However, there are interesting examples of Jewish art from that time and even pagan influences related to the Jewish culture.

The oldest records of Jewish Art can be found in the biblical texts. Supposedly, Bezalel, a male artisan was commissioned to create two objects: the Tabernacle, a portable ritual tent, and the Ark of Covenant, a golden chest said to contain the two slabs on which the Ten Commandments were written as well as some other relics.

Jewish artwork from the five centuries before the fall of the Roman Empire, known as Late Antiquity is scarce, giving the idea of this being an artless period. But some examples have survived and provide us with a better understanding of Jewish art from that time.

Religious Inspiration

The artwork from this period was mostly religion inspired and depicted biblical scenes. Sometimes, Jewish art also involved the use of pagan motifs, such as the zodiac, combined with religious themes like Menorahs (the 7-branched lamp) and Torah shrines (ornamental box containing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible).

A defining element in art during this period, was the interpretation of the second of the Ten Commandments, narrated in Exodus, the second book of both the Hebrew Bible and the Torah. It reads:

''You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.''

This commandment was often understood by the Jewish community as a prohibition against aniconism, or creating artistic works representing human figures, which could be considered idols to be adored. This interpretation influenced the decoration of synagogues, resulting in few decorative art pieces when compared to other places of worship.

Synagogues

Although the origin of the Jewish place of worship isn't clear, synagogues have been the center of the religious life and the place where Jewish art developed.

In the first century CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, an important shrine erected with the intention of replacing the previously destroyed temple of King Solomon, known as the First Temple. After that, that the synagogues started to be created as sacred places of prayer and study not only in Israel but in all the different places where exiled Jews arrived after being expelled from their homeland during the second century CE.

Typically, the synagogues didn't follow a set style, but rather adapted to the architecture of the area in which they were built. However, most of them shared the same form of organization, which consisted of the main prayer hall and, in lager locations, a study hall and a social hall. Some examples of frescoes have also been found on the walls of early synagogues.

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