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SIDIC Periodical XXVII - 1994/1
Judaism and Christianity: Some Mutualities (Pages 14 - 18)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The influence of Jewish art on the decoration of the first Christian basilicas
Ursula Schubert


Pagan Influence on Christian Art

The short survey on the contribution of paganism to the development of early Christian art has shown that the latter consisted almost exclusively of representations of Christ as Redeemer, or (from the fourth century) as the Triumphant One, which were depicted with the help of the familar pagan pictorial language. However the decoration of Christian basilicas, which after Constantine were to be found everywhere in the Roman empire, was in no way confined to representations of Christ or his miracles, like those we know from the baptistry of Dura Europos. Knowledge of the decoration of early Christian basilicas comes not only from the few monuments of this period which have been preserved, but also from written evidence. For example a letter of Nilus of Ankyra (c.400), to an official in Constantinople (Ep.IV, MPG 79, 5770, has been preserved. The latter had asked how he should decorate the church he had built.

Synagogue ore Bet Alpha, pavement. Abraham putting Isaac on the Saerificial atter. (6th century).
Nilus answered that he should let the best painters decorate the church with representations from the Old and New Testaments. Nilus expressed the hope that the fear of the Lord of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament might thus stimulate in the Christian spectators similar attestations of their faith. Therefore the nave should also be decorated with scenes from the Old Testament. Such illustrations from the first half of the fifth century have been preserved in the nave of the Church of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome. However research today is of the opinion that the models for a series of these illustrations do not come from a Christian workshop, but rather originate in a Jewish one. Thus Judaism too has made its contribution to the development of Christian art.

Jewish Influence

Our knowledge of Jewish pictorial art in late antiquity dates from the nineteen-twenties. At that time, to the astonishment of the excavators, a mosaic floor with figurative scenes was found whilst clearing the ancient synagogue of Bet Alpha in Galilee. (we will come back to this tater). However the discovery of Bet Alpha was largely overshadowed when a 7 m. high synagogue room, dating from the middle of the third century, was discovered under the desert sand at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, during the excavation of the Roman boundary settlement of Dura Europos on the Euphrates. Each of the four walls of this room were covered with paintings of scenes from the Old Testament. Although no other synagogues of late antiquity with Old Testament illustrations have as yet been found, we know from synagogue inscriptions that Dura Europos was no exception; for instance the inscription from the synagogue at Sardes in Lydia and another from the synagogue of Akmonia in Phrygia in the north west of Apamea. From the inscription of Sardes, which speaks explicitly of Zoographia, i.e. pictorial art and originates from the third century, we can deduce that the illustrations were only on the ceiling, for the walls were covered with marble encrustations. According to the inscription of Akmonia, the walls and ceiling there were illustrated, but as the inscription probably dates from the late first century it is questionable whether it refers to pictorial representations.

In the synagogue of Dura Europos the cult room is entirely preserved, although not alt the walls to the same height. In the middle of the western wall there is the Tora shrine; the small curve of the apse is decorated by a shell, a conch. Immediately above there is a Temple facade, to the left the seven-branch candlestick and between both a lulaw and an ethrog, a palm branch and a citrus fruit, of the feast of Tabernacles (illustration in Kairos 17 [1975], 111.13). Thus the holy objects were represented here as they had been in the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Romans almost two hundred years previously. A similar representation of the holy objects is in the lowest of the three fields of the mosaic floor of the synagogue of Bet Alpha from the sixth century (Illustration in: Kairos 17 [1975] 111.17). In the middle one can distinguish the Tora shrine, again with a shell in the tympanum. The two birds on the gable-sides represent the cherubs next to the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. Besides that, one can distinguish two seven branch chandeliers, various utensils for the Temple and on the two borders the representation of a curtain. Such a curtain was not only in front of the Tora shrine in the synagogue but also in the Temple in Jerusalem. Evidently illustrations of the Temple utensils as they existed in the Temple of Jerusalem before it was destroyed, were generally represented in the synagogues of late antiquity in front of or above the Tora shrine.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

On the other side of the picture of the Temple facade in Dura Europos there is a painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac (Illustration in: Kairos 17 [1975] 111.13). Abraham with his knife drawn and looking up to God's hand which appears in the sky, is standing in front of the altar on which Isaac is lying. In the foreground next to a tree, there is the ram. A representation of the sacrifice of Isaac also decorates the lowest of the three fields on the mosaic floor of the synagogue of Bet Alpha (Illustration in: Kairos 17 [1975] /11.17). But Nere the picture has been extended by an additional scene: namely the two servants of Abraham with the donkey which accompanied them and remained at the foot of the mountain. On the right side of the picture Abraham is standing and swinging the bound Isaac onto the altar of holocaust. On the left behind Abraham, on account of lack of space as it were, there is the ram erect and bound to the tree. This reflects the aramaic Targum to Gen. 22:13 and not the biblica) text, where we read that the ram became entangled in the bushes with its horns. We find a similar representation of the same theme in a copy of the Kosmas-Indigopleustes manuscript from the ninth century (cod. Vat.gr.699, £o159 r). Kosmas, the traveller to India, lived in the middle of the sixth century in Alexandria and perhaps even on the Sinai peninsula for some time. He could well have been influenced in his representation of the sacrifice of Isaac by a Jewish mode). In the upper left-hand corner one can again see the two servants of Abraham with the donkey, and also a representation of Isaac who himself (as on the fresco from the nave of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome from the fifth century, which is preserved only in copies), carries the wood on his back, a Christian allusion to Christ, who also carries the wood of the cross for his sacrificial death. Beneath there is the ram tied to the tree, as already known from Bet Alpha. Here Abraham is on the point of putting the knife to the throat of Isaac, in the manner of Jewish ritual law, but this has no parallel in the Jewish examples that we have seen. The picture corresponds to a hymn of Gregory of Nysse (PG 46, 565 ff.) in praise of Abraham. Abraham is described as the sacrificial priest who is about to slaughter his san as a sacrifice, in the manner of Jewish ritual laws. The Cappadocian Father of the Church thus made it possible for the Christian artists to translate a purely Christian interpretation of the central Jewish event of salvation, the covenant of God with his people, into a picture, with the help of Jewish religious symbols and on the basis of Jewish pictorial models.

Other Old Testament Scenes

Christian artists found the models for the Old Testament scenes from the story of the Patriarchs, with which Nilus of Ankyra had recommended them to decorate the naves of the church, in Jewish synagogal art. We have seen in the picture of the sacrifice of Isaac an example of this. Other examples are the finding of the child Moses in the river Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh, or the passage of the Jews through the Red Sea. These two cycles are also in the synagogue of Dura Europos and the particularity of the representation can be further traced in the Christian art of the early and high Middle Ages.

Further Influences

However, it seems that this influence was not limited to Christians taking over individuai figurative paintings from the synagogue. The decoration of the whole interior of the church received stimulation from this source. The prerequisite for this was that the room of the synagogue was considered not only as a meeting-place and a place of community prayer but also, like the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Holy Place which belongs to the Divinity. We have already seen that both in the synagogue of Dura Europos in the third century and in Bet Alpha in the sixth century, (a number of other examples could be added), the holy utensils of the Temple were represented in front of or above the Tora shrine. This should evidently refer to the fact that after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, every synagogue was understood as the dwelling place of God. It is in this sense that we must understand the saying of Rabbi Jirmija in the name of Rabbi Abbahu around the year 300: "Seek the Lord there, where he is (Is.55:6)! Where is he then? In the synagogues and houses of study" (j. Ber V [8d bottore. There exists a number of further rabbinic sayings in this sense, all from this period. However it is the inscriptions which speak of the synagogue as a holy place, (greek hagios topos, aramaic attira qadischa), which supply an unequivocal proof. From the synagogue of Stobi in Macedonia an inscription from the second half of the third century has been preserved in which the synagogue is called hagios topos, and in severa) synagogues in Palestine the term attira qaadischa from the sixth century has been found. However, if after the destruction of the Temple the synagogue is understood more and more as the dwelling place of God, as Holy Place, then this corresponds to the Christian understanding of the House of God, for Christians called their place of worship kyyriakon, which must be derived from kyrios and means "Dwelling Place of the Lord". If both synagogue and church were understood as the dwelling place of God then it was possible to borrow from the former for the decoration of the interior of the church.

Dura Europos and Christian Parallels

In the synagogue of Dura Europos the "Altar picture" so to speak - two panels one upon the other - was above the Tora shrine and the objects of cult. We have therefore three layers of painting superimposed: the Tree which is still visible belongs to the oldest layer; the two paintings to the right and left of it belong to the latest layer. To the left they show the patriarch Jacob lying on his couch, blessing his twelve sons (Gen 49) and to the right likewise Jacob, blessing the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasse (Gen.48). Above the left scene of blessing, David the singer of Psalms is sitting as Orpheus, M front of him the Lion of Judah (illustrations in Kairos 17 [19751 111.14-16). Both scenes of blessing have a messianic accentuation. The picture in the upper panel of a king enthroned surrounded by his servants probably also should be interpreted as a representation of the Lord of the world to come, who is surrounded by his heavenly household. To the right and to the left of this upper picture, which thus has an eschatological theme, there are two representations of Moses. To the right Moses in front of the burning thornbush, to the left Moses on Sinai receiving the tables of the Law. Above the thornbush one can see the hand of God. The picture on the left is damaged at the top, but one can still see part of the Tabie and also the shoes that Moses has taken off and which indicate the holiness of the place. Thus the two scenes of Moses, which depict the biblical account of a vision of God, are to the left and to the right of the centrai picture, which probably portrays the Lord of the world to come. We find a perfect parallel in two Christian churches of the sixth century, of which the one is on the Sinai, therefore not very far from Dura Europos. The other also belongs to the early Byzantine cultura) sphere - San Vitale in Ravenna. The conch of the apse of the Church of the monastery of St. Catherine on Sinai is decorated with a mosaic which shows the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. Above this apse mosaic there are again two Moses scenes; to the left Moses in front of the burning bush, to the right Moses receiving the tables of the law on Sinai. In both cases Moses faces the middle of the apse. In the apse mosaic of San Vitale in Ravenna the youthful Christ-Immanuel is enthroned on the globe and holds the scroll with the seven seals in his hand. This again is therefore a theophanic picture. Immediately adjacent on the southern wall of the presbytery Moses is seen in front of the burning thornbush. He turns back towards the hand of God which comes from the direction of the apse. On the northern wall of the presbytery Moses is seen receiving the scroll of the law. The two Christian parallels seem to confirm the supposition that in Dura Europos too the central picture over the Tora shrine is a sort of theophanic picture.


This survey of the different elements of which early Christian art is composed has tried to show that the early Christian artists drew mainly from ali three sources: heathen mythology, Roman worship of the emperor and the religious paintings of the Jews. The heathen mythology had offered the possibility of visualising in the language of the time the salvific and redemptive action of Christ; the Roman iconography of the emperor a medium to represent Christ as the true Lord of the Universe and the Jewish collection of illustrations for a typological representation of the Old Testament which was already suggested in the New Testament.

Nowhere however had the Christian artists found an adequate model to illustrate the inalienable condition for the redemptive act of Christ - namely the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. The apostle Paul resumes in hall a sentence, in the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, everything that we were able to discover from the monuments of contemporary art: "For the Jews demand signs, and the Heathens seek wisdom; we however preach Christ, the Crucified, a scandal for the Jews and folly for the heathens". Christian art does not know a picture of Christ, the Crucified, until the fifth century. It was only after the abolition of the punishment of crucifixion through the emperor Constantine and the promotion of Christianity to a state religion under the emperor Theodosius I that Christian artists began to create pictures of the sacrificial death of Christ. The oldest representation of the crucifixion is from the fifth century. In the centuries that followed it becarne the most revered picture of Christianity.

Additional bibliography
Kurt WEITZMANN and Herbert KESSLER. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art. Dumbarton Oaks Studies XXVIII, Washington DC 1990.
Elisabeth REVEL-NEHER. L'arche d'alliance dans l'ari uif et chretien du second au dixième siècle. Le signe de la Rencontre, Paris 1984.
Nein SCH RECKENBERT, Kurt SCHUBERT. Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity. Van Gorcum, Assen/Maastricht, 1992.
Ursula und Kurt SCHUBERT. Juedische Buchkunst. Erster Teil. Graz-Austria, 1983.
Ursula SCHUBERT. Juedische Buchkunst. Zweiter Teil. Graz-Austria 1992.

Ursula Schubert lives in Vienna. She has a doctorate in Orienta! Studies and later specialised in research in Jewish art and its relationship with Christian art. She is the author of severa! books and articles. Sidic is grateful to her and to the periodica! Kairos Geitschrift fr Religionswissenschaft and Theologie, (ed. Otto Muller, Salzburg), for kind permission to publish a part of this article in English. The article appeared in No. 3/1977 pp. 196-260, entitled "Strulaurelemente der fruhchristlichen Bildkunst".
This text is the third part of an article from the German periodica! Kairos. After treating the influence of pagan religious symbols and the iconography linked with the Roman cult of the emperors, the author describes certain Jewish influences, particularly synagogue art, on the decoration of the first Christian basilicas


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