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SIDIC Periodical VII - 1974/1
Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides (Pages 28 - 30)

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

Study - The Frescoes of the Catacomb Via Latina in Rome and Jewish Tradition
Günter Stemberger


As a further contribution to the discussion on links between Jewish and Christian art (see SIDIC Vol. VI No. 1) the editors are pleased to include This study made by Professor Stemberger of Vienna.

The origins of a Jewish representational art are still in the dark. One of the many problems connected with this question, and perhaps its most important aspect, regards the illumination of Hebrew Bible manuscripts. From what time onward can we assume the existence of such illuminated texts? Did they serve as models for frescoes and mosaics to Jewish artists? Did they influence early Christian art?

One thing is certain: the Biblical prohibition of figurative art (Ex. 20:4; Dt. 5:8) was not always rigorously Observed. It was only in the Middle Ages that a flowering Jewish art decayed when the influence of Islam and of Christian iconoclasts helped Jewish zealots in their battle for the Biblical prohibition. The Talmud of Jerusalem witnesses to the existence of Jewish wall paintings in the third century already: « In the days of R. Johanan they started to paint on the walls, and he did not hinder them » (Aboda zara 42d). At that time, the frescoes of the famous synagogue of Dura Europos were painted. It is an open question if the painter(s) of Dura Europos used illuminated Hebrew Bibles for models. If this was the case, one would have to think of private copies for domestic purposes only since there were strict regulations for the writing of the official Bible scrolls to be used in the synagogue. The analogies between the Dura frescoes and early Christian art might have come about through the mediation of such Jewish illuminated Bibles.

The problem was renewed when the catacomb of the Via Latina in Rome was discovered in 1955/56. This comparatively small catacomb, which was built around the middle of the fourth century, is full of frescoes, a real « art gallery ». Most surprising in this catacomb is the multitude of Old Testament scenes depicted on the walls. Whereas other catacombs represent a very small number of ever-recurring themes, in the Via Latina one is confronted with a large number of biblical themes, sometimes put together in cyclical order. Immediately after the discovery of the catacomb, H.L. Hempel pointed to the possibility of Jewish book illustrations as model for the painter of the Via Latina.1 And E.R. Goodenough wrote: «At Via Latina ... we must suppose that the artist had a book of Jewish paintings from which he could select the ones he wanted. In several cases his model seems to have had a common ancestor with the Dura paintings ». 2 And again: « Since the discovery of the new Catacomb Via Latina ...it now has become indisputable that early Christian painting was an adaptation of earlier Jewish art ».3 A. Ferrua, however, who published the paintings of the Via Latina, vehemently contradicts this view. He prefers to assume that the artist of the Via Latina was influenced by the art of the sarcophagi and basilicas, and even speaks of an « invasion » of this art. 4

This unsettled issue, the importance of which for a number of aspects of early Jewish-Christian relations is evident, had to be taken up again. A thorough examination of some problems connected with the paintings of the Via Latina was thus the aim of a seminar at the University of Vienna, organized by the Institute for Judaism s together with some art historians and A. Raddatz, professor of Church History at the Evangelical Theological Faculty. The task of this seminar (1972/73) was to study the Old Testament scenes of this catacomb by confronting the frescoes with the Jewish and the patristic interpretations of the Old Testament texts depicted there, and by comparing them also with similar representations of these themes in basilicas, other catacombs, illuminated manuscripts and on sarcophagi, or with similar representations of pagan themes.

In order to illustrate the outcome of the seminar and the results reached, I want to offer some conclusions of my own work in this seminar. I had to compare the frescoes depicting scenes from the lives of the Patriarchs with the rabbinical interpretation of the corresponding texts. Whereas the patristic exegesis (studied by another participant in the seminar) yielded no results which could have explained those details of the paintings which were not based on the Old Testament text, the rabbinical texts offered many illuminating insights into the world of thought inspiring the painter of the Via Latina or his models.

The following scenes are represented at the Via Latina: three angels visit Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18); the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22) twice; Isaac blesses Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27) twice; Jacob's ladder (Gen. 28); Jacob and his family come to Egypt (Gen. 46); Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48).

a) Comparing Genesis 18 with the painting of the appearance of the three angels at Mamre, several details are surprising: 1) there is no tent in the picture; only a tree is seen, separated from the tent. This corresponds to the Aramaic version of the biblical text. The Targum does not mention a tree in Gen. 18:1 and insists that Abraham ran towards the angels when he saw them, and that he invited them to sit down under the tree where he met them. 2) In the painting, Abraham sits whereas his visitors stand: this is against the biblical text followed by all representations of this scene. This point may be explained by the rabbinical tradition that the angels visited Abraham three days after his circumcision from which he was still sick. The circumcision granted Abraham and his descendants, as many rabbinical texts insist, the privilege to sit in God's presence while God himself stands. In one form of this tradition, the angels explicitly invite Abraham to sit down. 3) Contrary to other representations of the scene, the meal which Abraham served his guests, is not shown. This may reflect the frequently expressed opinion that the angels did not really eat. The calf shown in the picture under Abraham may insist on the meritory act of Abraham and his hospitality (frequently commented upon by the rabbis) and underline the theological value of this scene for Abraham's descendants. 4) The angels are shown on a somewhat raised level — a literal interpretation of the Hebrew text — and different one from another. This detail is to be explained by the tradition that the three angels had different missions and, as one text insists, accordingly appeared in different forms. The angels do not have wings which is in agreement with Jewish pictorial tradition, but also with a Jewish interpretation which says that the angels came to Abraham in the disguise of wanderers.

b) Jacob's ladder: the painting follows the biblical text; a stylistic comparison shows that it derives eitherdirectly from the painting of the same scene at Dura Europos or from a common ancestor. The Jewish origin of the painting can be demonstrated also by the presence of a series of Jewish themes in the picture. The two angels on the ladder probably are identified with those two of the three angels at Mamre who went on to Sodom and who •had accompanied Jacob on his wanderings before they could return to heaven, as a rabbinical tradition tells. It is therefore not by chance that this scene is put side by side with the other scene of the three angels at Mamre. The angels on the ladder seem to beckon to the angels in heaven to look at Jacob whose image is graven on the throne of God: this theme insists on the greatness of the patriarch in the same way as did the Mamre-scene where Abraham is allowed to remain seated in presence of the angels. The unity with the other paintings of the same arcosolium is underlined by the detail that Jacob's cushion consists of three stones which already grow together: these stones, according to Jewish tradition, symbolize that God is the God of Jacob as well as he is the God of Abraham and of Isaac. The extraordinary size of the Patriarch whose body covers a large part of the painting, underlines another Jewish tradition: while Jacob was sleeping at Mamre, God rolled together the whole land of Israel under his sleeping body, as a sign that the land is promised to Jacob and his descendants.

c) The comparison of the paintings showing the Patriarchs blessing their sons with the corresponding biblical texts and the Jewish tradition poses many problems which are not to be solved easily. It would go too far to describe the results of this inquiry which are not so obvious. It is perhaps more important to point out the connection of the six frescoes of the right arcosolium of cubiculum B where several of the Patriarchs scenes are to be found. The scenes represented there are: Jacob's ladder, Abraham at Mamre, Isaac blessing his sons, Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph dreaming, Balaam with the angel. That these paintings are intended to form a unity, is to be seen first of all by a very superficial fact: three of the paintings show angels, and the other three show beds in the open landscape. The three scenes with the three Patriarchs evidently form a unity, as is underlined by the three stones which form Jacob's cushion; two of the angels which were at Mamre, reappear at Bethel (Jacob's ladder). Joseph's dreams are connected with the scenes of Mamre and of Bethel by the theme of the vision; it is also aptly put together with the fresco showing Jacob blessing Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh (the more so since Joseph is surprisingly omitted in that picture). The scene of Balaam with the angel, finally, is connected with two other scenes by the presence of an angel. The fresco shows how the angel prevented Balaam from cursing Israel: thus, it is a fitting pendant to the scenes of blessing beside this scene. Thus, there is no doubt that these six frescoes were intended as a thematic unit.

The ,problems connected with the two Aqeda-scenes at the Via Latina are too complex to be dealt with here. I just want to emphasize that these paintings, too, receive much light from Jewish tradition, not only as to their pictorial details, but also as to the general setting of these frescoes (symbolism of the sacrificial cult, of resurrection and of eternal life).

d) The starting point of our investigations (and of the entire seminar) was the question what influence, if any, Judaism exercised on early Christian art and what were the origins of Jewish art itself. The result is clear: Jewish tradition was known to the artist(s) of the Via Latina either directly or through their models. The thematic connections of several paintings make it probable that the models of the Via Latina were not large murals or sarcophagi, but illuminated manuscripts (containing smaller or larger cycles of illustrations).

What kind of manuscripts has one to think of? Discussing the; ossible existence of early Jewish illuminated manuscripts which could have served as models for early Christian art, one frequently assumes the early existence of illuminated editions of the Septuagint or of parts of the Septuagint (the official liturgical Hebrew text certainly was not illuminated), but also of Aramaic versions of the Bible (especially Targum Pseudo-Jonathan), of Midrashim or even of the Antiquitates Judaicae of Josephus Flavius. Prototypes of the paintings at the Via Latina can hardly have been anything else but Hebrew Bibles or Targumim which were illustrated in accordance with the current rabbinic interpretation of the texts. The other above-mentioned possibilities are to be excluded since there are hardly allusions to the Septuagint text to be found at the Via Latina; only one detail of the frescoes examined could be explained by a text of Josephus (in one of the two Aqeda-scenes); to postulate illuminated manuscripts of midrashim in the fourth century is too hypothetical. Practically all particularities of the paintings which we could explain, suppose the rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew or the Aramaic Bible.

There is a second question to be asked: how can we explain the use of illuminated Jewish Bible manuscripts as models for the Christian catacomb of the Via Latina? E.R. Goodenough writes: « presumably the art originated with Jews at least as early as the beginning of the Christian era ... before the final break between Jews and Christians, for it seems to have come over to Christians as an obvious part of their Jewish heritage, presumably in their Septuagint Bibles ». 6 This is improbable since many of the Jewish elements to be found in the frescoes are to be found only in much later texts. Many elements of the haggada are certainly much older than their first literary attestations; one cannot, however, postulate this as a general principle. Jewish and Christian communities were in contact even after the official separation at the synod of Yabne. M. Simon thinks that the catacomb of the Via Latina was not a public catacomb of the Roman Christian community but private property, and that it belonged to a family which was Christian in its majority, partly however still or again pagan.7 If the family which owned the catacomb was so tolerant to bury in the same catacomb all the members of the family without regard to their religious views, one might also assume that Jewish artists worked for this family; but it must be stated that we know nothing of the existence of Jewish artists in fourth-century Rome. One might also think that the owners of the catacomb were a Jewish-Christian family. There is much room for hypotheses, none of which can be proved cogently. It is also to be emphasized that one has to be very careful not to draw too hasty conclusions from this private catacomb with regard to the general relationship of the Roman Christian community of the fourth century with the Jewish population. It seems, however, to be certain that the ties between the two communities were not entirely severed at that time. Thus we might regard the obvious Jewish influence in the paintings of the Christian catacomb of the Via Latina as a proof for the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians, a coexistence which continued not only during the period of persecutions, but which seems to have lasted also when the Christian community became a religio licita in the Roman empire and a power to be reckoned with.8

1. H.L. Hempel, « Zum Problem der Anfange der AT-Illustration », Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69 (1957) 103-131.
2. E.R. Goodenough, « Catacomb Art », Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 113-142, p. 138.
3. E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 12 vol., Toronto 1953-1964, vol. XI 138.
4. A. Ferrua, Le pitture della nuova catacomba di Via Latina, Rome 1960, p. 101.
5. The survey by C. Deutsch on « Jewish Studies and the University », SIDIC 5 (1972) 20-23, does not mention this Institute Which had last year (1972/73) nearly 200 matriculated students and offers more than forty weekly hours of courses.
6. E.R. Goodenough, « Catacomb Art », p. 139.
7. M. Simon, « Remarques sur la catacombe de Via Latina*, Mullus Festschrift Theodor Klauser, Munster Westfallen 1964, 327-335, p. 333f.
8. The full results of my work are to be published in Kairos 16 (1974). The first issue of this periodical in 1974 will be entirely dedicated to problems of the Via Latina.


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