Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Sepphoris Mosaic

Symposium Held in Conjunction with Sepphoris Mosaic Exhibition
By Leslie Bussis Tait

On September 14, 1997, an international conference was held at the Jewish Museum, New York, in conjunction with the exhibition Revealing an Ancient Message: A Synagogue Mosaic from Sepphoris.

Susan L. Braunstein, curator of Archaeology and Judaica at the Jewish Museum, welcomed a full auditorium to the symposium and expressed her appreciation to those who helped make the exhibition and symposium possible. She then introduced Ze'ev Weiss, Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who supervised the excavation and first introduced the project to the Jewish Museum.

The morning session included Weiss' lecture and a panel on art and iconography with Elisheva Revel-Neher, (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Herbert L. Kessler, (Johns Hopkins University), and Christine Kondoleon ( The Worcester Art Museum), chaired by Seth Schwartz (The Jewish Theological Seminary of America). Professor Schwartz also chaired the afternoon panel on the synagogue with presentations by Ehud Netzer (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Bernadette Brooten (Brandeis University) and Lee I. Levine (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

In his lecture, "The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic: A New Look at Synagogue Art in the Byzantine Period," Ze'ev Weiss put the new find in the context of other mosaic floors discovered in Sepphoris and other synagogue mosaics of the early Byzantine period. Excavations in Sepphoris have uncovered over forty mosaic floors in public and private buildings, leading scholars to rank Sepphoris among the important centers of mosaic decoration at this time. The most significant mosaic program is the synagogue floor on exhibition.

Designed as a "carpet," it contains the most elaborate imagery found in early Jewish mosaics. The main hall area has figurative imagery with Greek and Hebrew inscriptions, while the narrower aisle has geometric patterns with Aramaic inscriptions. The main hall mosaic is composed of seven strips with the largest displaying a zodiac in the center. The central zodiac is composed of two concentric circles in a square. Comparisons were made to Beth Alpha and Hammat Tiberias synagogues, which also feature a zodiac image. The Sepphoris mosaic differs most significantly from these by replacing the central image of Helios with the sun extending rays of light in all directions. Possible explanations for this unusual feature were offered, such as the connection between the zodiac and the Jewish calendar, references to poetry in the synagogue, and associations with growth and harvest. The twelve signs of the zodiac are each illustrated by a symbol, inscription, a star, and in some cases a figure. In the four spandrels are personifications of the four seasons with Hebrew and Greek inscriptions. Hebrew names of the months are unique to the Sepphoris mosaic. According to Weiss, the picture is allegorical and symbolizes the power of God over the universe, the all powerful cosmocrator.

Three panels arranged in two bands beneath the zodiac, which are partly destroyed, depict Genesis 18, the three angels' visit to Abraham. The scene, known as the Hospitality of Abraham and the Annunciation of the Miraculous Birth, would become important for Christian art. Comparisons were made to the catacomb paintings and early Byzantine mosaics. The scene of the Binding of Isaac is represented by two boys with a donkey and the sacrifice of Isaac. Fragments that are extant of this scene include part of a tree with the ram, two pairs of shoes (one larger than the other), and a garment with a knife. The Sepphoris mosaic is the earliest example of this scene in Jewish art, and according to Weiss its message is the promise to the children of Abraham.

The upper panels (closest to the bimah) include two lions, each holding a ram's head with one paw, flanking a wreath with the dedication inscription. Below this is a panel depicting a building facade and incense shovel, flanked by similar panels depicting menorahs, shofars and other temple symbols. These were compared with similar images in the Hammat Tiberias mosaic. The band further below shows a fountain, basin, altar, part of a figure with inscription identifying him as Aaron, sacrificial bull and lamb. This strip, and the left-hand panel below it which depicts another lamb, a jar of oil, a container of flour and two trumpets, is interpreted as the consecration of Aaron to the service of the tabernacle and the daily offering. Comparisons were made with Dura Europas synagogue frescoes and illuminated manuscripts. Completing the fourth band are panels depicting the shewbread table with incense, and the basket of first fruits with pigeons. According to Weiss, the message of these bands is that of rebuilding the temple and redemption. The zodiac is interpreted as a link between the past (promise) and the future (redemption, rebuilding the temple). Weiss closed by noting that there are still open questions regarding the iconography of this mosaic and its implications for ancient Jewish art.

Elisheva Revel-Neher presented a paper "From Dura Europas to Sepphoris: Evolution and Continuity in Jewish Art". She compared the ground-breaking discovery of the 3rd-century decoration of the synagogue at Dura Europas in the 1930s to the discovery of the Sepphoris mosaic. Before the evidence of Dura Europas, it was thought that there was no tradition of Jewish pictorial art. She summarized some of the scholarship on Dura Europas, including the major recent study by Weitzmann and Kessler who interpreted the imagery to be, in some ways, a response to Christianity, and viewed the paintings as based on a manuscript tradition. Revel-Neher compared the Sepphoris mosaic and its arrangement of imagery to other synagogue mosaics of the early Byzantine period. Later mosaics, she noted, show iconoclastic reactions, where part of the mosaic is changed to geometric and animal patterns. The absence of the sun god Helios in the Sepphoris mosaic, however, is not due to iconoclastic restoration. Before Sepphoris, no figures are included in the upper section, but here we have a fragment of Aaron identified by inscription with the bell hanging from his garment. Another difference at Sepphoris is the inclusion of sacrifices and the shewbread table. Comparisons were made with an important group of Bibles from Spain and Portugal that survive from the 13th and 14th centuries, but probably reflect an earlier tradition. Reference was made to the use of three languages throughout the mosaics. Revel-Neher suggested that perhaps the Hebrew used for shortened biblical citations might have been copied from illuminated manuscripts where it is common to use text as labels within illuminations.

Herbert Kessler's presentation, "The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic and Christian Art," stressed there is no doubt that Christian and Jewish art in the early period were in conversation with one another. He proceeded to examine the nature of that conversation in light of the Sepphoris mosaic and contemporary examples of Christian and Jewish art. Kessler observed that no Christian counterparts exist to the extensive narrative cycle in Dura Europas for over a century until Constantine's patronage in the mid-4th century. The Sepphoris mosaic raises doubts of simple evolution of one tradition to another and raises the possibility of cross-fertilization. The source of Helios and the sun image was traced to Roman iconography, which was adapted to Christian and Jewish contexts with different interpretations. Other iconographic sources for new pictorial traditions included representation of classical myths, as well as biblical text or commentary. Mosaicists working for Christians and Jews in the 5th - 6th centuries relied on common pictorial traditions. Because the contexts are different, the meaning is changed. While Helios depicted in a tomb setting suggests resurrection for a Christian, the sun in a synagogue mosaic is viewed in the context of the four seasons and the zodiac. The omission of Isaac carrying wood for the sacrifice was viewed by Kessler as an example of avoiding an image common in Christian art of the period, with its typological Christian meaning. The inclusion of Aaron in the Sepphoris mosaic was interpreted as an example of rendering the imagery more vivid and uniquely Jewish.

Christine Kondoleon's paper, " Measuring Time: From the Roman House to the Sepphoris Synagogue," focused on the zodiac and the four seasons panel. Kondoleon demonstrated direct links to the art of the Roman period and early Byzantine art. The radial calendar and zodiac imagery found in synagogue mosaics, and then in Christian churches, was compared with imagery found in domestic mosaics. In the domestic setting the central chariot with Helios would have references to race horses and circus games. The image would have communicated good fortune to guests and given a winning notion of its patron. Kondoleon suggested a co-dependence of secular Roman art and Jewish/Christian imagery. She also noted an overlap between public and private art. Examples of domestic mosaics with representations of the zodiac, the seasons, and/or sundials were shown from various sites throughout the Roman world, from Syria to North Africa. Over sixty mosaics in Africa alone represent the seasons, typically decorating Roman dining rooms. Associations of abundance, the bounty of the earth as well as the sea, and eternal time (past, present, future), symbols of creation and the Creator, were seen as common themes.

The afternoon panel included the following three presentations: Ehud Netzer, "The Significance of Mosaic Floors in the Architecture of Ancient Synagogues"; Bernadette Brooten, "Women in the Ancient Synagogue"; and Lee I. Levine, "The Social History of the Synagogue in Late Antiquity and the Role of Rabbis."

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