Around Jewish Art

Autour de l'art juif - Adrian Darmon, 2003

The seemingly effortless process by which a suitable title is selected for an encyclopedia such as this became exponentially more complex and difficult as I explored the available options and heard the mounting arguments from all sides. Finding the right mix of words was crucial. After pondering the subject for several months in an effort to arrive at the best possible title, I finally opted for "Around Jewish Art".[1]

Why this title? At the outset, "around" offered me keys that would open doors leading both to "Jewish" and to "art." The word "about" seemed in fact rather improper, whereas "around," meaning "on every side," or "at random" was fine as a title that would envelop the subject of this book and, in a refreshing manner, keep it more in tune with my seven-year effort to write it and to define the broader meaning of the term "Jewish Art" and all of its nuances.
Second, "around" enabled me to delve into all the possible meanings of Jewish Art and also to overcome many formidable obstacles created by the variety of art forms involved. I liked the idea of "around" because it helped me bypass restrictions that might have led to some dead ends.
For example, many artists listed in this exhaustive book did not follow the same path to build their careers. Nor were they all directly or indirectly connected with Judaism—it was only their art that was. In contrast, the word "about" seemed too restrictive when I fell upon the dizzying fact that the Old Testament had been used as a theme with a universal connotation, meaning that hundreds of non-Jewish artists had used it as a source a subject that was essentially Jewish. Another important element was the conjunction of the words "around" and "Jewish," because it paved the way to a loose definition of the concept of "Jewish Art." The correct definition of the latter phrase is a hotly debated issue on which, to date, scholars and art historians cannot agree. To present what was "around" Jewish Art seemed an interesting way to try to treat a range of issues such as: Jewish roots, Jewish education, Jewish feelings, the emancipation of the Jews, their choices, the countries they came from, their connection (or lack of one) to their religion, their ultimate destinies, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, and so on. In addition, "Around Jewish Art" avoided the controversy of interpretation. While most Jewish artists have infused Jewish feelings in their works, artists such as Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman plunged so deeply into their roots that their abstract works at first glance appear to have nothing to do with Judaism.
To me, "around Jewish" also means "around the Bible," the stories and legends of the Old Testament, the endless inspiration and sources derived from them by many non-Jewish artists and their varied interests in Judaism. A good example is Rembrandt, who closely mingled with the Jews in Amsterdam and depicted them and their customs.
Finally, "around art" proved to be an appropriate combination of words, since there are many forms of art described in this book, such as painting, drawing, photography, engraving, collage, paper cutting, video, installation, and sculpture.
Before going further with this Foreword, I have to admit that there is not one final definition of the term "Jewish Art." It is at best a notion that is quite unclear to many people. Pretending that it is not would no doubt have resulted in a much more streamlined publication but would have eliminated numerous extremely important artists. Having a restrictive definition as a guideline would have led to the creation of a kind of "ghetto in print form," because numerous Jewish artists who considered themselves above all as "universal" would either not want to be included in a volume having such a limited concept or would simply not fit the definition and not be included because of an editorial decision.
Jewish Art can be described broadly as a blend of many cultures mixed with old Eastern European or Oriental religious and secular traditions that were gradually transformed through many upheavals, such as the falls of the Austrian, German, and Russian empires, the Holocaust, and the creation of Israel. The best definition of the term seems to lie in the expression of Jewish feelings exhaled by artists bound, like it or not, by their roots and also by the persecutions and restrictions the Jewish people have suffered over the centuries. Being a Jew was often a burden, but somehow many felt a sort of hidden or avowed pride, regardless of the consequences.
There is, in fact, a solid psychological, if not ancestral, link to creation among the People of the Book. From childhood on, they became acquainted with that link and strove to sublimate themselves through the ages in every part of the world. Strangely enough, and thanks to the Emancipation, Jewish artists played a significant part in the history of art after the mid-nineteenth century as if they eagerly wanted to show or prove their skills to the world. Proportionately, in the field of art their numbers far exceeded their percentage of the earth's population.
This book is dedicated to all artists who shared this link, especially those whose careers ended abruptly in Nazi death camps.


For over a thousand years, traditional boundaries, both within the community and without, limited the roles of Jews in society, hence constricting their opportunities and their rights. Prior to the eighteenth century, art was rarely adopted as an occupation because the community faced so many restrictions.
Even the Jewish religion itself created an obstacle. The Second Commandment, which is one of Judaism's most central principles, decrees that the believer ought not to represent God by "any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in water below the lands." The biblical text also warns the believer to "watch yourselves very carefully, since you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you out of the fire of Horeb. You shall therefore not become corrupt and make a statue depicting any symbol, any male or female image or the image of any animal on the earth" (Deuteronomy 4:16–18). These injunctions exercised constant influence over the historic course of Jewish Art, restricting or inhibiting its full development. Even the Talmudic and rabbinical authorities tended to reinforce these injunctions and in most cases equated image-making with idolatry. Surprisingly, though, the Scriptures do contain affirmative references to art and to its makers: Exodus 31:3–5 and Exodus 35:31–34 contain praise for the master craftsmen of the Temple, and in other places, such as Sabbath 133b, a religiously sanctioned need to glorify the divine with beautiful objects is expressed.
Surprisingly, though, the Second Commandment was interpreted across time in many different ways, despite rabbinical censure. Some archaeological finds and material evidence collected during the past century do not show a completely monolithic abstention from art or image-making. In addition, some human figures were produced in certain ritual prayer books during Roman times as well as during the Middle Ages. The visual arts hence continued to be produced in many different forms, which indicates that the different Jewish congregations and Jewish artists managed to work in various ways alongside or around the restrictions cited above. The rich Mosaic representations found in the synagogues of Galilee of the third to the sixth centuries and the extraordinary murals of the third-century Doura Europos Synagogue in Syria, as well as literary references to others, tend to suggest that during a certain period, the visual arts did play a significant role in Jewish life.
Hence, Jewish Art was defined and developed over time as the instrument of religious needs and aims. Because of the persecutions they suffered, members of the Jewish communities in Europe never felt themselves in a position to adopt painting until at least the nineteenth century. As a result, only a few artists, notably in Britain and Germany, were active by the end of the eighteenth century.
Being a minority in most parts of the world, Jews were usually granted some communal self-government but were restricted in where they could live, the occupations they could pursue, and the legal and civil rights they enjoyed. In most countries, only a privileged few escaped these restrictions.

The nature of Jewish Art was to change considerably with the Emancipation and greater secularization of Jewish culture. Prior to the Emancipation, Jewish Art had been in a long period of decline. But Jewish life was eventually transformed by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, when the concepts of liberty, equality, and the improvement of humankind through education and historical progress spread throughout Europe, stimulating a new attitude toward Jews. Cultural and social spheres that had previously been closed to them became accessible; even European art schools no longer discriminated. They ceased to be merely models and became sculptors and painters themselves. Moreover, the trend toward separating the religious and the secular life encouraged some of them to opt for nonreligious themes.
The exponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala), who, were militating for a transformation of Judaism around 1830 and inviting Jews to study sciences and foreign languages, induced many individuals to adopt European culture. As a result, they were increasingly enabled to ignore the religious ban without the risk of facing denunciation from the closed orthodox circles, and this led to the phenomenon of Jewish Expressionism, which refreshed the panoply of symbols, signs, and rituals of the Mosaic culture. As Emancipation progressed, many Jews became prosperous; they were less concerned with religion and more aware of the arts, since this was one of the areas of endeavor now open to the community. As a result, Jewish artists started to be visible during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Thanks to the new outlook of many Jews and several painters, the world of art went on to gain a new dimension after 1870 with the emergence of such artists as Jozef and Isaac Israëls, Edouard Moyse, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Isidore Kaufmann, Maurycy Gottlieb, Simeon Solomon, Maurycy Trembacz, Camille Pissarro, Max Liebermann, Abel Pann, Lesser Ury, Yehuda Pen, Marc Chagall, Issachar Ber Ryback, Henryk Hayden, El Lissitzky, Amedeo Modigliani, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling, Jankel Adler, Eugène Zak, Chana Orloff, Louis Marcoussis, Marcel Janco, Jacques Lipchitz, Otto Freundlich, Felix Nussbaum, Isaac Levitan, Nathan Altman, Nina Kogan, Antoine Pevsner, Naum Gabo, Isaac Grunewald, Chaim Goldberg, Emmanuel Mane-Katz, Lasar Segall, Jakob Steinhardt, Ludwig Meidner, Moshe Castel, Reuven Rubin, Haim Glicksberg, Moshe Mokady, Nahum Gutman, Victor Brauner, Morton Schamberg, Saul Steinberg, Max Weber, Adolph Gottlieb, George Segal, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and many others.
At the turn of the twentieth century, there were only a score of good Jewish painters. Fifty years later, there were over a hundred. Their golden era spanned thirty years, from 1910 to 1940, after which the Nazi invasion of Europe and the ensuing Holocaust caused the irreparable disappearance of many talented artists. After the Second World War, the Jewish School took some years to reemerge, and, since the death of Chagall, its leading figure, it has found no major new impetus, although the contingent of Jewish artists has been growing ceaselessly since then.

It would be misleading to imply that Jewish Art started only some 150 years ago. In fact, while the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4) orders, "You won't produce any sculpted image," it qualifies this by saying, "You won't prostrate yourself before them, and you won't serve them" (Exodus 20:5). Therefore, the Jews living in the Holy Land during Roman times permitted the decoration of the Holy Ark in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem., It was adorned with two cherubim, and the beginnings of Jewish Art can be linked to the erection of the First Temple, which acted as a stimulus to the development of Jewish Art.
According to legend, the first known Jewish artist was Bezalel, who designed the sacred Ark mentioned in the Bible for Moses. Many Jewish artists who are unknown to us followed in his footsteps during ancient times.
For many centuries, the Temple was the focal point of Jewish culture and the source of much artistic endeavor. During the ninth century B.C.E., even King Solomon himself violated the Second Commandment somewhat when he decided to put an imposing bronze basin called the "Molten Sea," supported by twelve sculpted oxen, in the Temple compound. Circumscribed embellishment became a prerequisite of some Jewish religious practices.
After the destruction of the Temple, there was a time of tolerance during which rabbis often indulged in the use of artistic artifacts. Paintings had already been much in use in synagogues and homes during Hellenistic times. Indeed, following the Greek and Roman conquests, many synagogues were richly adorned with paintings and Mosaic floorings.
In this period there was a greater concentration on the development of a decorative visual vocabulary. Also, a distinction came to be made between images for decoration and images for adoration. Frequent clashes over the use of figurative images in religious and semireligious contexts became the pretext for political confrontations, insurgencies, and revolts.
They proved that the Jewish people, like most others of that era, had a special liking for art. Many communities built richly adorned synagogues, while individuals would order illustrated religious manuscripts for their personal use. There were many representations of King David and of major biblical events, while other themes were derived from pagan mythology, such as Orpheus playing the harp and charming animals, representing the victory of the soul over the forces of the universe and death.
After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Jewish Art regressed, although communities in exile had their artists decorate synagogues or illuminate prayer books. As an example, the extraordinary art decorating the synagogue of Doura Europos, built during the third century, was purely Greek in style.
In certain parts of Europe, however, especially in Italy, some artists managed to produce works at least until the Renaissance. Here, even Christianity was a source of inspiration for Jewish painters.
The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam led to the splitting of the Jewish community into two quite different geopolitical groupings. In the Islamic world, Eastern Jews were forced to abide by the principles of the Moslem religion, which banned all figurative images. Therefore, artists limited themselves to a rigorous nonrepresentational art that consisted of highly ornate geometric, calligraphic, and curvilinear designs.
In the Christian world, illustrated manuscripts dealing with the Jewish religion were produced freely, especially in southern Europe. The trend was somewhat different during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Germany, where the representatives of the new ascetic Hassidic movement were opposed to any aesthetic ambition. Instead, human faces in manuscripts produced in the Rhine region were shown with bird bills or were replaced with the heads of animals. Moreover, many religious manuscripts produced in the Christian world bore testimony to the brilliant talent of Jewish illuminators between 1100 and 1500. There was probably a much earlier illuminated manuscript tradition, the historic traces of which have been lost, and such tradition may have run as far back as late antiquity. Because an estimated 20,000 Jewish manuscripts were lost in a fire around 1240, researchers were prevented from pinpointing the ancestry of this tradition.
Apart from illuminated manuscripts, Jewish religious artifacts in medieval times were often made with artistic embellishment. Some notable examples included Hanukkah lamps, Torah shields, Torah finials, etrog containers, and sanctuary lamps, spice towers, goblets, and candlesticks. These ritual objects were made according to a true Jewish style that had emerged throughout Europe.
It would be wrong to believe that Jews lived only in restricted areas during the Middle Ages. In fact, many Christian measures against them were not always applied, and certain communities enjoyed some relative freedom at certain times. In his book, The Merchant of Perugia: A Jewish Community during the Middle Ages, Ariel Toaff noted that many injunctions against Italian Jews often remained without effect, although the Jews suffered annoyances from time to time, as when they were forced to live in restricted areas. But it was not until 1516 that the ghetto of Venice was set up, followed by that of Rome, which was ordered by Pope Paul IV in 1555.
Hence, from the thirteenth until the second half of the fifteenth centuries, Jews enjoyed a degree of freedom and became prosperous among Christians in northern Italy. Many members of the Jewish community there worked as doctors, apothecaries, bankers, merchants selling skin dressings, clothes, spices, and cereals, or as cobblers, mattress makers, bookbinders, coachmen, job masters, blacksmiths, silversmiths, ragmen, secondhand dealers, and even gunpowder makers, who were registered in Christian guilds.
In the world of the arts, Jews in Parma, Pesaro, Florence, Perugia, and Venice ran many dancing schools. One of the most famous dancing masters around 1470 was Deodato di Mose, a Jew who taught all kinds of steps to Italian aristocrats. In Perugia, three Jews were registered in the guild of painters, although they were not pupils of the famous Perugin or well-known artists but were employed for the decoration of banners.
It seems probable that several other Jewish painters were active in certain Italian towns between the thirteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century and that certain Renaissance or seventeenth-century artists might have descended from a number of Jews who had become Christian converts. It has often been suggested that the famous Italian painter, Veronese, had Jewish roots, as well as the Greek-born El Greco, especially since the latter lived a few yards away from the ancient synagogue of Toledo.
Jews and Christians lived in comparative harmony in northern Italy until the Catholic Church decided to set up pawnshops to put an end to the activities of Jewish bankers. The great anti-Jewish preaching enacted by minor religious orders after 1450 resulted in discriminatory regulations such as a requirement to wear distinctive signs, the imposition of fines and heavy taxes, an interdiction against travel during Holy Week, expropriations, expulsions, and forced conversions. Similar and often harsher measures took place throughout Europe, but one can imagine that French, Spanish, and German Jews enjoyed the same freedom as their Italian counterparts during certain periods of the Middle Ages.
In Spain, the best-known Jewish artist during medieval times was Juan de Levi. Levi was a famous painter during the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. He probably decorated synagogues with nonfigurative paintings, but his full talent was expressed in the works he produced for several Catholic churches. Between 1392 and 1403, he painted an altar for Tarazona Cathedral comprising thirty-two small and three big paintings that can still be seen today. He also produced two altarpieces, one for the church at Montalban and one for Hoz de la Vieja in 1405.
Levi is the best-known of those Jewish artists of the Middle Ages who, instead of producing illuminated manuscripts, worked on a larger scale. However, we can assume that some other Jewish artists followed a similar path during at least three centuries before Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. After their expulsion, Spanish Jews faced so many restrictions that only Christian converts (or Marranos) ,were able to pursue artistic careers. Historians have been unable to obtain full biographical details on only a few of these artists working during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It is also known that not all the makers of Jewish illuminated manuscripts in the medieval period were themselves Jewish. It was often customary at that time for Christian craftsmen to be employed in the making of Jewish religious artifacts and for Jews to be employed in the production of Christian objects or paintings.
During the Renaissance, the Christian world saw the emergence of a whole range of new artistic ideals and new stylistic values. Some of the changes that occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries found their way into Jewish Art and led to its transformation.
Many ritual objects were produced in addition to the Menorah, which was already in use during biblical times. Items such as Rimmonim or Torah finials, Torah bells, Torah breastplates, Kiddush cups, and embroidered brocades were introduced into Jewish ritual during the fifteenth century and became the focus of many artistic endeavors. These objects eventually included figurative elements such as images of Abraham, Aaron, and Moses.
The great resurgence in invention and the dissemination of printing techniques during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also had a certain impact on Jewish life. This development led to the incorporation of images in some religious books and materials, including the Megilat Esther, the Passover Haggadah, and the Ketubbah (marriage certificate).
There was, therefore, a long period of Jewish artistic activity that originated with the Bible and biblical times and spanned over two thousand years, even though religion and the uncertainties of life caused by persecutions prevented free and truly significant development of Jewish Art. Historically, Jewish Art was defined and developed as the instrument of religious needs and aims. Because of the persecution they suffered, members of the Jewish communities in Europe never felt themselves in a position to take up painting until at least the nineteenth century. As a result, only a few artists, in Britain and Germany particularly, were active by the end of the eighteenth century. Moreover, wherever they went, Jews would adopt the style of their adopted countries.
Moreover, such art was so closely associated with religion that it was not really understood by gentiles, even those as well-educated as Voltaire, the well-known eighteenth-century French writer and philosopher, who simply denied its existence. Many art historians have also concluded that Jewish Art was never able to acquire a cohesive stylistic basis because of the fragmented historical and geographical manner in which it developed.
With respect to style, and especially with the dispersion of the Diaspora, Jewish Art was quite dependent on surrounding styles. While it always remained selective about what and how it would apply its borrowings from other artistic traditions, the fact remains that no Jewish Art existed in a conventional sense that could be compared with other artistic traditions deriving from Greek, Roman, Gothic, French, German, Flemish, or Italian influences. Instead, it was characterized by a situation in which each locality or each nucleus of Jewish culture had to operate within what were at times completely divergent historical, cultural, legal, and material circumstances.

The Emancipation
The course of Jewish Art was to change dramatically with the onset of the Emancipation. Cultural and social spheres that were previously closed to Jews became accessible and, as religious and secular life became more separate, some Jewish artists opted for nonreligious themes.
Every school of painting has to start somewhere, and with Jewish painters the trend was quite academic at the beginning. They produced mainly portraits and some landscapes; only a few found their inspiration within their community. Because of the religious ban in Deuteronomy and also a leaning toward traditional art, few made use of signs and symbols. In fact, those who indulged in painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century did not really bother with strict religious principles, which banned figurative pictures (2, XX, 4; -3 XXVI, I; -5, V, 6); they worked within a nonreligious framework. As explained in The History of Jewish Art (World ORT Union), with the Emancipation under way, the visual arts, including figurative art, became an important tool with which to embody or portray central aspects of Jewish culture and history—as seen in the works of Chagall and Kitaj.
Ashkenazi art was emerging , and many Jewish artists started to assert their talents throughout Europe. The first Jewish painters of the nineteenth century went on to produce biblical subjects and Jewish domestic scenes that had made an impression on the well-off Jewish public.
However, until 1860, there was little representation of Jewish life. Those who engaged in it were gentiles, such as Rembrandt, who created portraits of several rabbis and Jewish people. Jozef Israëls concentrated on Dutch scenes and painted only a few Judaic scenes, whereas Camille Pissarro, who was half-Jewish, never produced any works inspired by his origins and instead joined the Impressionist movement, becoming one of its leading figures along with Monet, Sisley, and Renoir.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jewish ritual art suffered a certain decline. This was a time when many Jews wanted to free themselves from religious principles and decided to leave their communities to live and work like other artists in Europe.
Zionism also played a great part in the development of Jewish Art and inspired the production of works related to the Bible and to the landscapes of Palestine, thanks to Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874–1925) and Boris Schatz (1866–1932), who founded the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem in 1906. Jewish Art was validated in 1901 when the Zionist movement sponsored an exhibition of Jewish artists that traveled to Berlin in 1906 and then to London in 1913.
In 1878 a Jewish artistic presence in Europe was revealed on a large scale when music composer Isaac Strauss showed his collection of Jewish ritual objects at the Universal Exhibition organized at the Trocadero Hall in Paris. Collecting Hebrew manuscripts and religious objects became popular, and Jewish painters gained recognition in Germany (Moritz Oppenheim), Poland (Maurycy Gottlieb), England (Simeon Solomon), and France (Edouard Moyse).
It is also worthwhile to note that many Jews became prosperous after 1840 thanks to the Emancipation and started to collect art pieces on a large scale in France and Germany. The quite wealthy James Simon (1851–1932) donated his impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, and Renaissance medals to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1904. Other great Jewish collectors in Germany included Marcus Kappel, Franz and Robert von Mendelssohn, Alfred Breit, Oscar Huldschinsky, and Eduard Arnhold (1849–1925), who offered the Massimo Villa in Rome to the Prussian State. Meanwhile, Max Bohm and Rudolf Mosse possessed the biggest collections of nineteenth-century German paintings, and Paul Davidsohn had the most prestigious collection of engravings. Leopold Sonnemann donated most of his French works of art to the Städelsches Kunstinstitut of Frankfurt, and H.H. Meyer bequeathed his collection of sixty thousand rare engravings to the Kunsthalle of Bremen.

The School of Paris (l'École de Paris)
A colony of some one hundred foreign artists was central to the emergence of a unique and colorful phenomenon in the legendary area of Montparnasse between 1910 and 1940 -- the School of Paris (l'École de Paris). No one really knows who invented this label for the art of the years when Paris was the center of the world for art creation. The French had invented Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism, and Paris was the ideal meeting place for all sorts of groups.
Every good artist had only one wish in mind, and that was to go to the French capital and inhale its unique atmosphere; Paris was home to dozens of celebrated studios as well as an exciting social life, especially in the cafes of Montmartre and Montparnasse. Many artists came from central Europe after a stop in Vienna, Berlin, or Munich and they naturally brought their own cultures with them. That is how the School of Paris emerged in the footsteps of Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism. Its artists all showed a leaning towards Expressionism, a trend never absorbed in France in pure form since it was rather alien to a culture rooted in harmony and restraint, despite its origins in French pictorialism.
The artists who came to Paris were, above all, eager to fulfill the promise of a life different from the one they had experienced in their native countries. They yearned for freedom in every respect, and it was in Paris that they could find it. As Chagall once stressed, that was because the sun of art shone at that time only in Paris.
They came to the French capital with their sorrows, their memories, their habits, their Russian, Polish, Romanian, or German accents, and their dreams. They lived with little, sharing attic rooms and shacks in Montparnasse or Montmartre. Soon, they adopted a fatalist philosophy and regrouped, gathering together to protect themselves from an unfriendly environment. They lived day-to-day, carrying on endless discussions about art, attending popular balls, and engaging in love affairs. While some drank a lot, it was through their art that they overcame their vicissitudes, finding comfort in working intensely on their canvasses. As the Polish writer Mariusz Rosiak pointed out in an article published in 1992, there were 172 foreign artists among the 950 who participated in the 1919 Salon d'Automne. A year later, there were 181 foreigners among the 928 registered at the Salon des Independants, and in 1924, at the same Salon, their number rose to 322 out of 1150 participants.
A growing number of galleries took the risk of exhibiting the works of the many foreign artists who had settled in France. They included the Galerie Berthe Weill, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Galerie Bing, Galerie Druet, Galerie des Quatre Chemins, Galerie Cheron, Galerie Denise Ren‚ Galerie Georges Petit, and the Galerie Zborowski, which opened in 1926. Earlier, Leopold Zborowski had been active in selling the paintings of Modigliani, his close friend. Many intellectuals also backed these foreigners who had invented a new style of painting that made the School of Paris distinctive.
However, these painters did not form a united grouping or belong to a movement; they were attached to the School through their place of residence and also because they did not belong to any other movement. In the same way, Picasso, the Dutch Kees Van Dongen, and French painters such as Derain, Vlaminck, Utrillo, and even Matisse were once linked to the School simply because, by 1914, Fauvism was no longer in vogue.
One could also say that the School of Paris was the emanation of an artistic atmosphere that was reflected in paintings that expressed deep feelings and used a poignant and violently colorful brush. These painters were not simply Expressionists like the Germans who instilled something Jewish into their paintings, the great painters of this so-called school—Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling, and Jules Pascin—were Jews.
In fact, critics faced a difficult task in linking certain artists to a specific movement. Like the short-lived experience of Faurvism, any attempt at classification was wrongheaded. For instance, some exhibits in the French capital were called "Paintings from the New School of Paris" but showed only Cubist works.
Before World War I, German newspapers used the term "School of Paris" to identify any avant-garde trend that was different than German Expressionism. For most purposes, however, reference to the School of Paris embraces the output of all foreign artists whose biographies, works, and careers were inseparable from the Paris of the period between 1910 and 1940.
A thousand years of Ashkenazi culture culminated in Paris, and numerous artists blossomed as a result. Among the best-known were Marek Szwarc (1892–1958), Pinchus Kremegne (1890–1981), and Joseph Tchaikov (1888–1986), who worked in the studios of La Ruche and published the first Jewish Art hectograph review, Makhmadim (The Precious), without, however, attempting to create a new form of Jewish Art. Although Marc Chagall did not share their ideals and worked in his own way, he had great influence over many Ashkenazi artists after the First World War. They considered him their master and source of inspiration.
The best approach to explaining the significance of the School would be to examine the output of a historic group of painters active in Montparnasse before 1930. Most of the artists linked to the School of Paris were of Jewish descent, mostly from central and eastern Europe, and their art had some connections with Expressionism, even though many of them had assimilated new trends such as Cubism, Futurism, Postimpressionism, and Fauvism. Picasso was the most remarkable representative of the School, which included Matisse, Rouault, Utrillo, Chagall, Soutine, Suzanne Valadon, Foujita, and Modigliani in its ranks.
All these artists evoked in their work a variety of emotional states, ranging from sadness and despair to joy and ecstasy. These mental attitudes crystallized the works of the School of Paris artists into an expression of the universal meaning of life and creation, often turning into hyperbolic exegeses of the human condition: birth, motherhood, transience, transcendental longings, old age, and death, along with reflections on the ugliness and beauty of the world. Mariusz Rosiak once wrote, "Melancholia, tragedy, nostalgia, poetry, and some symbols of the Jewish and Slav world were the usual mixtures to be found in the paintings produced by these artists." These feelings arose from the clash between their cultures and the one that prevailed in Paris as well as the confrontation between their dreams and the reality of the life they faced. They had fled from cruel social conditions and perhaps even more from the cultural circles of ancestors who were hostile to painting, and this can be sensed in their works, which express longing for the continuity of tradition, history, and culture and at the same time for the development of their art.
The artists were unable to forget their roots. Their childhoods, upbringing, religion, and habits clung to them despite the fact that they had jumped into a modern world. They had escaped dictatorship and oppression but still seemed to feel some dizziness while breathing in their new freedom. They still had fear within their hearts and some anguish about the future, perhaps anxious that they, as foreigners, would remain isolated from the French natives—who, it must be stressed, generally considered them aliens.
Art historians have credited the absence of images within the Jewish religion for centuries as a major, if not the single most important, force that contributed to the phenomenon of Jewish Expressionism, which refreshed the world of symbols, signs, and rituals of Jewish culture. As a result, many achievements of the School of Paris had an almost archetypal dimension. Its artists painted by exhaling their experiences and instincts and by displaying rich effects of texture and color. During a period called the "Mad Years" (Les Années Folles) they expressed their emotions, obsessions, passions, and sufferings when, after witnessing the atrocities of the war, they felt the urge to grasp beauty and sensuality, not only in representing the female image but also in still lifes and landscapes.
The School was a mixture of nationalities, talents, moods and trends. Nevertheless, for a long time the French were reluctant to acknowledge that most of the great painters of the School of Paris were foreigners who were in some way open to prevailing French traditions while giving something in return to their adopted country. There could have been no Soutine—nor many other famous foreign painters, such as Van Gogh, for instance—without France, a country that gave Soutine the language of expression, and yet this artist was quite distant from earlier French painters such as Corot, Vuillard, and Bonnard. Soutine and many like him had an admiration for the culture of harmony and moderation, but they later turned against it because of their nostalgia, their difficulties in adapting to normal life, and their frustrations.
Paris had a fantastic impact on their workmanship, and its atmosphere enabled them to reach potentialities they would probably never had achieved had they stayed in their native countries. Yet their brilliant careers suffered a setback in the 1930s, when xenophobia swept Europe. The former openness and tolerance were replaced by antagonism during those difficult years. Suddenly these foreign artists were ostracized, and those who had supported them changed sides and accused them of undermining French tradition in art. The Parisian press ceased to publish articles about the Montparnasse painters, and the School of Paris became a vague notion for people who had previously flocked to its exhibitions. Describing the School of Paris as "a house of cards built in Montparnasse," Waldemar George, who used to shower fulsome praise on the artists of this School during the 1920s, was quoted some years later as saying, "The time has come for France to be on her feet again and find the seed of salvation in its own soil."
Foreign painters had settled in Paris from Japan (Foujita, Koyanagui, and a few others), the Netherlands (Van Dongen), Spain (Picasso, Juan Gris), Italy (Modigliani), Hungary (Czobel, Kolos-Vary, Bondy), Bulgaria (Pascin), Lithuania (Soutine, Lipchitz, Band), Czechoslovakia (Coubine, Kars), Romania (Codreanu, Brancusi, Brauner), Norway (Krogh), Russia (Chagall, Orloff), and Poland, whose artists outnumbered by far those of other countries (Kisling, Zak, Marcoussis, Hayden, Aberdam, Epstein, Feuerring, Halicka, Kanelba, Kirszenbaum, Mondzain, Menkes, Weingart, Kramsztyk, Landau, and others). At the outbreak of the Second World War, these painters were rejected and persecuted. Several of them fled France, but many others did not survive the war.

A School for the Jews of Eastern Europe
In the nineteenth century, Russian Jews, in particular, started to show a deep interest in their own culture, as evidenced by such art critics and patrons as Vladimir Stasov and Baron Daniel de Guenzburg. One must point out the importance of the School of Vitebsk in Byelorussia, where Yehuda Pen (1854–1937), Chagall's master, opened the first Jewish school of art in 1892. It was here that Chagall discovered the importance of daily Jewish life, of the shtetl, of craftsmen and rabbis. He was the first artist to create a poetic world inspired by Judaic themes as well as his discovery of Cubism and Supremacist painting. Expressing his personal poetic fantasy and the collective feelings of Eastern European Jews, Chagall produced works that ravished Jews and captured the attention of non-Jews as well.
Along with Chagall, many other Russian-Jewish painters expressed their talents, including Shlomo Yudovin, El Lissitzky, Nathan Altman, Robert Falk, and Issachar Ryback, who took part in the first Jewish Art exhibition in Russia in 1916.
New artistic experiments with book illustrations and engravings were so striking that these techniques influenced new layout methods applied by the Bauhaus movement in Germany. El Lissitzky, in particular, became very famous through his illustrations of Yiddish books such as Sikhes Khulin (Gossips, 1917), Had Gadye (1919) and Yingl Tsingt Khvat (1922).
Meanwhile, in 1922 Chagall illustrated the Troyer (Mourning), a compilation of poems produced by David Hofstein and incorporating his visions of pogroms. Issachar Ryback combined Cubism and Expressionism in his illustrations for The Shtetl (1923) and Jewish Types of Ukraine (1924), while Joseph Tchaikov mixed Art Nouveau with Futurism, Supremacism, and Cubism in his illustration of Di Kupe (1922), a funeral song by the poet Peretz Markish.
Chagall, Altman, and David Shterenberg joined the Soviet movement during the Revolution of 1917. The former was appointed commissioner for the arts in Vitebsk, while, in Kiev, artists such as Ryback, Tchaikov, and Aronson regrouped within the Kultur-Lige (Cultural League), a socialist institution that founded schools and institutes.
Through this group, which organized exhibitions, an attempt was made to create a modern Jewish Art via research into authentic Jewish form, color, and national and organic rhythm. An exhibition organized in Kiev in 1920 served as a springboard for a group of artists including Boris Aronson, Isaak Rabinovich, Alexander Tyshler, and Nisson Shifrin who were working for Jewish and Russian theaters in Moscow.
The Kultur-Lige had an ephemeral existence and fell under the control of the Bolshevik Yevsektsiya (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) in December 1920. As head of the Vitebsk Academy of Fine Arts, Chagall played a leading role during the Soviet Revolution. But, after Malevich's Supremacist ideas won support from revolutionary leaders, he lost his post and went to Moscow, where he worked actively for Jewish theater.
In neighboring Poland, Jewish Art had the greatest momentum, thanks to many artists who worked both inside and outside this country after its independence in 1918. The first Jewish Art exhibition took place in Lodz in 1921 with works by Henryk Barcinski (1896–1941) and Yitzhok Brauner (1887–1944). The core of the Jewish avant-garde movement, with Henryk Berlewi as its leader, moved to Warsaw. Along with Henryk Gottlieb and Wladislaw Weintraub, Berlewi took part in setting up the Society of Jewish Artists, which became the Association of Jewish Artists from Poland in 1931.
Jewish painters from Poland painted in all kinds of styles, including free abstraction, Cubism, Postimpressionism, Expressionism, and Social Realism, which was launched in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Some of these painters rapidly gave up Judaic themes and participated in the development of a modern art that was devoid of any Jewish specificity.
Finally, Ashkenazi art allowed Jewish life and popular traditions from Eastern Europe to be depicted through the bubbling creative activities of painters who explored many artistic domains and left their marks on modern art. It suffered a terrible hiatus in Europe as a result of the Second World War, which resulted in the death of millions of Jews. The Holocaust was an immense tragedy, and all the more so because as thousands of artists of all kinds perished in the Nazi death camps.

The Emergence of an Israeli School
There is no other country in the world able to offer as many artistic varieties as those that flourish in Jerusalem, Haifa, Safed, Jaffa, and Beersheba. In all these cities,' one can feel the intense confrontation between tradition and modernity and the depth of Israeli art, which combines so many styles and embraces so many cultures. This artistic melting pot contributed to the blossoming of the Israeli School of painting and sculpture, which can serve as solid proof of the existence of Jewish Art for those who defend such an idea.
Those who enabled the development of Israeli art were immigrants who first preserved the traditions of their native shtetls before amalgamating them with those of their adoptive country. Around 1920, Israeli artists tried to impose a form of art separate from the influences of the Diaspora.
During the first third of the twentieth century, Ashkenazi art played a major role in Israel through the founding of many art schools in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. Eventually, it absorbed the various cultures of its cosmopolitan population as well as the beauty of Israel's landscapes and the sunlight of the Mediterranean region. In addition, it became diluted by Oriental, Sephardim, and Western influences.
The development of Israeli art reached an entirely new level once it tapped into the legendary history of the Holy Land and the Bible's inexhaustible treasury. Biblical themes recur in Israeli art despite the fact that it has just been born, and creation seems to be a major preoccupation for many artists exploring different innovative directions. Israeli art is not monolithic and bears above all the mark of plurality that incorporates the traditional and avant-garde currents that emerged at the start of the twentieth century, when the Zionist movement encouraged talented artists to study and settle in Jerusalem.
Beginning in 1930, Israeli art went on to absorb Expressionist and Cubist influences due to the arrival in Palestine of massive numbers of immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. This resulted in the creation of a characteristic Israeli school of abstract painting. During the 1940s, many artists mixed tradition and abstraction to formulate some kind of local art without closing the door to foreign influences.
Today, Israeli artists face complex identity problems. While they see themselves as members of international artistic movements, they also face critical issues of security and its consequences as citizens of a country born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and always at war. In the past few years, some artists have turned to traditional themes such as the legendary Golem and ritual scenes of past Jewish life, and to autobiographical explorations in their search for Jewish identity. This phenomenon may be linked to the recent American emphasis on multiculturalism. Others express the problems of the Holocaust, a theme shared with Jewish artists elsewhere; while still others create works on the social tensions of contemporary Israeli society.
One can expect that Israeli art will enter a new phase in its development once the State of Israel finds a way to be totally at peace with its Arab neighbors during the early twenty-first century.

Tradition versus Modernity
In the passage from traditional worlds to modernity, Jews evolved from a culture where identity depended on the community to one in which identity is formed by the individual.
For a time, Jewish artists sought subject matter within their communities, but, over the years, this focus was replaced by a greater involvement in more general artistic issues, these two contrastive attitudes being exemplified in the work of Chagall, on the one hand, and on the other, of Pissarro.
By the end of the nineteenth century many Jews tended to overlook the confining parameters of their own religious artistic traditions and sought instead to relate to more universal or more contemporary artistic issues. Although this resulted in less attention being given to the making of Jewish Art, it still meant that artists of Jewish origin could play their parts in the development and creation of modern art, and those contributions have been significant.
With respect to tradition, no significant evidence of a true Jewish school of painting appeared before 1870. At around that time, the Hungarian Isidore Kaufman began a career that made him the most important Jewish genre painter. Traveling throughout eastern Europe, Kaufman was constantly in search of material in Jewish towns and villages, sketching as he went.
Maurycy Gottlieb, born in Poland in 1856, was perhaps the most talented Jewish artist, certainly as talented as Kaufman, but unfortunately, he died prematurely at the age of twenty-three.
By far the most expensive Jewish artwork is that of the painter Marc Chagall. Chagall made the wise decision to establish his new quarters in France in 1922. While in Paris, Chagall remained true to his origins and continued to produce his eastern-European Jewish iconography and biblical scenes throughout the rest of his life. In his mind, Jewish Art was somewhat sacred, and his own art revolved almost entirely around the Bible and Judaic traditions; he recalled that the atmosphere of Vitebsk, his hometown, was strangely similar to that of Jerusalem and often used to say that art deriving from the Bible was in fact naturally universal.
Next to Chagall, the work of Modigliani, who never painted Jewish subject matter, is the most valuable, and next comes work by Pissarro, who was half Jewish.
Max Liebermann (1847–1935) became the greatest Impressionist painter. Despite a long stay in Paris, where he worked under the influence of Jean-Francois Millet, he settled in Berlin. Showing a major interest in rural scenes, he glorified the German working class and seldom painted Jewish subject matter, as he felt much integrated into the German society. Unfortunately, he faced a rather harsh return to reality in his old age when waves of anti-Semitic activity swept his country after the Nazi takeover in 1933.
The painter Alfred Wolmark (1877–1961), on the other hand, was deeply concerned about his roots. Born in Warsaw, he arrived in London's East End as a child and remained close to his community; he explored the Jewish subjects familiar to him in a style reminiscent of Rembrandt. His success with such works in London during the first decade of the twentieth century was quite considerable. Later in his career, he produced works in increasingly vibrant colors.
Born in Nancy, eastern France, Edouard Moyse (1827–?) was the first Jewish genre painter of France. He began showing Jewish portraits and scenes at the 1850 Salon.
In the United States, William Auerbach-Levy (1889–1965) was among the first painters of Jewish portraits, beginning around 1910.
Chaim Goldberg, who was born in Poland (1917– ) is the personification of the uprooted Jewish experience of many Ashkenazi artists who experienced displacement during the Second World War. While others merely brought their eastern-European shtetl characters to the United States, Goldberg bridges the "divide" between the purely Jewish subjects and non-Jewish subject matter. Having experienced culture shock upon his arrival from Israel, he was moved to "break pattern" with the more familiar eastern-European and Holocaust themes, making it easier for these feelings to be expressed through his art. His later themes varied as well, as can be seen in his work on the subject of dance as a metaphor for greater dignity and brotherhood toward one another.
Another painter, Jean Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, known as "Balthus," should be worth mentioning even though this major artist always denied that he was Jewish. In a biography of Balthus published in August 1999, American author Nicholas Fox Weber firmly stated that Balthus was so ashamed of being Jewish-born that he went as far as pretending he had Polish noble roots. However, the Polish magazine Gazeta Antykwarycna maintains that Balthus's grandfather on his mother's side was a cantor in a Warsaw synagogue during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Free to choose which elements would define their Jewish status or beliefs, some Jewish artists have chosen nationalism centered on the State of Israel; others have transferred the Jewish sense of responsibility for the community to broader social movements. A portion of the Jewish community has remained committed to religious observance, while others have transformed the Jewish imperative to study religious texts into a commitment to scholarship in general. These are only a few of the contemporary responses to the issue of Jewish identity.

Can it be said that there is a specific Jewish style? Can we refer to Jewish Art if a non-Jewish artist produces a Judaic-related work? Can we talk about Jewish Art if certain Jewish painters, such as Modigliani and Soutine, never painted Judaic paintings? Such questions will always lead to heated debate, and ultimately no one has the right answer.
Any contemporary definition of the content of Jewish Art would need to incorporate two quite contrasting groups of products and makers: that of religiously inspired makers and artists, and that of secular makers and artists—two groups that often took divergent views on aims and ideals. It must be stressed, however, that many artists show a distinct sense of identification with Jewish history and Jewish culture by referring to religious themes in their works.
Some will say that the many examples of Jewish artists, collectors, art critics, and museums do not prove the reality of a form of art that is essentially Jewish. Even such personalities as the philosopher Martin Buber and the art critic Harold Rosenberg, have challenged the essence of Jewish Art.
Others will argue that such art is demonstrated by catalogues of Christie's and Sotheby's specific "Judaica" sales, in which painting plays a major role. In addition, no one can deny that Jews from Eastern Europe played an important role in the fields of painting and sculpture at a universal level but also at the level of Judaic traditions.
Paradoxically, the Nazis supported the idea of the existence of Jewish Art when they denounced its "degenerate" influence over German society in the early 1930s. They went so far as to carry out an extraordinary artistic pogrom during which they destroyed many works produced by Jewish artists and organized exhibitions critical of such art; many non-Jewish artists attached to the Cubist and Expressionist movements were also persecuted because their works were considered subversive by the authorities of the Third Reich, who aspired to establish a new order that would last a thousand years.
Nevertheless, it will remain highly controversial to speak of some kind of national art—and this is true for Jews and non-Jews. For example, Ashkenazi art, like many other foreign schools, developed mainly in Paris. While there has been no controversy about Jewish ritual art and crafts, the controversial debate on the existence of a true Jewish Art will continue.

1. All English text is to be credited to Adrian N. Darmon, A Brief History of Jewish Art, ArtCult, France, 27.11.2008. In the French language, Darmon's book was published as Autour de l'art juif: Encyclopédie universelle des peintres, sculpteurs et photographes (Editions Carnot, 2003). Abstract: "Une recherche de près de dix ans. Une somme sans équivalent pour cette première édition : plus de 6 000 artistes autour de l'art juif (peintres, sculpteurs, photographes...). Près de 400 reproductions de tableaux, sculptures et photographies. Un dictionnaire de mémoire qui redonne vie à quelque 500 artistes disparus pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, dont il n'existe plus aucune oeuvre, détruites par les nazis - comme si la mort ne suffisait pas... Un livre pour témoigner de l'immense culture juive - désormais l'on saura qu'elle appartient sans conteste au patrimoine de l'humanité." The author: Franco-britannique né à Londres en 1945, Adrian Darmon est journaliste et critique d'art international depuis 1967. Professeur d'histoire de l'art et analyste du marché, il a consacré une grande partie de ces dix dernières années à la réalisation de cette encyclopédie.

Darmon, Autour de l'art juif, 2003



Coluna Arte e Identidade, por PASSEPARTOUT
Versión castellana

Biblia hebraica, Espanha, 1476

Arte judaica tradicional é toda criação que responde aos propósitos rituais do povo hebreu. Tradicionalmente, a expressão "arte judaica" tem particular ressonância no que respeita às obras realizadas pelo ou para o povo hebreu da Antiguidade até os Tempos Modernos.

Na Bíblia, é a partir da entrega da Torá (Lei Mosaica) e da criação do Tabernáculo ao pé do Monte Sinai que a tradição hebraica insistirá na proibição de fazer ídolos e máscaras, conforme o Segundo Mandamento (Êxodo 20:4). É significativo que a arte hebraica tenha suas origens na mesmíssima voz do Criador, que, com alta precisão, indicou as especificidades do Tabernáculo, seus sagrados implementos e demais utensílios (Êxodo 25-31).

Realizada por Betsalel, o primeiro artista hebreu da História, a Arca Sagrada que continha as Tábuas da Lei era custodiada por dois querubins de ouro, enquanto motivos figurativos como flores de amendoeira (prahim) e maçãs (tapuhim) faziam parte da própria estrutura da Menorá, o candelabro hebreu de sete braços.

É um erro pensar que o judaísmo proíbe a arte. A tradição hebraica recorre ao embelezamento e à ornamentação de objetos de uso ritual há pelo menos 30 séculos. E emprega tanto a arte geométrica quanto a figurativa. Símbolos, motivos florais, seres reais e até fantásticos estão todos presentes na arte judaica tradicional.

Mas o Todo-Poderoso não é representado. Sem considerar o Tetragrama (quatro letras hebraicas que designam o Criador), a única representação conhecida na arte judaica é o motivo da Mão de Deus, visível nas pinturas murais tardo-romanas da Sinagoga de Dura Europos (Síria, 244 d.C.) e no primeiro painel do mosaico hebreu-bizantino de Beit Alfa (Galileia, séc. 6º d.C.).

Contudo, o judaísmo conta com uma considerável série de objetos de arte tradicional, destinados a funções rituais e que se destacam também por suas qualidades estéticas. Conhecido como Judaica, o conjunto desses objetos é concebido para servir ao Criador, o que motiva e justifica a sua ornamentação.

Entendida por Leopold Zunz como "pátria portátil" (séc. 19), a Torá, ou Bíblia Hebraica, envolve várias alusões à ideia de realeza, e estas se expressam através de uma rica ornamentação. A capa protetora da Torá, o seu peitoral (maguen), o ponteiro (iad), os florões (rimonim) e a coroa (kéter), todos são habitualmente decorados em estudados termos estéticos. Algo semelhante ocorre com os textos manuscritos da Torá, os filactérios (tefilin) e a mezuzá, onde sete dos 22 caracteres hebraicos sã tradicionalmente coroados com um tipo de ornamento florido conhecido como taguin.

Ornamentos da Torá e Taguin

Em Jerusalém, o Museu de Israel possui a mais completa coleção de Judaica do planeta. Nela se destacam a granada de marfim que enfeitava o cetro do sumo sacerdote do primeiro Templo de Jerusalém (séc. 8º a.C.); uma menorá gravada em gesso jerosolimitano e que data do século 1º a.C.; bases de vidro e placa de ouro com motivos hebraicos que foram achadas em catacumbas judaico-romanas do século 4º d.C.; relevos em basalto da Sinagoga de Horazin (séc. 4º- 6º d.C.); manuscritos hebraicos iluminados medievais e renascentistas, como a Hagadá das Cabeças de Pássaro e o Pentateuco de Ratisbona (ambos Alemanha, 1300), a Hagadá Sassoon (Espanha, 1320) ou a Miscelânea Rothschild (Ferrara, 1475); um prato de Pessach judeu-espanhol (1480); coleção de lâmpadas de Hanucá criadas entre os séculos 14 e 19; o interior de madeira de uma sinagoga de Cochin (Índia), inclusive o hechal e a bimá, ambos feitos em 1550; porta-especiarias metálicos tchecos elaborados no século 16 para o serviço de Havdalá (fim do Shabat); o Livro de Moisés, manuscrito hebraico ilustrado por Nehemiah ben Amshal (Pérsia, 1686); a Torá e o interior barroco da Sinagoga de Vittorio Veneto (Itália, 1703); o teto da Sinagoga de Horb (Alemanha), com ornamentos figurativos pintados por Eliezer Sussman sobre madeira (1793); um contrato de casamento judaico (ketubá) elaborado em Saná (Iêmen, 1793); caixas cilíndricas de madeira (tiquim) com ornamentos metálicos para preservar os rolos da Torá nas comunidades sefaradis do Magreb, Oriente Médio, Pérsia e Índia (séc. 19); e a Cadeira do profeta Elias, desenhada por Zeev Raban (Jerusalém, 1916-25). Todos se ajustam à nossa definição de arte judaica tradicional.

Colección de Judaica del Museo de Israel, Jerusalén

Notáveis coleções de Judaica estão preservadas também na Biblioteca Britânica, em Londres, no Museu Judaico de Praga, no Museu de Arte e História do Judaísmo, em Paris, no Museu Sefaradi de Toledo e no Museu Judaico em Nova York.

Com a modernidade dos séculos 19 e 20, a expressão "arte judaica2 é motivo de importantes debates, e a própria validade da expressão é questionada, chegando, eventualmente, a ser substituída pela noção de "experiência judaica" na arte moderna (Avram Kampf, 1984).

Contudo, a continuidade e o vigor da arte judaica tradicional são fatos inegáveis ‒ antes, durante e depois da Shoá. E mais: desde a criação do Estado judeu, em 1948, a arte judaica tradicional vem experimentando um importante renascimento, tanto na "Terra do Leite e Mel" como em alguns outros pontos do planeta. Recentemente, exemplos de arte judaica tradicional e de seu renascimento foram analisados e debatidos no Rio de Janeiro, especialmente durante o ciclo de três conferências intitulado Acervo e Memória, na ASA – Associação Scholem Aleichem, assim como em encontros no Centro de Estudos Bíblicos da ARI, na Escola de História da UniRio, no Instituto Cervantes e no Departamento de Teologia da PUC, durante a comemoração do 50º aniversário da Declaração Nostra Aetate.

Coluna Arte e Identidade 1. Arte e Raízes
Boletim ASA 158, Janeiro/Fevereiro de 2016
Ano 28, Arte e Identidade 28 de Dezembro de 2015

PASSEPARTOUT. Artista plástico, arquiteto e historiador da Arte. Pesquisador sul-americano especializado em comunicação visual. Conferencista independente com 12 prêmios internacionais em Arte e Educação.

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Interfaith Dialogue in Our Time

Text from Nostra Aetate, which opened the door to an improvement in Catholic-Jewish relations:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Pope Francis [...] stopped Sunday to bless a sculpture commissioned by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia that repudiates a centuries-old anti-Semitic image. At his side, was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, his good friend and literary collaborator, who had flown in from Buenos Aires, to be the keynote speaker at the dedication of the work, which took place on Friday.

The Pope and the rabbi [...] have done a lot of plotting together since they forged a bond over both matters of the spirit and of sport, some 16 years ago in their hometown.

Even though it’s been a half-century since Vatican II and the famed Nostra Aetate, countering centuries of anti-Semitism has been a priority for the pontiff, and Rabbi Skorka.

[...] "Having me in many opportunities with him is a message [...]," said Rabbi Skorka in an interview. "Our friendship is a paradigm of what has to be the great relationship between Jews and Christians."

That the two should share a moment at the new sculpture on the campus of St. Joseph’s University as the pontiff blessed it with holy water is another example of both their friendship and their shared commitment to bridging their distinct religious beliefs.

Titled Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time, the sculpture is of two women seated next to each other, much like two sisters. One holds a book, the other a scroll, and they are looking at each other’s sacred texts in mutual respect. (Nostra Aetate means "in our time.")

The work was designed to counter a medieval motif depicting the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. In the ancient sculptures, found in churches all over Europe, the Christian “Ecclesia” stands proudly, wearing a crown, while the defeated "Synagoga," is blindfolded [...], her staff broken, her tablets slipping from her hand.

The pedestal of the new sculpture bears a quote from Pope Francis, "There exists a rich complementarity between the Church and the Jewish people that allows us to help one another mine the riches of God’s word."

The work, by sculptor Joshua Koffman, is the result of a pioneering collaboration between Catholic and Jewish organizations in Philadelphia that started in 1967, two years after the Vatican’s declaration. Among the Institute’s partners are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

"The sculpture was to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate," said Philip A. Cunningham, co-director of the Institute. “It took several decades for a new dialogue between Jews and Catholics to get moving. We had to learn to talk with each other,” he said, adding, "This new relationship of learning and enriching one another is embodied in the relationship of Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka."

[...] Rabbi Skorka [...] did talk about some of the theology they share, namely their admiration of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who saw in the teachings of the early prophets, such as Isaiah, a contemporary call to social action a well as the importance of looking to mankind for the face of God.

"Heschel’s thinking has a lot to do with my own thinking and the way of thinking of Francis," said Rabbi Skorka. "This generation of prophets taught us in a very special way that the way to approach God is first and foremost to honor human beings."

[...] A brief encounter during a reception line in Argentina had first sparked the relationship between the two high-ranking clerics. Then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a fan of the soccer team San Lorenzo, knew that Rabbi Skorka supported the ever-losing River Plate. When the Rabbi approached, the Archbishop ribbed him, saying that River Plate was going to be "chicken soup." Rabbi Skorka quipped back something that perhaps should not have been said in a holy place.

From then, their dialogue took off and in 2010, they co-authored the book On Heaven and Earth, in which they debated more than two dozen subjects, including the devil, divorce, globalization, poverty and the Holocaust.

They also shared their views on anti-Semitism. Rabbi Skorka pushed Bergoglio on his opinion about opening the Vatican documents under Pope Pius XII, to understand the Church’s role in World War II.

In the book, Bergoglio responds, "What you said about opening the archives relating to the Shoah seems perfect to me. They should open them and clarify everything. Then it can be seen if they could have done something… We do not have to be afraid of that. The objective has to be the truth."

• Text is excerpt from article by Dotty Brown.

Pontiff Makes Historic Visit to Philadelphia‘s Jesuit University, Saint Joseph’s University, 1.10.2015 | TOF | FWD | TJN

Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time
Arte y Diálogo Interreligioso
Album Ecclesia et Synagoga
Wikimedia Pic

Vesalius Rio Program


Helios and Beth Alpha

Articulación y significado del panel central

Particularmente enigmática y desafiante se presenta ante nuestros ojos la imaginería del panel central en el mosaico de la sinagoga de Beit Alfa. Ella, como hemos señalado, ha dado lugar a numerosas hipótesis que intentan dar una explicación racional a la misteriosa naturaleza de dicha imaginería y sus posibles alcances en términos de significado.

En efecto, nada es obvio en el panel central del mosaico de Beit Alfa, donde hasta ahora hemos detectado la presencia de motivos provenientes del antiguo repertorio visual grecorromano, que fueron adaptados para interactuar como un conjunto expresivo de un mensaje específicamente judío: se trata entonces de un programa teológico no evidente. El mismo podría además involucrar una dimensión poética y, se ser así, tampoco ella resulta ser nada que resulte evidente a simple vista.

La interacción de motivos visuales heterogéneos en el mencionado panel se encuentra en el centro del debate académico, donde hasta hoy existen escasos encuentros e innumerables discrepancias sobre la razón de ser de esa composición. Con todo, las hipótesis suelen todas generalmente considerar esferas tales como la decoración, la astronomía, la astrología, el calendario, la literatura rabínica del período talmúdico, así como también el simbolismo teológico. A todas ellas, podríamos también agregarle un arte de la poética, indudablemente compatible este último con varios de los mencionados aspectos, en especial la decoración y la teología. En otras palabras, no necesariamente arte por el arte sino el arte de la poética, lo que equivale a decir poesía visual.

Porque decir que, como conjunto, el mosaico de Beit Alfa es una composición destinada a embellecer la sinagoga sería entenderla meramente como una alfombra. Mas, dado el conjunto de motivos e inscripciones que involucra, la composición de Beit Alfa está más allá del concepto de arte por el arte. Y eso no equivale a decir que carezca de una (respetable) dimensión estética.

Tanto las hipótesis que intentan explicar el mosaico partiendo de la literatura rabínica del período talmúdico como la astrología postulan ideas estimulantes, mas no del todo convincentes. En este contexto debe además recordarse el tradicional escepticismo del judaísmo para con las ciencias adivinatorias.[AM]

Diferente es por otra parte el caso de la astronomía, ya que la observación del cosmos sí tiene ecos diversos en la torá y demás textos sagrados del judaísmo. Destacado en particular es allí el obrar del Creador al diferenciar la luz de las tinieblas. Y simbólica es a su vez la noción de luz para el judaísmo . Ello es claramente expresado cuando Abraham observa las estrellas, acto que demuestra que, de resultar provechoso, el simbolismo bíblico no duda en recurrir a la analogía astronómica.

Investigadores y comentaristas frecuentemente debaten la supuesta naturaleza caléndrica en el panel central del mosaico de Beit Alfa, aunque sin demasiado éxito. Porque lo cierto es que, más allá del calendario que se considere, la organización del panel central tiende a rechazar sistemáticamente esa posibilidad. No en vano él carece de una correspondencia caléndrica satisfactoria entre, por ejemplo, las estaciones del año y los períodos zodíacos. Al contrario, la relación caléndrica entre ellos está marcada por un pronunciado desfazaje.

Como expresamos, es el aspecto teológico-simbólico el que resuena en el mosaico de Beit Alfa y justifica su articulación tripartita como totalidad significante. No obstante el aspecto teológico-simbólico no es excluyente de otros y error grande sería descartar aquí las dimensiones estética y poética que acompañan al mensaje del mosaico sinagogal en cuestión.

Tiempo y propósito

Un tiempo para todo hay bajo el cielo, recuerda con propiedad el Ecclesiastés.[43] Señalemos entonces que el motivo del luminoso ser que avanza en la cuadriga y atravieza el firmamento encontrándose rodeado por doce constelaciones tiene sus referentes visuales en el arte romano tardío.[44] En efecto, en Alemania fue descubierto un mosaico, probablemente de mediados del siglo III EC,[45] que incluye a Sol en la cuadriga en su centro y rodeado por una rueda que incorpora a los doce signos del zodiaco.

Sol Invictus y el ciclo zodiaco. Mosaico del período romano, c. 270 CE. Hallado en una villa en Münster-Sarmsheim, exhibido en Rheinisches Landes Museum, Bonn

Además de la importante afinidad de motivos solares y composición concéntrica que se da entre el mosaico de Beit Alfa y su predecesor de Münster-Sarmsheim,[46] los motivos zodíacos de ambos trabajos fueron organizados a partir de un orden donde prevalece el sentido antihorario.[47] La notable diferencia entre esos trabajos es que el mosaico de Münster-Sarmsheim no posee personificaciones de las estaciones del año en sus esquinas, cosa que contrasta con el segundo panel de Beit Alfa, fuertemente caracterizado por presencia de las personificaciones de las cuatro estaciones del año y su relación para con los diferentes componentes de la rueda zodiacal.

La composición a partir de un cuadrado incorpora en la misma uno o más círculos centrados es frecuente en el arte romano y bizantino. Ella se da en términos abstractos en el mosaico ornamental de Ostia Antica en Roma y en términos figurativos en otro conocido como El triunfo de Neptuno en Tunisia (ambos siglo II EC). El último posee en su centro un medallón con una figura mitológica en un carro tirado por caballos marinos, mientras que en sus esquinas exhibe personificadas a las cuatro estaciones.

Ostia Antica


El cuadrado que exhibe en su interior dos áreas formadas por figuras geométricas concéntricas se da en el pétreo cielorraso del Templo de Bel en Palmira (siglos I-II EC), el mosaico de Münster-Sarmsheim (siglo III), el mosaico de Hammat Tiberias (Tierra Santa, siglo IV) y el mosaico de Tallaras en Astypalea (Grecia, siglo V).

Cielorraso del Templo de Bel, Palmira

Mosaico de Münster-Sarmsheim

Mosaico de Hammat Tiberias
Sol Invictus, ciclo zodiaco y personificaciones de las cuatro estaciones en el mosaico bizantino de la Sinagoga de Hammat Tiberias, siglo IV EC. Probablemente empleado como fuente de inspiración visual para el mosaico de la Sinagoga de Beit Alfa, con la que comparte los tres principales componentes geométricos y presenta además una idéntica distribución de las personificaciones de las estaciones del año, con sus atributos correspondientes, y designadas a partir de los nombres de cuatro meses del calendario hebreo que involucran los equinoccios y solsticios.[48]

Mosaico de Beit Alfa

Mosaico de Astypalea
Tomando como base este mosaico, Ruth Jacobi alguna vez demostró que los motivos de Helios, la rueda zodíaca y las personificaciones de las estaciones del año fueron empleados por diversos grupos durante el período romano tardío sin por ello llegar a constituir ninguna tradición exclusivamente judía.[49] Si bien su conclusión es correcta, también es necesario indicar que, a diferencia de los mosaicos de Astypalea y Hammat Tiberias, el mosaico de Beit Alfa prescinde de motivos mitológicos híbridos para identificar a las constelaciones de sagitario y capricornio.[50]

En lo que respecta a la relación de proporciones entre el diámetro del círculo central y el ancho de la rueda o anillo circundante, ella es 1.5:1 en Beit Alfa, 1.75:1 en Tallaras, 2:1 en Hammat Tiberias y 4:1 en Münster-Sarmsheim y Palmira.

La conjunción de Helios en la cuadriga, la rueda zodiacal y las personificaciones de las estaciones del año se da en el mosaico de Hammat Tiberias y, aparentemente, también en Astypalea. Con el mosaico de Astypalea, el mosaico de Beit Alfa comparte un estilo que se aleja de la mímesis clásica y la tridimensionalidad. Mas en el mosaico de Astypalea, la posición, distribución e identidad de cada una de las estaciones del año representadas en las esquinas del mosaico no es del todo clara y, además, el protagonista principal del mosaico carece de cuadriga. Por otra parte, la posición de la rueda zodiacal que más se aproxima a aquella de Beit Alfa es la representada en el mosaico de Münster-Sarmsheim. No obstante, estilísticamente, la estructura de la rueda zodiacal y los matices del mosaico de Beit Alfa son particularmente afines con aquellos del mosaico de Hammat Tiberias.

De lo considerado emerge que el panel central del mosaico de Beit Alfa presenta puntos en común en lo que se refiere a composición, proporciones e imaginería con varias obras del arte romano tardío y bizantino, pero es con el mosaico de Hammat Tiberias con el que posee las mayores afinidades, tanto en términos estilísticos como iconográficos.

Tal como sucede con las ruedas zodiacales de Astypalea, Hammat Tiberias, Münster-Sarmsheim, e incluso en otra más delineada en un antiguo grafitti romano,[51] también la rueda zodiacal de Beit Alfa implica la presencia de un orden que ha de ser leído en sentido antihorario. Y lo mismo es válido para la distribución de las estaciones del año en el mosaico de Beit Alfa, que responde una vez más a un ordenamiento antihorario, encontrándose otoño (tkufat tishri) el ángulo inferior derecho, invierno (tkufat tevet) el ángulo superior derecho, primavera (tkfufat nisan) el ángulo superior izquierdo, y verano (tkufat tamuz) el ángulo inferior izquierdo. Junto al busto de cada personificación de las mencionadas estaciones del año puede verse una inscripción hebrea con el nombre del mes hebreo en que ella comienza (tishri, tevet, nisan, tamuz). También los signos zodiacales son acompañados por incripciones de sus respectivas denominaciones en la lengua hebrea: mozna'im, "balanza" (libra); akrav, "escorpión" (escorpio); késhet, "arco" (sagitario); gdi, "cabra" (capricornio); dli, "balde" (acuario); daguím, "peces" (piscis); taléh, "cordero" (aries); shor, "toro" (tauro); te'umim, "gemelos" (géminis); sartan, "cáncer" (idem); ariéh, "león" (leo); y betulá, "virgen" (virgo).

Dado que el mosaico de Beit Alfa fue realizado en el hemisferio norte y en él las personificaciones de las estaciones del año fueron distribuidas en las esquinas del panel central, una correspondencia apropiada entre signos zodíacos y estaciones del año, en consonancia con sus respectivos solsticios y equinoccios, requeriría a libra en otoño, capricornio en invierno, aries en primavera y cáncer en verano.

Calendario hebreo lunisolar a partir del segundo panel de Beit Alfa. Respeta la posición de las personificaciones de las estaciones del año y sus designaciones recurriendo a los nombres de cuatro meses del calendario hebreo, consecuentes todas con solsticios y equinoccios. El calendario aquí ilustrado comprende las equivalencias entre los doce meses del calendario hebreo y doce estaciones zodiacales que se corresponden con los mismos. Incluye además las relaciones existentes entre los pares recientemente mencionados y los meses del calendario gregoriano. El presente diagrama tiene por único propósito el ilustrar las diferentes designaciones y correspondencias entre los componentes hasta ahora presentados, tomando como punto de partida el interés en descifrar el segundo panel de Beit Alfa.

Pero en el segundo panel de Beit Alfa los signos zodíacos no se encuentran distribuídos así, sino que libra figura entre primavera y verano, capricornio entre verano y otoño, aries entre otoño e invierno, y cáncer entre invierno y primavera. Esto sin dudas es irregular y contradice las conocidas correspondencias entre ambos ciclos.[52] Dado que cada motivo zodiacal representa un determinado segmento o período del año, su distribución en el mosaico de Beit Alfa contradice además los frutos y aves representados junto a las personificaciones de las estaciones del año y que constituyen los atributos de las mismas. Se da entonces una considerable discrepancia entre los doce motivos zodíacos (mazalot) y las cuatro épocas (tkufot) propias del calendario agrícolo-religioso hebreo. Así , los signos de la noche parecen contradecir a aquellos del día. Y de tal desentendimiento resultaría a su vez que los solsticios y los equinoccios, indudablemente importantes en la vida cotidiana de los hebreos, se encuentren en el mosaico todos desplazados: exactamente 150° antes de sus respectivas posiciones, lo que de un modo implícito implicaría un colapso de las trareas agrícolas y el escándalo en materia religiosa, poniendo en crisis las tradiciones ancestrales del pueblo hebreo.

Ante tal situación acaso sea conveniente recordar que no solo las personificaciones de las estaciones del año son acompañadas en el mosaico de Beit Alfa por incripciones hebreas, sino que ellas también figuran junto a cada uno de los motivos zodíacos. Dichas inscripciones dan a entender que se trata de un conjunto de motivos adoptados y adaptados por una comunidad judía.[53] Con todo, en Beit Alfa se ha evitado inscribir nombres específicos de meses del calendario hebreo junto a los motivos zodíacos, pese al hecho que, año tras año, los meses hebreos son coincidentes con los mencionados períodos zodiacales.[54] Mas diferente es la condición de las estaciones del año, las que en el mosaico sí son identificadas como "épocas" gracias a inscripciones hebreas que sólo en su caso involucran los nombres de cuatro meses hebreos: tishri, tevet, nisan y tamuz.

En tanto que los motivos visuales que hacen referencia a las estaciones zodíacas son suscintamente identificados a partir de nombres hebreos simples (pero que no son los nombres propios de los meses del calendario hebreo), la identificación de cada estación del año se realiza a partir del nombre del mes hebreo que se corresponde con el inicio de la misma. En este caso no hay desfazaje ninguno. Ello habla de un conocimiento de la relación existente entre cada estación del año y su correspondiente mes en el calendario hebreo, noción que es incluso reafirmada por los atributos  que  en el mosaico exhibe cada una de las estaciones del año.[55]

A partir de esto, la rueda zodíaca resulta ser una rara especie de convencional extranjerismo, en tanto que las estaciones del año dejan constancia de la experiencia hebrea en el campo agrícolo-religioso.

Las estaciones del año aparentemente son aquí más importantes que los períodos zodíacos, dado que es en ellas cuando tienen lugar los solsticios y los equinoccios. En el mosaico de Beit Alfa, cada personificación de una estación del año es, junto con sus atributos correspondientes, coherente con la inscripción que la identifica con uno de los meses del calendario hebreo. Consistente es también la denominación hebrea de los diferentes motivos estelares.

Sin embargo, la lógica se pierde por completo de intentarse corroborar una posible correspondencia entre los motivos zodiacales y aquellos de las estaciones del año: las estaciones del año lejos se encuentran de corresponderse con los alcances propios de cada período zodiacal.[56] Esto es sumamente extraño dado que, como hemos señalado, los meses del calendario hebreo sí son coincidentes con los alcances de los signos zodiacales.[57]

La incompatibidad descubierta nos conduce a preguntarnos qué pudo haber motivado tamaña discrepancia entre los períodos zodíacos y las estaciones del año en pleno corazón de la sinagoga.[58]

Hacia la luz


El carácter tripartito del mosaico de Beit Alfa se manifiesta en los tres grandes paneles que posee la obra como totalidad y mediante la tríada de sectores bien diferenciados propia del panel central.[60]

En este último prevalece la figura luminosa, circundada por la rueda astral y rodeada de las estaciones del año.

Mientras la figura central en la cuadriga asciende al firmamento, los demás motivos cumplen un papel periférico. Ellos han sido dispuestos en el mosaico como si fuesen verdaderos testigos oculares del acontecimiento que tiene lugar en el círculo central. Tal idea no es exagerada si consideramos que los motivos en cuestión representan seres vivos o conceptos personificados, todos ellos encontrándose además posicionados de modo tal de crear una relación de subordinación y convergencia respecto al motivo central.

Delicias de la faena poética

En sus escritos, Goethe confiesa ser del "linaje de aquellos que de lo oscuro a lo claro aspiran".[OG]

Claro que lo configurado en Beit Alfa en el siglo VI EC no tiene nada que ver con esto último. Y sin embargo, a partir del mosaico original en Beit Alfa es posible deducir que la composición de su segundo panel no fue concebida para crear un calendario astronómicamente funcional sino como una curiosa conjunción de motivos convencionales que sugieren la noción del transcurrir del tiempo en términos simbólicos elementales: un ciclo anual involucrando sucesiones lógicas de meses y estaciones.[CU59] Sólo que en el mosaico en cuestión resulta ser que las estaciones del año son totalmente incompatibles con las estaciones zodiacales.

¿Resultado de la ingenuidad de los artistas? Es poco probable. Porque la razón de ser del panel central del mosaico de Beit Alfa no es astronómico-caléndrica, sino simbólico-teológica.

Bajo esta luz, el supuesto desfazaje cobra sentido y uno verdaderamente original. De la imagen elaborada por Marianos y Janina emana que tanto las estaciones del año como la astrología son sistemas que conciernen a este mundo, mas en el caso en cuestión ambos involucran un innegable desfazaje. Ello no es accidental: en tanto que el comprender el ciclo lunisolar les permitió a los hebreos sobrevivir gracias a un exitoso desarrollo de la agricultura, el conocimiento del zodiaco aparentemente implicó para ellos no más que una distracción en supersticiones inconsecuentes. Así, en el mosaico de Beit Alfa, no es por casualidad ni mucho menos por error que sean precisamente las cuatro personificaciones de las estaciones del año las que son identificadas con los nombres de los cuatro meses del calendario hebreo que sí se corresponden con cada una de ellas, en tanto que los motivos zodíacos son meramente identificados a partir de los bien conocidos, pero muy básicos y básicamente descriptivos, vocablos hebreos con los que hasta el día de hoy se los continúa denominándolos en la Tierra Santa.[SS60]

En un contexto teológico-simbólico, la imaginería del segundo panel de Beit Alfa cobra sentido y es susceptible de ser interpretada de modo lógico y coherente: el mundo posee su propia lógica, orden hay en las estaciones del año y también en las constelaciones, todas ellas establecidas por el Creador.[BG61] La comprensión del calendario hebreo le ha asegurado al pueblo judío un apto desarrollo de la agricultura, llámese una ciencia que lo ayudó en su continuidad y autopreservación. Mas el conocimiento del zodiaco solo lo condujo a supersticiones absurdas, llámesele astronomía con fines astrológico-adivinatorios. Desde el punto de vista teológico judío, tales sistemas tienden a ser incompatibles y no pueden sino contradecirse mutuamente. Los artistas judeo-bizantinos por otra parte expresaron la familiaridad del pueblo hebreo para con las cuatro estaciones del año, a las que representaron personificadas y designándolas mediante los nombres de cuatro meses del calendario hebreo, es decir, considerando de un modo implícito sus respectivos solsticios o equinoccios. Completamente distinto es el caso del zodiaco, cuyos signos fueron identificados sólo a través de términos hebreos prosaicos e, inesperadamente, no a partir del nombre del mes hebreo que de hecho suele ser coincidir con cadas período zodiacal.

En medio de esta paradoja dialéctica, o llámesele, el mundo rodeado por dos sistemas desfazados y contradictorios, pero que no obstante simbolizan tanto al hebraísmo como al paganismo, es donde tiene lugar una apoteosis. Y dado que nos encontramos ante el mosaico de una sinagoga, tal ascención difícilmente podría ser otra que la apoteosis de un ser elegido. Pero cuál: ¿un entonces ya obsoleto menor dios del panteón pagano o algún siempre vigente y estimado profeta del pueblo hebreo?

Marianos y Janina nos confrontan así con un interrogante que demanda un compromiso reflexivo de nuestra parte. Este tipo de interrogante es propio de gente acostumbrada a cuestionar y a cuestionar-se. En efecto, en vez de dar respuestas categóricas y tener certitudes para todo, el judaísmo se ha caracterizado desde sus albores por estimular todo tipo de preguntas e incluso darle la bienvenida a las preguntas brillantes. Es más, casi no hay figuras trascendentes del pueblo hebreo que en algún momento no las hayan formulado. Y no solo Moisés tuvo dudas, sino que hasta el Nazareno en la cruz llegó a interrogar al Creador con su célebre Aví, Aví, ¿lama azavtani?, "Padre mío, padre mío, ¿por qué me abandonaste?".[CB62]

En Beit Alfa, Marianos y Janina lanzan una sorprendente paradoja visual ante nosotros y ella parece preguntarnos, una y otra vez: ¿moda astrológica o judaísmo comprometido?, ¿ancestral monoteísmo o esoterísmo idolátrico?, ¿juegos de poder o constancia espiritual?, ¿real conocimiento o supertichería desopilante?, ¿el sol personificado o el hombre trascendente?, ¿ Elías o Helios?

Y tan efectivo es su cuestionamiento que, pasados ya mil quinientos años, investigadores y expertos de todo el globo aún hoy intentan formular una interpretación satisfactoria y contundente para con el no tan ingenuo cuestionamiento de Beit Alfa.

Es allí, en el medio de la sinagoga y precisamente entre la prueba de fe a la que es sometido Abraham y el Templo venidero que habla de Redención donde, por así decirlo, inesperadamente se bifurca el camino y lo familiar se vuelve inquietante. ¿Por qué?

Diría Ortega y Gasset:

La suerte de la cultura, el destino del hombre, depende de que en el fondo de nuestro ser mantengamos siempre vivaz esta dramática conciencia y, como un contrapunto murmurante en nuestras entrañas, sintamos bien que sólo nos es segura la inseguridad.[OT63]

Luego de setenta años de haber sido expresada, la paradójica explicación de Ortega es aún hoy tan vigente como lo fue en 1939. Y, con todo, ella no pretende ser justificación ninguna de un posible abandono de las responsabilidades del hombre íntegro en este mundo.

Existe un conocido refrán que afirma que el hombre propone y Dios dispone. Indudablemente en un contexto judío, tal refrán jamás podría llegar a asumir la siguiente forma: el hombre propone pero solo después de haber Dios predeterminado su destino. Ya que, categóricamente, el judaísmo rechaza desde siempre toda predestinación, en tanto que persistentemente le indica al hombre su libre albedrío: no le habla de limitaciones esotéricas a las que podría estar sujeto, sino que le recuerda su inherente potencial y el haber sido hecho a imagen y semejanza del Creador, estimulándolo a ser sujeto.

La paradójica imaginería del segundo panel de Beit Alfa posee su propia razón de ser. Ella no es ni decorativa ni astrológica, sino dialéctica e interrogante. Ajena a las nociones de dogma y misterio, la imaginería desarrollada por Marianos y Janina en Beit Alfa involucra la presencia de un elocuente simbolismo hebraico y presenta a su vez la particularidad de abrir las válvulas del pensamiento y el autocuestionamiento: ellas son indispensables para quienes, como Elías, experimentan la elevación en virtud de su propia fe e integridad.

Notas y referencias

AM. Reflejo de ello son las siguientes consideraciones: The Torah states (Deuteronomy 18:10) “There shall not be found among you one who calculates times.” The Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, specifically applies this prohibition to one who calculates auspicious times, meaning that one should not make astrology a dominant influence in one’s daily life and predictions through astrology are forbidden. Therefore one should not use horoscopes to determine one’s future actions, though it is permitted to do character analyzes through astrology. | It is the prevalent custom that on a happy occasion such as a birth, one wishes “Mazal tov” indicating the wish that the planetary influence on the child should be a good one. Yet we are not slaves to the planets, as the Torah states, “You shall be perfect with the L-rd your G-d” (Deuteronomy 18:13). This means that the more we perfect our relationship with the spiritual dimension, the more G-d is going to aid us in changing the natural course of events. This makes any action based on astrological predictions needless. It states clearly in the Talmud that “Ein Mazal LeYisroel” or “there is no Mazal for the Jewish people.” This simply means that the Jewish people as a whole were lifted above the Mazalot by virtue of their receiving the Torah (Angels and Mazalot).

43. Ecclesiastés 3. En lo que se refiere al fenomenología de lo uno y lo otro en teología, véase Patrimonio e Identidad.

44. La figura de Helios atravezando los cielos tiene sus raíces en el arte clásico:

Helios en la cuadriga. Detalle de cerámica griega del siglo V AEC. Museo Británico, Londres

45. En Roma, hacia el año 270 CE, Aureliano ascendió al dios sol al rango de mayor divinidad del Imperio; se lo conocía por aquel entonces como "Sol Invictus".

46. La composición del mosaico de Münster-Sarmsheim es única en Alemania (Klaus Parlasca, Die römischen Mosaiken in Deutschland, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1959, p. 88). Con todo, la posición central de la cuadriga y la distribución de los motivos zodiacos en la rueda que la circunda establecen una afinidad compositiva entre los mosaicos de Münster-Sarmsheim y Beit Alfa.

47. La rueda con una distribución de los motivos zodiacos organizados en sentido antihorario e idéntica a aquellas de los mosaicos de Münster-Sarmsheim y Beit Alfa será posteriormente retomada en un manuscrito islámico miniado.

Zodíaco en un manuscrito árabe, posiblemente del siglo XVI

48. En "The Zodiac and Other Greco-Roman Motifs in Jewish Art", Lee I. Levine escribe que Tiberias fue sitio del patriarcado judío durante los períodos tardo-romano y bizantino, indicando además al mosaico sinagogal de Hammat Tiberias como el principal referente de los todos demás mosaicos sinagogales realizados en Tierra Santa entre los siglos IV y VII EC  (Contextualizing Jewish Art y Art Historical Issues). Incluyo dos imágenes del mosaico de Hammat Tiberias, cuyo panel superior con el Templo venidero también es importante para el mosaico de Beit Alfa:

49. Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World, pp. 198, 204.

50. En el mosaico de Beit Alfa, sagitario no es representado por un centauro sino por un joven arquero; semejante es el caso capricornio, motivo actualmente muy deteriorado, pero que otrora involucraba una cabra en lugar del conocido híbrido que combina la cabra con el pez, para formar así una cabra marina. En este sentido, el mosaico de Beit Alfa es mucho más hebraico que sus pares de Zippori y Hammat Tiberias: ambos presentan híbridos de origen pagano.

51. Distribución antihoraria del ciclo zodíaco:

Antiguo graffiti romano, probablemente s. I EC.

Cielorraso pétreo del Templo de Bel, Palmira, siglos I-II EC.

Basado en una imagen del siglo III EC (Levine, AHI, p. 324, fig. 113). El ordenamiento de la rueda zodiaca en sentido antihorario y circundando a Helios al atravesar el firmamento en su cuadriga se da en el Zodiakon, la tabla astronómica del Tetrabiblos de Ptolomeo, manuscrito bizantino del siglo IX EC (Roma, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vaticanus graecus 1291, fol.9).

52. Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha, Gorgias Press, 1932, p. 38: "Es difícil comprender por qué motivo los artífices de Beit Alfa no representaron las estaciones del año junto a sus meses correspondientes."

53. Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World, p. 198, donde considera que es a través del uso de inscripciones hebreas que los motivos del zodiaco fueron "judaizados" en Tierra Santa.

54. Rachel Hachlili, The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Sinagogal Art, p. 235: "According to the Jewish calendar the twelve [Hebrew] months correspond exactly to the zodiacal signs". En la misma página, la autora indica que el listado más temprano de la sucesión de los meses del calendario judío figura en Meguilá Ta'anit, redactada en el siglo I-II EC.

55. Las personificaciones de tishri (otoño) y tamuz (verano) exhiben una considerable diversidad de frutos de estación, nisan (primavera) porta una flor, en tanto que tevet (invierno) carece de atributos. Junto a tishri (otoño) y nisan (primavera) pueden por otra parte verse dos pajaritos que aluden a los movimientos migratorios aviarios que en Tierra Santa pueden ser observados precisamente en dichos períodos.

56. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, Princeton UP, 1974.

57. Por esta razón, ideal sería aquí poder aplicar los asuntos considerados en el tratado Shabat 75a junto con la postura de Avi-Yonah, quien sostiene que no debe restarse importancia a la estrecha relación entre el orden de las constelaciones estelares y el calendario hebreo (Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World, p. 200). Pero lamentablemente ello aquí no es el caso en cuestión.

58. Si en el segundo panel de Beit Alfa mantuviésemos, por ejemplo, las personificaciones angulares de las estaciones del año en sus posiciones originales, pero a su vez rotásemos la rueda zodiacal 150° en sentido antihorario, el mosaico recobraría su sentido útil, tanto en términos astronómicos como agrícolas.

Izquierda: el mosaico original, verdadero dolor de cabeza de invesigadores e intérpretes. Derecha: el mosaico virtual o la versión funcional del mosaico.

En un calendario operativo, el inicio del año nuevo judío (rosh hashaná) coincidiría entonces con el equinoccio de otoño y libra se encontraría en tishri, el solsticio de invierno se daría en tevet y sería a su vez coincidente con capricornio, el equinoccio de primavera tendría lugar en aviv junto con aries, y el solsticio de verano ocurriría cuando cáncer se encontrase en tamuz.

El círculo blanco indica el inicio del año según el calendario judío; el círculo gris señala el comienzo del año según el calendario gregoriano.

Texto médico-astrológico de Melothesia, Norte de Italia, siglo XI. París, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms lat 7028, fol. 154r. Esta imagen no solo presenta los componentes básicos del mosaico de Beit Alfa, sino que además los períodos zodíacos son aquí consistentes con las estaciones del año.

La lógica considerada se da en un manuscrito italiano, ejecutado sólo cinco siglos después del mosaico de Beit Alfa. Nótese que ambos casos poseen un ser principal rodeado por la rueda zodíaca antihoraria e involucran personificaciones de las estaciones del año. En el denominado Texto médico-astrológico de Melothesia, las personificaciones de las estaciones del año están distribuidas tal como sucede en Beit Alfa. Con todo, la distribución de los motivos zodíacos no se corresponde con aquella que originalmente establecieron los artistas de Beit Alfa, aunque sí tiende a coincidir con nuestra recientemente propuesta distribución basada en una rotación antihoraria de 150°.

El calendario propuesto podría además ser fácilmente adaptado para responder incluso a las realidad lunisolar del hemisferio sur:

60. El esquema tripartito de composición se da en los mosaicos de Tierra Santa ya desde el siglo IV EC, empleándose tanto en ámbitos públicos como privados. Ejemplo de esto último es el mosaico en estilo romano hallado en Lod (Lydda), cuyos lineamientos compositivos tienden en términos generales a ser prefigurativos de aquellos del mosaico de Beit Alfa.

Para un debate, véanse el sitio del Mosaico de Lod y el artículo de C.S. Lightfoot


OG. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Geschichte der alten Welt, 1826: „Ich bekenne mich zu dem Geschlecht, das aus dem Dunkel ins Helle strebt" (Goethe, Sämmtliche Werke, Tétot, 1836, vol. 5, p. 118; frecuentemente citado por Ortega y Gasset; Julián Marías: Ortega ante Goethe).

CU59. En este sentido, Steven Fine tiene razón cuando considera que importante era en ese entonces la asociación entre el zodiaco y el calendario hebreo, ya que expresaba el significado genérico del ciclo del tiempo que transcurre y funcionaba a su vez como una proyección de la cúpula celestial, dando lugar a numerosas posibles interpretaciones; la adopción de la rueda zodiaca, entre otras cosas, era a su vez un modo mediante el cual los judíos de los siglos IV-VIII EC se diferenciaban de quienes no lo eran y funcionaba también como un símbolo recordatorio del pacto entre el Creador y su pueblo . Con todo, su afirmación de que los judíos bizantinos llevaron a cabo "pronósticos astrológicos" es una idea que no trasciende el área de la suposición (Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World, pp. 204-5).

BG61. En el mundo clásico el zodiaco simbolizaba los cielos. Apta es por lo tanto la aproximación de Bernard Goldman cuando explica que, introduciendo la rueda zodiacal en sus diseños, los artistas transformaron el firmamento en un diagrama celestial capaz de expresar las dimensiones cósmicas de la oración. Según Goldman, el uso del zodiaco en las sinagogas del período bizantino y luego en el arte judío europeo es un claro indicio de la importancia simbólica que se le otorgaba al zodiaco, mas en términos estrictamente metafísicos (The Sacred Portal: A Primary Symbol in Ancient Judaic Art, Detroit: Wayne UP, 1966, pp. 60-61, 64).

CB62. Acerca de la presencia y reconsideración de Jesús en la cultura judía, véase La Crucifixión Blanca.

OT63. José Ortega y Gasset, "El hombre y la gente: ensimismamiento y alteración", disertación, Buenos Aires, 1939 (Ensimismamiento y alteración: meditación de la técnica, Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe Argentina, 1939; Obras Completas, Madrid: Alianza Editorial-Revista de Occidente, 1983, vol. VII, p. 90).


Recursos disponibles online

Conferencia UniRio

Helios and Beth Alpha, antología de textos en inglés
Mosaic Musings, acerca del panel con el Sacrificio de Isaac
Ancient menorahs
Chorazim, Capernaum, Hammat Tiberias; Beth Alpha, Sepphoris, Ein Gedi, sobre las antiguas sinagogas de Tierra Santa
Iconography, álbum de base para el desarrollo de estudios iconográficos
• Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Mosaic Pavements, Leiden y Boston: Brill, 2009
• Lee I Levine, The Zodiac and Other Greco-Roman Motifs in Jewish Art, Art Historical Issues, 16, Harvard, pp. 317-36. Contexto general arte-histórico y Hammat Tiberias como prototipo. El zodiaco y demás motivos grecorromanos en el arte judío, pp. 317-322; el zodíaco y sus variantes en el mundo helenístico-romano, pp. 322-326; adopción judía del zodiaco en el período bizantino, pp. 326-329; el zodiaco de Hammat Tiberias como prototipo, pp. 329-336.
• Levine, Contextualizing Jewish Art, pp. 97-115. Hammat Tiberias y su contexto histórico. Tiberias, pp. 97-103; Helios el ethos religioso-cultural y en los siglos III-IV EC, pp. 103-108; Julián y el Patriarcado, pp. 108-110; Publicación del calendario, 358-359 EC, pp. 110-115.
Calendario hebreo
Hebrew-Jewish Calendar
Hebrew Calendar
El calendario hebreo






Como nota Levine, una lectura apta del mosaico de Beit Alfa debe considerar su composición tripartita, por lo que tal lectura no puede sino involucrar a los tres paneles sinagogales.

Verificar - Salmos 19:1-4; Gen 1:14-17.

Ezekiel’s vision involving the wheel within a wheel.

Aunque lampiño en el mosaico de Beit Alfa, el profeta hebreo carece de su respetable barba, pero porta no obstante una corona de la que emanan siete rayos luminosos.

Arte figurativo emergió luego de la destrucción del Templo.

Rabbinical evidence suggests that figurative art was tolerated if it did not encourage cultic worship.

No existe una ley que prohiba la representación de temas religiosos.

Mosaico como sistema simbólico. Orden alusivo que responde a un concepto o representación poético-teológica.

ASTRONOMICUS. Ordenamiento en panel II responde a simbolismo astronómico

Constelación de Cáncer. Cáncer es el 4° mes del calendario astrológico. En la Antigüedad, el solsticio de verano en el hemisferio norte se producía cuando el sol estaba en conjunción con la constelación de cáncer, durante el mes de junio. A partir del solsticio de junio los días son más largos y por lo tanto hay más luz. Cáncer es una constelación boreal, su aparición es el preludio del verano.

Constelación de Capricornio. Capricornio es el 10° mes del calendario astrológico. En la Antigüedad, el solsticio de invierno en el hemisferio norte se producía cuando el sol estaba en conjunción con la constelación de capricornio, durante el mes de diciembre. A partir del solsticio de diciembre los días son más cortos y por lo tanto hay menos luz. Capricornio es una constelación austral, su aparición es el preludio del invierno.

El anillo zodíaco es de naturaleza astronómica y hace referencia a constelaciones que pueden ser percibidas (cosa diferente a una naturaleza astrológica que haría referencia a signos que darían lugar a procedimientos adivinatorios). Se trata de una rueda cósmica (y no una rueda astrológica).

el núcleo está dedicado al día que emerge - la luz que prevalece sobre las tinieblas.
la rueda cósmica tiene que ver con la división de los meses
las estaciones tienen que ver con las tareas del año

los tres aluden al tiempo, al transcurso del tiempo.

Cáncer. Durante el solsticio de invierno/diciembre la puesta del sol alcanza su punto más al norte
Capricornio. Durante el solsticio de invierno/diciembre la puesta del sol alcanza su punto más al sur


Celestial sphere
Esfera celeste
Planetary models

tropique du cancer
trópico de cáncer
tropique du capricorne
trópico de capricornio

Historia de la astronomía
Astronomia pretelescopica
Armonia de las esferas
Euxodus of Cnidus, s IV BCE
Eratostenes, s. II-II BCE
Ptolomeo, siglo II
Sistema de Ptolomeo
Teoria geocentrica
grabado geocentrico
Hipatia, siglo IV-V


Antología de textos en inglés

The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha: An Account of the Excavations Conducted on Behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem: Georgias Press, 1932. "The Beth Alpha synagogue mosaic is one of the most striking examples of ancient Jewish art ever uncovered. Excavated in 1929 by E. L. Sukenik on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this mosaic provoked an immediate sensation among scholars and lay people throughout Jewish Palestine, Europe and America. Located in Israel's Jezreel Valley, this remarkable mosaic preserves images of the Binding of Isaac (Exodus 22), of a zodiac wheel flanked by personifications of the seasons that was labeled in Hebrew, and of a Torah shrine flanked by menorahs and lions." "The discovery of the Beth Alpha synagogue mosaic was a milestone in the development of scholarly and popular consciousness of the significance of ancient Jewish art within Jewish [...] culture and within the Greco-Roman context. Sukenik's masterful and beautifully produced final report is of abiding scholarly value, and will interest all who take an interest in Jewish history, art and culture" (book jacket).

Walter Zanger, Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols: Zodiac Mosaics in Ancient Synagogues (2012), Biblical Archaeology, 24.8.2014

What had they found? Could this have been the temple of a Jewish community (it had to be Jewish; everything was written in Hebrew and Aramaic) turned pagan? Further digging dispelled that notion, for there, just above the central square of the mosaic, they found a mosaic panel of symbols instantly familiar to any Jew of that century (or this): the Ark of the Covenant (aron kodesh), eternal light (ner tamid), seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), palm frond (lulav), citron (etrog), and an incense shovel (mahta).2

... closer to the front door, they uncovered a scene easily recognizable to anyone who knows the Bible. We are in Genesis 22, and Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. In case we might have forgotten our Bible class, the names of the principals—Abraham, Isaac and the ram—are spelled out in inscriptions above their heads, and the hand of God stopping the sacrifice is clearly marked with the words “do not put forth your hand [against the lad].”

So this was definitely a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, in a basilica building that dates to about 520 C.E.3 The building was destroyed in an earthquake soon after it was built,4 hence the near-perfect preservation of its mosaic floor; their misfortune became our good fortune. And because Beth Alpha is the best preserved of the seven synagogues we know, we use it here as the basis for our discussion.5

Now, of course, we have problems. We know that Jewish life moved to the Galilee after the total destruction of Jewish Jerusalem that followed the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of the 130s C.E. We are, therefore, not surprised to have found—and to keep finding—synagogues from the following centuries all over the Galilee and Golan. It isn’t the synagogues themselves that are the problem; it is the decorations in them. What in heaven’s name were they doing? How could they be making pictures, especially in the synagogue? Didn’t they know the second commandment?

"You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4–5)

That problem is not as formidable as it first appears. The second commandment can be read in several ways because the Hebrew original of this text is entirely without vowels and punctuation points. We, writing English, have put in a period after the word “earth.”6 But if the period weren’t there, the verse could be read as a long conditional clause: “make no graven images … which you worship.” In this case it’s not the making that is prohibited, but the worshiping. Historically, the Jewish community often understood that it was acceptable to make images as long as one doesn’t worship them. And there is, consequently, a long and varied history of Jewish art, beginning with the cherubim over the Ark in the desert (Exodus 25:18), recorded presumably not long after the giving of the Commandments, and without protest.

A second problem is less easily resolved. The zodiac is pagan religion. It is what we see in the horoscope in every weekend newspaper on earth, generally the stuff of amusement. We know this system; it is based on the (extraordinary) assumption that the stars control the earth and that what happens on earth is a result of influences from what happens in the sky. All we need in order to understand the earth (that is, about our destiny) is to understand the stars. If, according to this view, one knows the exact date and time of one’s birth, and can chart the exact position of the heavenly bodies at that moment, then forevermore one knows what is fortunate, unfortunate, worth doing, worth avoiding, wise, unwise, etc. Our universe, therefore, is fixed and determined. There are no values, no good, no evil and no repentance. We live in a great mechanical machine of a cosmos.

The conflict of interest is obvious, and we are not surprised to learn that Jews detested that idea. For if the cosmos is like that, why do we need God giving the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai? The Christians also had their own very strong reservations. If the cosmos is like that, who needed God to sacrifice His son for the sins of the world? Who indeed? The early Church in fact absolutely prohibited the making of zodiacs, and there is not one zodiac mosaic in a church that dates before the Middle Ages, and very few even then. The zodiac/horoscope perception is the antithesis and enemy of monotheistic religion. An ancient and honorable enemy, to be sure, far older than Judaism and Christianity, but still the enemy.

It is true that one who goes through Jewish literature with a fine-tooth comb can find a citation here and there that seems to recognize the phenomenon of mosaic decoration, presumably zodiac, in synagogues. “In the days of Rabbi Abun they began depicting figures in mosaic and he did not protest against it.”7 More to the point, we find a line in Aramaic translation, “… you may place a mosaic pavement impressed with figures and images in the floors of synagogue; but not for bowing down to it.”8 There is even a Midrash that attempts to justify the zodiac phenomenon: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him [Abraham]: just as the zodiac [mazalot] surrounds me, and my glory is in the center, so shall your descendants multiply and camp under many flags, with my shekhina in the center.”9

But this is surely grasping at straws. The odd line here and there accounts for nothing in view of the overwhelming opposition in rabbinic literature to anything related to the making of pictures of any sort, and doubly so the fierce opposition to anything suggesting idolatry and pagan worship. Indeed, one of the ways to say “pagan” in rabbinical Hebrew is by the abbreviation עכומ[ (ovedei kokhavim u-mazalot,”worshipers of stars and constellations”). The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the popularity of astrology and were even prepared to admit that there might be truth in its predictions, but opposed the whole endeavor on principle. Ein mazal le-Yisrael (literally, “Israel has no constellation”) is perhaps the most commonly quoted opinion on the subject,10 but it is only one of many.

All the more are we astonished by the figure of Helios, Sol Invictus, pagan god of the sun, riding his quadriga right through the middle of the synagogue! This doesn’t look like it belongs here. And we need to ask again, what was this all about?

To set our minds at rest (for the time being), we can say what all this wasn’t. It could not have been astrology (predicting the future, etc.) and it could not have been scientific astronomy, because the seasons in the corners are in the wrong places. The upper right corner at Beth Alpha is marked טבת (Tevet), the winter month, and the upper left corner ניסן (Nissan) the month of Passover in spring. But between them you have the zodiac sign of Cancer, the Crab, which falls in mid-summer, not early spring. The same thing with the sign for Libra, the Scales. The mosaic has placed it between the spring and summer seasons, whereas it belongs in the fall. Clumsy astronomy.

The conclusion is inescapable: whoever did this mosaic hadn’t a clue about real astronomy or astrology, doubtless because he was a Jew and couldn’t care less.11

For the same reason, this mosaic floor could not have been a calendar, an idea that has been suggested by several important scholars of the subject.12 The incorrect placement of the seasons would have made that completely impossible.

Then perhaps it’s all just decoration, pretty pictures, the common designs of the era. That is the most common explanation, the one found in guide books. But it can’t be true. In the first place, the designs were by no means common in the Byzantine era. The Church, as stated, absolutely banned their use. More important, these signs are too loaded with meaning. We might argue “pretty pictures” if Beth Alpha were a solitary, unique find. We could then, at best, say that we had found here a group of Jews who had become so Hellenized that they had slipped over into paganism. But Beth Alpha is not unique; we will visit half a dozen other synagogues before we’re done. In addition, we have found hundreds of Jewish tombstones and catacombs from all over the Roman Empire. And despite the fact that there are countless millions of possible symbols, forms, designs, pictures, animals, etc. they could have used, the fact is that they all use the same 10-12 symbols.13 We are forced to conclude that these were more than pretty pictures.


The evidence indicates that we are in the presence of a mystical Hellenistic-Byzantine Jewish tradition, a tradition that Talmudic Judaism either ignored or suppressed,29 a tradition we would not know anything about (for it left no literature) were it not for the discovery of this artwork, these symbols.30 The mosaics are in fact the literature of the movement. We need to learn how to read them.

Historically, the mosaics were made at a time when what is sometimes called normative, or Talmudic, Judaism—the Judaism of the rabbis—was just developing. And it was going a different way.31 We might say that Talmudic Judaism was moving horizontally: A man walks a path, with God giving him the Law to tell him what to do and what not to do, how to stay straight on the path and not stray off. God is pleased when man obeys and angry when he disobeys. This is the religion of the Hebrew Bible, and it is what normative Judaism became in the Talmud, the Middle Ages and, for the most part, up to our own time.

But there was, and still is, a different kind of religion, much older than the Judaism we have just described. We can call it vertical. Men always knew that their life depended on higher powers. First and most obvious, life depended on nature—on seed and growth, rain, sun, moon, land, wind and fire. That was natural religion; it was what primitive man did. It was only a short step from there to making each of these elements into a god. Ancient man thus prayed to rain and sacrificed to earth, worshiped the moon and adored the sun.

The cosmos was chaotic at first. The gods were busy having arguments (and orgies) with each other. In between the arguments they could torture and abuse men, and seduce women as they liked. But nature became orderly as the Greeks developed science—biology, astronomy and physics—and tamed the cosmos. They defined the forces influencing other forces; wind influences clouds, clouds influence rain, rain influences earth, and earth influences men. Thus the ladder of cosmic power was taking shape.
On this issue there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that the regular cycle of nature was pretty grim, not to mention completely predestined. There was no good and no evil—no value—which is why the Jews never bought into it. The good news is that the cosmos was also consoling. Nature was no longer random or dependent on the whim of the gods. Indeed, the regularity of the cycle of growth and death and rebirth in nature did give hope for immortality.32 And when Greek philosophy, following Plato, organized the forms and powers into a proper hierarchy, with the Highest Form, the First Uncaused Cause, being God, then the spiritual ladder was firmly in place.

And that, we suggest, is what they were doing by walking into the synagogue. We see the worshipers climbing the mystical ladder from the mundane and transient things down here at the entrance—who made the floor, when, and how much it cost—to a union with God at His holy Ark up there at the far end.

The first step was through our righteous ancestors. Their good deeds atone for our sins.34 Then, as we walk farther into the synagogue, we begin to climb the ladder, encountering the earth and its seasons. We are among friends; the seasons have friendly, sometimes smiling, women’s faces. We progress even higher, through the stars and constellations (the Hebrew word mazal, “constellation,” means luck). But the vertical path of Jewish mysticism is beyond luck, beyond the stars. It is beyond even the strongest and most fearful of all natural powers, the sun. Here is the sun, indeed at the center of the universe, in a chariot controlled by a charioteer,35 in a vision recalling Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot (Ezekiel 1). The charioteer is God,36 in control of the four horses, over and above the stars and the constellations, that is, over fate and destiny. This is the God who rules over the moon and the seasons, the rain, the land and the elements. Four elements like the four horses: earth, air, fire and water. This is the God who has graciously made a covenant and given Torah to His people Israel, whose sins are atoned for by the righteousness of their ancestors.

And that understanding brought the worshiper to the holy symbols of the synagogue, which is God’s house. That is why, in all of the synagogue mosaic panels37 depicting the symbols of God’s house, the Ark of the Covenant is always in the center of its panel, and the panel is always located right at the foot of the Ark itself.

We have come through our stages of ascent. We are in front of the Ark, the dwelling place of God’s Torah. Yet the door is always closed. God, inside, is still a mystery. But our long mystical journey to salvation is almost over.


2 The incense shovel was a universally recognized Jewish symbol in the Byzantine era. It disappeared from the Jewish iconographic lexicon because the Jews stopped using incense when the Christians started.

3 The Aramaic inscription at the front door was damaged. It says that the mosaic was made “during the … year of the reign of the emperor Justinus”. The exact year is missing. The reference is probably to the emperor Justin I (adopted uncle and immediate predecessor of Justinian the Great) who ruled from 518-527 C.E. and whose coins were found on the site. It is of course possible that the building was older than the mosaic floor.

4 The earliest possible “candidate” was a major quake that hit the country on July 9, 551. It was the earthquake that finally destroyed Petra. More likely was an earthquake of lesser magnitude but located closer to the site which did great damage to the Jordan Valley in 659/660.

5 We have not entered into a discussion of the artistic merits of this work of art. It is the writer’s opinion that this work, with its naive and primitive style, has a child-like immediacy and freshness that makes it one of the masterpieces of world art.

6 Thus the new JPS Tanakh. The King James translation puts a colon after the word “earth”, while the New American Bible (Catholic) and the Revised Standard Version (Protestant) translations both use a semi-colon instead of period at this point.

7 From a Geniza manuscript of JT Avoda Zarah

8 In the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum to Lev. 26:1

9 From a Geniza fragment of Midrash Deut. Rabba) These quotations are cited by Michael Klein, “Palestinian Targum and Synagogue Mosaics,” Jerusalem, Immanuel 11 (1980)

10 The matter is discussed in BT Shabbat, 156a

11 At Beth Alpha the signs and the seasons both progress counter-clockwise, although they are misaligned. The Hammat Tiberias zodiac shows both signs and seasons also rotating counter-clockwise, and in correct alignment with each other. At Na’aran the seasons run counter-clockwise, as above, but the signs go clockwise!

12 That position was argued by Prof. Avi-Yonah, among many others, and by the excavator of Hammat Tiberias. See Moshe Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1983). Hammat Tiberias is the only mosaic we know where the signs and seasons are correctly aligned, which may have influenced the excavator’s judgment as to its purpose

13 The cataloging of all of these finds and the interpretation of what they might mean constitute the magnum opus of Erwin Goodenough (1893-1965), Professor of Religion at Yale and one of the greatest scholars of religion America ever produced. Goodenough’s 13 volume study, E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, (New York: Pantheon, 1958), form the core text for the study of this subject, Everyone who has subsequently dealt with the subject is in his debt. The book has been re-issued in a 1-volume paperback, abridged and edited by Jacob Neusner (Princeton: Bollingen Series, 1988)

29 Only the works of Philo and Josephus, together with some mystical apocalypses, survive as the literature from the Hellenistic Jewish world. They survive because of the Christians, who preserved them, not the Jews, who ignored them. There is no other mystical literature from the period of the mosaic making which might help us understand what the mosaic makers meant to say.

30 It would be a safe bet to say that 9 out of 10 Jews living today (especially orthodox Jews) don’t know, and never knew, that such a Judaism ever existed.

31 This formulation, from Goodenough (q.v.), ch. 1, has been extraordinarily useful to this writer.

32 The Jews were not much interested in immortality, but everybody else was!

33 We are not surprised to discover that the oldest known manifestation of what we might call “religion” is the decorated skull of an ancestor found under the floor of a house in pre-pottery Neolithic Jericho.

34 There are any number of examples of pious Jews venerating the tombs of saints and forefathers. A visit to any tomb of a holy man in the Galilee, to Elijah’s cave on Mt. Carmel, or indeed to a cemetery where someone of special interest to one or another Hassidic group is buried provides a fascinating glimpse into a Judaism which we of the liberated western world did not know still existed.

35 The origin and symbolism of the Divine quadriga and its connection to merkava mysticism are discussed in a monograph by James Russell in the Jewish Studies Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 4, (Tubingen 1997).

36 We recall that in the Zippori zodiac the quadriga is driven by the sun itself, without the figure of a man. Compare Is.60:19ff.

37 Some ancient synagogues, as in Beth-Shean, show only the synagogue panel without any of the other elements.

Nothing is known about the identity of the community that built the Beit Alfa Synagogue. All the information we have is on what remains of the synagogue inscriptions. An Aramaic inscription tells us that the synagogue was built during the reign of Justinian I and funded by communal donations. In times of Emperor Justinian, the Jews in Palestine were a minority amongst other cultures. A Greek inscription thanks “Marianos and his son Hanina” for their artwork. Both of them are again mentioned on the nearby Beit Shean Synagogue as well.

The northern panel of the mosaic shows the famous biblical scene of the Binding of Isaac. The mosaic depicts the moment before God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Abraham is shown dangling Isaac over the altar, while the ram substitute waits nearby.

The floor of the Beit Alfa Synagogue is most famous for its large Zodiac wheel. The Zodiac, originally a Persian symbol, was “converted” by the Jews of the Byzantine period and infused with Jewish meaning. The vibrantly colorful Zodiac wheel surrounds the Greco-Roman sun god, Helios. Helios is riding a fiery chariot and crowned with sun rays.

The southern panel features a depiction of a synagogue, complete with a Torah shrine flanked by two roaring lions and a seven-branched menorah. Some scholars believe that the mosaic is a rendering of the actual Beit Alfa Synagogue as it looked in the Byzantine period (SIT).

Mike Rogoff, Pagan Deities in Ancient Synagogues, Ha'aretz, 26.1.2015

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness…” proclaimed the Voice out of the fire and smoke at Mount Sinai. Yet ancient craftsmen, working in the biblical Land of Israel almost two millennia after Moses, were apparently undeterred by the Divine injunction. Their synagogue mosaic floors, unearthed by modern archaeologists, boast human images and – yes – even pagan deities. Such as the Sun God.
The two best-preserved of the synagogue mosaics are the exquisite figures in Hammat Tiberias (4th century C.E.), overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and the child-like but charming art of Beit Alfa (6th century C.E., shown above), at the foot of Mt. Gilboa.
There can be no doubt about their identity as synagogue interiors: Each has Aramaic inscriptions, characteristic Jewish motifs like seven-branched menorahs, rams’ horns, lions, a synagogue holy ark, the lulav and etrog used on Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), incense pans used in the long-gone Temple, and, at Beit Alfa, a scene of the biblical Binding of Isaac, with Hebrew captions.

What is astonishing at both sites is the large centerpiece, depicting the wheel of the zodiac, a blatantly Hellenistic-Roman device. [...] Four female figures, representing the four seasons of the year (often with their season’s bounty at hand), inhabit the corners of the square frame. Several of the 12 signs of the zodiac are human, with two in Hammat Tiberias – Libra and Aquarius – fully naked.

But the real surprise lies at the center of the wheel. Here, in the very heart of the synagogues, is a representation of Helios, the Greek sun god, in the form of a charioteer, whip in hand, riding his four-horse quadriga across the sky. [...]

Hammat Tiberias illustrates the point. In the 4th century C.E., the nearby city of Tiberias was the seat of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, and the center for the compilation of the so-called Jerusalem Talmud. It seems unlikely that the Jewish religious establishment would have tolerated such pagan artwork on its doorstep unless it fell within the acceptable boundaries of the day.
The suggestion that the zodiac-and-Helios phenomenon might represent a regional aberration is not consistent with the wide geographical spread of known synagogue zodiacs. Three were found in the middle north of the country (Hammat Tiberias, Beit Alfa and Zippori), one near Jericho, one on Mount Carmel, one in the Hebron Hills, and another at Ein Gedi (near the Dead Sea), which lists the signs but doesn’t depict them.

There is a view that the zodiac was used as an astrological calendar. Indeed, there are literary hints that some belief in the influence of heavenly bodies was not alien to the Jewish mind at certain periods, but it never crossed the line to becoming a tenet of faith. An obstacle to the theory is that on some zodiac synagogue floors, the months are consistent with the turn of the seasons (giving support to the calendar idea), while others are oddly unsynchronized (suggesting that the artists were casual about the cosmology since the representation was meant to be decorative and purely symbolic).
The symbolists might claim that the whole Hellenistic-Roman motif merely represents the orderly cycle of the universe: season follows season (the female figures), month follows month (the signs of the zodiac), and day follows day (Helios, personifying the life-giving sun).
Jews recognized, of course, that the universe is entirely in the hands of the Creator; but since any representation of Him was the most severe prohibition of all, they adopted and adapted a long-popular Mediterranean design to convey the idea. There was no veneration of the pagan deities or celestial bodies – after all, the congregation routinely tramped over them – and thus no violation of the second part of the Second Commandment: “…thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them.”

Helios. A Greek solar deity drove a fiery chariot through the heaven by day, but at night floated back across the ocean in a golden bowl.

Zodiac signs. The Babylonian signs of the constellations, as used by the Greeks and Romans became commonly known as Zodiac signs (“small animals,” in Greek). They were adopted by the Jews during the Babylonian exile and continued to be used for the lunar cycle of the year. The Hebrew names for the signs were mostly translated from the Latin. However, the names of the months and their correlation with particular signs originated in Babylon (JT. RH. 1:2). Since the Romans and Christians adopted the solar year cycle, the Latin names of the months and the beginning of the year and of each month do not correspond, neither do the signs of the Zodiac correlate exactly with the Hebrew ones. The Christian cycle, for example, starts with the month of January and the sign of Capricorn whereas the Hebrew cycle starts with the month of Nisan and the sign of lamb. The depiction of the Zodiac signs in Jewish art vary from those in Roman and Christian cycles. The Aries=ram is replaced by a lamb, Sagittarius by a bow and arrow, Capricorn is depicted as a kid of goats and Aquarius as a bucket. In Antiquity the Zodiac signs appear mainly on synagogue floors, encircling Helios driving his chariot as Sol Invictus, with the personification of the four Seasons in the spandrels. This complex is at times depicted next to salvation scenes such as the Sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the lions’ den, or Sanctuary implements expressing hopes of rebuilding the destroyed Temple. Some Zodiac signs are depicted as stone reliefs of ancient synagogues. In medieval illuminated prayer books, mainly in Ashkenazi mahzorim, the Zodiac signs illustrate the piyyut for rain and for dew by El'azar Birabi Kalir, a sixth century poet from Erez Israel. His piyyut for rain consists of only eleven strophes each devoted to one month but combining the months of Tevet and Shevat. The result is a combined sign of Kid and Bucket, or Kid and Drawing Well. His piyyutim may have been influenced by the mosaic floors of synagogues. The signs in illuminated mahzorim are at times joined to the labours of the months, and are at times related to the emblems of the Tribes of Israel. Some of the signs are strangely rendered, as can be seen in particular depictions of the signs: human figures have their heads distorted.
During the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Zodiac signs decorated the walls of modern and brick synagogues of Eastern Europe, where a non-iconic attitude had been taken, and generally no complete human beings were depicted. Twins may be represented as two animals and the Virgin as a bouquet with a vase, or as a harp. Among ritual objects of Eastern Europe which depict Zodiac signs are Torah crowns, shields and finials. In some Eastern European ceremonial objects the Zodiac signs appear related to the Day of Judgment as in belt buckles for Yom Kippur. At times they surround the Sacrifice of Isaac, or relate to the good omen for a newly born baby, as on Torah binders or Pidyon Ha-Ben plates (redemption of the first born). They also appear in marriage contracts as in Italian Ketuboth.
The feast of Purim is connected to the Zodiac signs by the story of Haman casting lots to find out the right time to destroy the Jews. It therefore appears in illustrated Italian Esther scrolls as Haman shooting an arrow at the circular Zodiac cycle. The signs also appear around German pewter Purim plates. In modern art the Zodiac is depicted on a wall mosaic by Marc Chagall, where the signs surround the figure of Elijah rising to the heavens in his chariot, like Helios. HUJ

Syncretism and Mythraic cults influence. Like any other artists in any other periods Byzantine artists were influenced by the art of their predecessors. Many of their images and symbols were directly borrowed from the Mithraic pagans of Rome who were dominating the cultural scene of the empire during the early centuries of Christianity. In those early periods, due to the animosity of the Roman Mithraist establishment towards Christianity, the church had to adopt numerous concealed signs that were discernible only by the loyal affiliates of the church. Artists portrayed Christ in the guise of various heroes of the Mithraic mysteries which were worshiped by many Roman legionnaires, senators and even emperors, like Julian.
Perhaps the first scholar who discovered this fact was Franz Cumont who ascertained that the images of the Heavens, Earth, Ocean, Sun, Moon, Zodiac planets, Seasons, and Four elements depicted on Christian mosaics and other art forms of the third to the fifth centuries are indeed Mithraic symbols. Cumont, was aware of the fact that despite the Church’s opposition to the Mithraist’s celebration of the cosmic cycle, these signs were nevertheless integrated into Christian imagery, in which "a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture."
Another researcher, M.J. Vermaseren, has argued that Christian portrayals on sarcophagi of the soul’s ascension into heaven, though apparently referencing the biblical scene of Elijah being led into heaven by fiery chariots and horses, were in fact inspired by representations of Mithras' ascent into the heavens in Helios’ chariot. He identified the sun god, as the source of inspiration for the flames on Elijah’s chariot and the god Oceanus as the inspiration for the Jordan River.
Robin Jensen has argued that the early Christian art depicted Christ as the sun, in virtually the same way as the sun was depicted in the Mithraism iconography. Jensen argues: "In the famous early fourth century mosaic said to be of Christi Helios in the dome of the mausoleum of the Julii in the excavations under Saint Peter’s on the Vatican, we see a figure that may have been meant to represent Christ as Sol or perhaps as a rival to Sol riding in a chariot, surrounded by a golden sky, and adorned with a radiate halo" (Byzantine art).

Astrology. Marcia Masino: Beth Alpha's Synagogue Floor. In 1928, Israeli farmers in Beth Alpha, located at the base of Mount Gilboa in the Valley of Jezreel, were digging an irrigation ditch when they unearthed a brightly colored mosaic chip. A Hebrew inscription on the piece was cause for consultation with Professor Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University, who immediately ordered an archaeological dig. This led to the discovery of the remains of a fifth century synagogue's pillars and walls. The greatest surprise came when they unearthed an almost completely intact zodiac mosaic floor.
The elegant floor of warmly colored stones contains an instantly recognizable image of the twelve signs. The Greek Sun god Helios is the largest image, appearing in the center of the horoscope wheel. He's crowned and is shown inside his chariot surrounded by stars and a crescent Moon. Four horses appear with him, and his chariot has multi-colored wheels.
Beautiful renditions of the zodiac signs appear in the house sectors, starting with Libra at the rising sign point, rather than traditional Aries. Angels of the four seasons decorate the corners. Twenty-two different stones were used to create this masterpiece; the Hebrew alphabet is comprised of the same number of letters. The pavement was made in the time of Emperor Justin the First, who reigned from 518 to 527. It covers the entire nave area and has inscriptions referring to the zodiac in Hebrew and Greek.
The Creation of the Beth Alpha Zodiac. The mosaic came into being when the temple elders decided to call for a facelift of their place of worship. An independent builder named Marianus was hired to create something impressive and grand. He had traveled to Greece and seen the latest trends in temple décor, and suggested a radical design departure.
Zodiacs were popular with the Greeks at the time, and Marianus managed to convince the elders to accept his zodiac design, complete with Helios the Sun god in the center placement. They agreed under the condition that the Holy Ark appear above the image on the top panel, the place of supremacy signifying faith in God. Beth Alpha mosaic was created with three panels: the Holy Ark, the zodiac and the story of the sacrifice of Issac. Marianus and was paid 100 measures of grain for his efforts.
Graeco-Roman Influence in Hebrew Temples. Marianus may not have had to leave home to come up with the astrology motif. He could have easily looked to the many examples of in his own country. Graeco-Roman images of Helios and the zodiac were common and fashionable.
Examples of the twelve zodiac signs with Helios in his sun chariot surrounded by angels have been discovered in seven ancient synagogues in Israel. In addition to Beth Alpha, the zodiacs appear at Hammath Tiberias, Khirbet Susiya,Yafia, Sepphoris, Beth Shean, Husifa,and Na'aran. The Louvre also has a tiny first or second century mural remnant of the sign of Capricorn from the wall of Dura-Europus. All the pavements consist of three parts: an inscription or scene, a center zodiac panel and a representation of Jewish religious objects such as the Ark, Torah or menorah.
Obviously the Graeco-Roman environment had a great deal of influence on Jewish religious art. The appearance of the Sun god Helios, as well as pagan zodiac images, reflected the popularly held belief of planetary influence on worldly affairs. Helios has a long history in Judaism. His figure is found in both text and magical amulets from that time period.
Astrology and Judaism. Ancient Hebrew tradition believes the first Jewish patriarchs used astrology, including Abraham. Abraham came from Babylon or Mesopotamia, a city with a name that translates as "light of the astrologers," where planetary deities were worshipped. One astrological treatise possibly written by Abraham is known to have existed in the third century B.C. Abraham's father Terach was also an astrologer.
Moses (c.1200-1100 B.C.), as Pharaoh's adopted son, was also an astrologer. He correlated the attributes of the twelve signs to the twelve tribes of Israel, then took the people from the tabernacle in the wilderness on their pilgrimage, lined up by zodiacal order. Rabbinical tradition asserts that the signs of the zodiac have represented the twelve tribes since antiquity.
Beth Alpha's floor is renown as one the most important mosaics in Israel. The synagogue is now part of a National Park on Kibbutz Hefzibah. Visitors can tour the Beth Alpha Synagogue National Park and see the most complete zodiac floor from the time when astrology held a place in the synagogue.


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