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Rethinking Jewish Art Volume 59 Number 2, March/April 2006
by Steven Fine

[image] Two mosaics from the Hamman Lif synagogue: a 1st-2nd century A.D. gazelle and a 3rd-5th century A.D. menorah (Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Nineteeth- and many twentieth-century scholars often assumed that Jews and Judaism were uninterested in art, believing that Jewish creativity had been stunted by alleged biblical prohibitions. The discovery of a sixth-century synagogue at Hamman Lif (ancient Naro) on the coast of Tunisia in 1883 helped to change that. One of the first synagogues discovered in modern times, its unearthing, along with synagogues found in Palestine and the Jewish catacombs at Rome, helped to revolutionize the way scholars saw ancient Jewish art.

Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire, a new traveling exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (through June 4), tells the story of this marvelous discovery, and attempts to place the floor within the history of Judaism in the Roman world. Collected by the Brooklyn Museum a century ago, the extant elements of this mosaic have been wisely set atop a blowup of an exquisite drawing of the floor produced soon after the synagogue's discovery. The Naro mosaic is typical of both religious and secular North African works of this period. It was decorated with an aquatic scene, a fountain flanked by peacocks and palm trees, and tendrils enclosing waterfowl and other native animals. The only distinctly Jewish iconography are small seven-branched menorahs that flank the inscription. This is not at all unusual. At Naro, as throughout the Roman world, Jews were an integral part of the urban landscape. Synagogues used the same architecture and art as everyone else. For excavators, often the only marker of Jewish identity is the menorah.

At the center of the mosaic was an inscription in Latin that memorialized one "Juliana NAP.," who donated the "sacred synagogue." The prominence of a woman as a synagogue patron, while fascinating, is not unique to Naro. Jewish women served as patrons of synagogues throughout the Roman world, from Rome to the Galilee.

Contemporaneous Late Antique textiles from Egypt with nature themes, a unique bronze incense burner from Egypt that may have had a Jewish context, and 36 additional mosaics and artifacts round out the show. These artifacts provide a real sense of the visual context in which the Naro mosaic was produced and how the Jews who built the synagogue flourished, even as they coped with an increasingly hostile Christian empire.

The exhibition argues that the iconography of the Naro mosaic represents Jewish visions of "creation" and of "paradise." My sense is that this interpretation burdens this typical North African mosaic with excess meaning. While such theological interpretations of Roman polytheistic, Christian, and Jewish art were fashionable during the mid twentieth century, more recent scholarship has a more holistic approach that treats the floor as just one element of a religious building. In my own work, for example, I take my cue from the Hamman Lif inscriptions themselves. What is it that made the Naro synagogue a "sacred" place? How was this sacrality expressed through the decoration of this hall, of which the mosaic was only one element?

After June 4, the show travels to venues to be announced.

Steven Fine is a visiting professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and author of Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America