Historical Contexts of Jewish Art
By Lee I. Levine
(Yale Univ. press, 2013), 592 pp., $50.00
Reviewed by Joan R. Branham
Lee Levine’s imposing new volume takes the reader on a 2,000-year journey from Palestine to the Diaspora, tracing the visual cultures of Israelites to Judahites to Jews from the 13th century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. In almost 600 pages, Levine tackles issues as wide ranging as the role of art in the construction of Jewish identity, liturgy and ritual, aniconism, messianism, mysticism, to its polemical role in the face of neighbors, Canaanite and, later, Christian.
Throughout, Levine works carefully and conservatively, giving voice to multiple perspectives and, for the most part, leaves it to the reader to choose sides in scholarly disagreements. He is a masterful compiler of data, synthesizing vast numbers of publications and excavation reports in a manner accessible to the layperson and academic reader alike.
In a number of exceptions, however, the author takes a stand, notably arguing for: the distinctive place Late Antiquity (third–seventh centuries C.E.) holds in the visual history of Judaism; the negligible role of the rabbis but the influential role of the Patriarchate in Jewish visual culture; the position of Ḥammat Tiberias as source/prototype for all Greco-Roman zodiac motifs throughout Late Antique Palestine; and the heterogeneous character of “Jewish art” that eludes universal or monolithic definition.
Following the trail blazed by Peter Brown and others who have elevated the study of Late Antiquity from a “sub-field” to a discipline in its own right, Levine argues that Jewish art flourished then beyond anything that had come before. Describing Late Antiquity as a time of renewal, vitality and creativity, Levine maintains that it is “not a postclassical (or post-talmudic) era of decline” (p. 191), as has sometimes been presented, but a generative era marked with original art forms. Moreover, Levine critiques “old” scholarly approaches that characterize the period in dualistic terms of Christian triumph and Jewish hardship and persecution. Evidence reveals a different story, one that nuances tensions, coexistence and cooperation between these two communities. Widespread Jewish settlements, economic prosperity and a stable political/economic environment (p. 189) may account for the construction and decoration of many Jewish buildings.
But who is responsible for the artistic programs found in these structures? This question takes center stage for Levine, who first examines rabbinic circles as likely suspects. Here Levine reveals a disconnect between rabbinic literature and archaeological finds: Rabbis don’t discuss art often (p. 405), and when they do, patent contradictions emerge between rabbinic texts and Jewish art. For example, prohibitions against representing a seven-branched menorah in deference to the Temple (B. Menaḥot 28b, B. Rosh Hashanah 24a, B’Avodah Zarah 43a) are rarely enforced; menorot abound in Jewish art. Likewise, Levine compares artistic representations of the ‘Aqedah, the Binding of Isaac, to rabbinic texts and underscores their differences. At Dura Europos, Bet Alpha and Sepphoris, for example, Isaac appears as a youth, whereas in rabbinic texts, Isaac is 26 or 37 years old (p. 415). Levine concludes that rabbis had a marginal influence on synagogue art and that a material culture can no longer be understood as handmaidens to texts. To his credit, Levine does not attempt to harmonize incompatible texts and images; rather, he affirms them as discrete bodies of evidence and cautions against the anachronistic application of literature to art.
Perhaps Levine’s boldest proposition concerns the zodiac/Helios motifs portrayed in Palestinian synagogue floor mosaics. Scholars have interpreted the enigmatic appearance of Greco-Roman iconography in Jewish worship spaces in radically different ways: It’s a calendar, the heavens, an accompaniment for liturgical poetry (piyyutim), messianic, decorative, covenantal, Helios is God, Helios is the sun, Helios is Elijah, Helios is actually Helios (p. 327). Levine suggests that the recurrent zodiac imagery all begins in one spot—the fourth-century synagogue at Ḥammat Tiberias (cover of book), which acts as the source/model for all subsequent synagogue zodiacs. Levine argues that the Patriarchate, powerful in this region from the third–fifth centuries and aligned with aristocratic circles, manifested its culture by adopting Hellenistic imagery. This was then copied with variations on a theme at other locales; thus it is the political and royal Patriarchate and aristocracy—not the rabbis—that set the stage for the identity of “Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity” (title of book). This theory is intriguing but leaves the reader with unanswered questions. Why was the zodiac, and not another Greco-Roman symbol, chosen by the aristocracy for synagogue space in the first place?
As with any volume, there are strengths and weaknesses. Part I—dedicated to art in the Israelite through the Second Temple periods—acts mainly as a prelude to the later period. Here Levine touches cursorily on a number of major finds (the substantial scholarly debate over pillar figurines as goddess or fertility figures is condensed to a single sentence, p. 20). The absence of discussion of the architectural remains of the Second Temple (the Herodian Temple) is a disappointing lacuna (to this reader at least), since Levine addresses architectural remains (facades, lintels, capitals) of synagogues and not just iconographies at other sites (p. 226). For a major work dedicated to the history of art, there are surprisingly no color images or high quality plates, but only small, sometimes hard-to-read black and white figures. And as can be expected, the volume will need to be updated with new discoveries, such as the synagogue floor at Huqoq* bound to make a significant impact on the interpretation of Late Antique Jewish art.
What is of especially great value in this work is that Levine—acknowledged as the leading scholar of synagogue archaeology—has synthesized the latest scholarship on a grand scale and compiled a comprehensive bibliography (alone worth its weight in gold). In a few places he gives his own interpretations of artistic material that continues to intrigue historians of religion and material culture. He also grapples with the unwieldy term “Jewish Art,” and concludes that attempts to find a single description of visual Judaism all fail. Instead, Jewish Art “reflects the Jewish experience” (p. 5) and changes from one generation and place to another, dependent on political context, religious influence from neighbors and, perhaps most important, internal communal leadership (p. 475).
Joan R. Branham is professor of art history and associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Providence College, where she teaches courses in Late Antique and medieval art history. She has published widely on theories of sacred space in the Jerusalem Temple, the relationship of gender, blood and sacrifice in ancient Judaism and Christianity, and the iconography of Late Antique synagogues and churches. She currently serves as chair of fellowships for the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.