Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Curriculum in Archaeology
Although evidence now has proven otherwise, ancient synagogues were originally believed by archaeologists to lack art and imagery (Goldman 1965). This belief was based upon a passage in the Hebrew Bible which states that “no graven images” or “manners of likeness [to God]” may be created. Rabbinic literature also contains no mention of imagery in synagogues (Goldman 1965). Archaeologists believed that a “Jewish” art form did not exist (Olin 2000; Kampen 2006; Fine 2010). Modern archaeological excavations have proven this notion false, as a wide variety of images and motifs are depicted in ancient synagogues. Common images include pagan symbols such as Helios, Temple cultic objects, and biblical scenes (Levine 2000).
The purpose of this research is to examine the iconography of the mosaics in the main hall of the Byzantine (fifth century) synagogue at Sepphoris (Weiss 2005: XIII). Special attention is paid to common motifs of Palestinian synagogues, the role of Rabbinic literature, and other potential influences on the floor’s design. After examining possible explanations of the images, the main conclusion is that the mosaic was commissioned by a diverse, wealthy community. Several of the motifs suggest that there is potential for borrowing and exchanging of ideas from neighboring synagogues. Some of the depictions may have been influenced by priestly traditions, though the nature of that relationship, if it exists at all, would need further explanation. I did not find conclusive evidence for a single theme that runs through and ties all the images together.