Life imitates art imitates life

Speaking of astrology, James McGrath wrote last week about depictions of sun Gods in Jewish synagogues, including a picture of the zodiac wheel from the sixth-century CE synagogue at Beit Alpha.

This seems to have been a common motif for the floor of synagogues in that period. Intricate mosaics portrayed Jewish symbols such as a Torah shrine and menorah, but the larger part of the floor would portray this huge zodiac wheel, with the sun God Helios in the center and personifications of the four seasons in the corners.

The synagogue at Beit Alpha.

McGrath notes that some scholars are looking at associations between the Jewish God and the sun Gods of other cultures, but I’m still intrigued by the explanation I heard for these mosaics when I got to visit two of these sites during a college trip to Israel and the West Bank 20-some years ago.

We saw the mosaic at Beit Alpha (pictured here) with its rudimentary, somewhat crude depictions of the zodiac, Helios and the seasons. But we also visited another synagogue site — and here again I’m cursing myself for not taking better notes, because I can’t recall the name of it. The other site featured the same pattern, but much more artfully done, with the realistic depictions of classical Greek art.

The mosaics at this other site were similar to the beautiful scenes at Tzippori/Sepphoris, which is what the lower picture here shows. (We did not visit Tzippori because this mosaic was not discovered until 1993 — years after my trip there.)

One of the professors accompanying us on this tour explained what he believed accounted for the difference in styles.

The more elaborate, Greek-style mosaics, he said, were likely the work of Greek artists hired to decorate the synagogue. The theory was that these artists had been instructed to include specific designs for the front of the synagogue (where the Torah and menorah and other Jewish symbols were depicted), but had likely been left with no specific instructions for how to decorate the center of the floor. The choice for the zodiac wheel, Helios and the seasons, this professor said, was likely made by the artists themselves.

Mosaic at Tzippori/Sepphoris.

But here’s the interesting part. He believed that the synagogue at Beit Alpha had not hired Greek artists to do their mosaic. He thought it was the work of Jewish artists deliberately copying the Greek artists’ handiwork by copying the patterns and pictures they had seen at Tzippori and elsewhere. He believed these were later mosaics and that they included Helios and the zodiac because, by that time, that had become the established idea of what the floor of a synagogue was supposed to look like.

If that’s right, then that top picture from Beit Alpha doesn’t so much show a picture of the sun God Helios as it does a picture of That Guy With the Chariot That All Those Other Synagogues Have on Their Floors.

So according to this theory, the pictures of Helios in Jewish synagogues did not indicate any Jewish devotion to the sun God, or any association of this sun God with the Jewish God. What it may have indicated, instead, is our powerful human disposition for doing things the way we have always done them. When in doubt, we tend to copy what was done before, even if everyone seems to have forgotten why it was done that way before.

Whether or not this theory is correct when it comes to these mosaics, there’s still probably some kind of sermon to be preached there.

 

  • Infinitywaltz

    My favorite “doing things the way we’ve always done them” story comes from Zen Buddhism. Apparently there was a monastery that had a local friendly cat that prowled the grounds, eating mice and probably the occasional handout from the resident monks, but he was so friendly that he tended to distract the monks during the meditation sessions, rubbing up against them and purring and all that. 

    As a solution, the abbot decided that they would tie the cat to a tree outside the monastery during their meditation sessions. Eventually, the abbot passed on (or perhaps was assigned to a different monastery, which was pretty common). The new abbot continued the “tradition” of tying the cat to the tree during meditation…

    …and eventually, when the cat died of natural causes, a monk was immediately sent to the village to procure a new one to keep tied to the tree outside the monastery when it was time for the monks to sit in meditation. 

  • Magic_Cracker

    This is reminiscent of the Green Man who appears in so many churches in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe where pagan craftsmen were hired to help decorate churches.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    May I be the first to say: those are the most adorable zodiacal signs ever!  

    Leo is all like, “RAWR”, and even Scorpio is totally cute.

  • Zackp

    Ooh! Ooh! Could the other synagogue you’re referring to possibly be the one in Hamat Tiberias? 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamat_Tiberias

    Hooray art history classes!

  • markedward

    As far as the copycat artists at the other synagogues, they may have seen the image as portraying something like Ezekiel 1 or Isaiah 6, or similar ‘heavenly throne’ scenes. Just a hypothesis.

  • Not Fenimore

    My favorite example of that sort is the gold coinage of King Offa. The King of Mercia, see, wanted to start minting gold coins, and (since the Anglo-Saxons had mostly only made silver currency to that point) wanted an example to base it on/provide appropriate dimensions and quality. He ended up settling on ‘Abbasid dinars as the prototype, with one face with the usual OFFA.REX inscription; but the pretty sqiggles around the edge and on the reverse looked nice enough that his minters just copied them wholesale.

    With the result that the currency of King Offa declares, in (very poorly written) Arabic, that There is no God but God and Muhammad is His messenger. ;)

  • Tricksteron

    You’re right Leo looks more like a kitty than a lion.

  • Scott P.

    “My favorite example of that sort is the gold coinage of King Offa. The
    King of Mercia, see, wanted to start minting gold coins, and (since the
    Anglo-Saxons had mostly only made silver currency to that point) wanted
    an example to base it on/provide appropriate dimensions and quality. He
    ended up settling on ‘Abbasid dinars as the prototype, with one face
    with the usual OFFA.REX inscription; but the pretty sqiggles around the
    edge and on the reverse looked nice enough that his minters just copied
    them wholesale.”

    The images on early Gallic coins derive from Macedonian coins of Philip II. They tend to get more and more abstract with time as the original meaning of the image fades and the later ones are often an abstract jumble of lines and curves.

  • Gao

    I read a rather interesting interpretation of this phenomenon from S. E. Hijman’s dissertation on the Roman deity Sol.  Basically, his viewpoint is that we need to stop thinking of Sol as a god of the sun; rather, he was the sun, which was a god.  What this means is that such depictions of Sol and Helios aren’t inherently representations of a deity anymore than a realistic depiction of the sun would be.  It was simply a stylized way of depicting the sun, kind of like how we depict a heart with a shape that has little to do with the organ beating in your chest.  If he’s right, then synagogues that depicted “sun dieties” may have simply been drawing the sun in a way that was standard in their surrounding culture.

  • Ursula L

    If the people building the original synagogue with this design cared enough to hire professional Greek artists to do decorations, I find it odd  that such a large space with potential for decoration would be left to the whims of the artist.  If they genuinely didn’t care, than a simple tile floor would be cheaper than putting down a mosaic, and just as functional.  

    I also find it odd that professional artists, being commissioned to decorate a building, wouldn’t ask about what was appropriate for that large of a space.  They knew their patron would see the design, when done, and that payment and potential future jobs would be at risk if their patron was unhappy.  

    I can understand latter, less expensively decorated synagogues choosing to imitate the decoration of larger and more elaborate synagogues.  

    It’s the indifference of the patrons having the first synagogue  with this design that I don’t understand, and I also don’t understand the indifference of  the artist to what their patrons would approve of.  

  • Not Fenimore

    “The images on early Gallic coins derive from Macedonian coins of Philip II. They tend to get more and more abstract with time as the original meaning of the image fades and the later ones are often an abstract jumble of lines and curves.”

    Oh, right! And they based it off horse images that were on, like, one single issue too, so they’re copying specific coins, not even Macedonian coinage in general. And Sri Lankan coins that copied late Roman coins for centuries, long after half the empire collapsed and the Arabs conquered all the lands in between…
    Premodern numismatics is fun, I guess is the message.

  • flat

    When you are creating art, always remember that you are standing on the shoulders of titans.

  • ReverendRef

     I find it odd  that such a large space with potential for decoration would be left to the whims of the artist.

    Yeah . . . me, too.  I can’t imagine hiring artists for the church and saying, “Just do whatever you think best.”

    I’m going to want Stations of the Cross that look like THIS here, here, here and here.  We’re going to decide ahead of time if we want a crucifix or a Christus Rex.  And the windows . . . well, we might compromise and say, “We want windows depicting the twelve apostles,” but leave it up to the artist to find something that looks appropriate.

    Heavens, at one of my parishes in Montana we refurbished the interior and all we really did was paint the walls, refinish the floors and lay new carpet.  But even with that there were many discussions about color and style.

    I guess I’ve seen one-too-many of those home decoration shows my wife likes to watch to leave any artist/interior decorator alone to their own whims.

  • Victor

    Slow down Fred cause this copy and paste is not as easy as “IT” seems besides this comment was to go into your last comment! :(

    It’s baffling Fred how some people think they know everything but personally speaking, they are only smart people saying smart things and whether or not their so called theories are correct when it comes to certain thoughts like giving certain people meds to cure their, “whatever” http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/about-homeopathy/what-is-homeopathy/ .

     Anyway, as far as “I’M” concern, normal human being should not believe such things unless they truly believe that there is still some kind of sermon to be preached out there for this kind of stuff. Long story short, that’s about as far as any humans can and should go cause GOD (Good Old Dad) is the only GOD around and contrary to some past aliens gods who started WW1 and WW2, GOD is not a square head and………

    Victor! Victor! Victor! Please have a little respect for these alien gods, “I” mean God’s http://www.220.ro/funny/Caterica-Star-Wars/ld5OFUfW1F/  cause we your 92% daily spiritual reality godly cells can only protect your 7% Jesus and your “ONE” per cent soul cells who have been leaving millions behind daily  for so long and if you don’t believe me just ask your old science teacher who still finds modesty in these gods,  “I” mean GOD’s Eyes. Sol…..
    Whatever sinner vic! I don’t need any of your so called heavenly bodies cause I’ve got my magic crystal on my side   http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=18142394&postID=5897846095465732802 NOW!

    I hear ya folks! There’s nothing wrong with ya Victor! “IT’s”  the rest of the world!

    REALLY? :)

    Peace

  • ANONYMOUS

    When you are creating art, always remember that you are standing on the shoulders of titans.

    ITS SPELLED “TITIAN” YOU MORAN! AND THEIR ARE LOTS OF OTHER GREAT ARTISTS, TO!

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    Slight correction: the building that houses the beautiful mosaic in Tzippori was not a synagogue but a private villa – the mosaics decorate what is believed to be the central receiving/family room.  The intricacy and beauty of the mosaic is taken as evidence of Tzippori’s wealth and influence at the time the villa was built – for a certain period it was the central city of Northern Israel.

    Which could very well mean that mosaic artists elsewhere, including those decorating synagogues, were influenced by this mosaic or others like it, but in this case, not because they were in a synagogue.

  • AnonymousSam

    WELL OKAY THEN THANKS FOR CONTRIBUTING. :|

  • Helena

    In the case of the Gallo-Germanic coins, what the barbarians got as trade goods from the Macedonian were the actual dies used to strike coins. The increasing abstraction results from the dies being re-carved when they became blunted through use.

  • Helena

    This ‘theory’ Fred heard is clearly apologetic, meant to excuse Jews for the charge of idolatry  But just look at how important astrology is in the Talmud and the proto-kabbalistic works of that era. there is no question but  that astrology was and still is an important part of Talmudic Judaism

  • P J Evans

     Thanks for confusing this with the post on astrology.

  • Nancie Mills Pipgras

    Fascinating theory.  Interesting discussion.  I’m sharing with fans & friends of MosaicArtNow.    Several of us are already chewing on all of this with great relish (the sweet pickle kind, no dill, thank you)

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I can’t imagine hiring artists for the church and saying, “Just do whatever you think best.

    People used to do this, though. People still do in other cultures, to a larger extent than we do in North America, anyway. Let the professional you hired for the job do the work, that is. Assembly line mentality changed that, which is very sad.

  • Kaleberg

    I grew up in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, so I was used to prayers having a certain rhythm and sound. When I attended a funeral mass at a Russian Orthodox church, I was surprised to realize that this service had the same rhythm and sound. Obviously, in Slavic culture, a religious service was supposed to have a certain rhythm and sound, and it didn’t matter what the liturgy was. How else would people know they were praying if it didn’t sound like praying?

    I’ll bet that every religious space of that era had a similar calendric representation on its floor. That’s how you could tell it was a place of worship. There was no religious bar to having personified representations of the sun or seasons, so why not follow the convention. If you look at the religion, you’ll see that the Jews borrowed a lot from the ancient Greeks. For example, a Passover seder is just an old fashioned Greek symposium what with all the wine, reclining in one’s seat, formally introduced topics of discussion and the like.

    Most religions are more syncretic than they like to believe.

  • Omorka

    I’ll admit, the Greek borrowing of Helios makes me a little sad.  In at least one case (Ugarit), the Levantine Semitic cultures figured the solar deity (Shapash/Shapshu) as female.

  • Joshua

    To be fair, she is making a coherent argument about Fred’s theory. I have no idea whether it is right or not, but it is relevant to the post and isn’t mindless bitter ranting.

    So, er, congratulations Helena.

  • Joshua

    In Māori mythology, the sun travelled through the sky too rapidly, until the myth hero Maui beat the hell out of it with his grandmother’s jawbone (or “special axe” in some children’s versions). By the time he was finished, 24hrs was the fastest it could do.

    That would make quite a mosaic.

    http://www.maori.info/maori_history.htm - the picture is not strictly in the traditional style.

  • Diona the Lurker

    In Indo-European mythologies, the sun was almost universally seen as female, and the moon as male. In Greek and Roman mythology though, early influence from Middle Eastern cultures saw a change to the moon being female, and the sun male. The influence of Graeco-Roman culture on Western thought meant that the old ideas about the sun and moon were largely overwritten, although not completely forgotten (the Man in the Moon is a survival of the belief of the moon being male).

  • Isabel C.

    I like that one!

    The one I remember is from Snopes:

    A young woman is cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner. When her family comes over, the turkey’s defrosting, and she’s put the dish rack over it. Her mom asks why she did that.

    “Well, Mom,  I figured it was important. After all, *you* always did it that way.””But honey, *we* had cats!”

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I don’t see a problem with figuring the sun as male. The earth was very nearly always figured as female (I can’t think of one time it wasn’t, actually), and the Earth Goddess was the one who got worshiped by far the most. The big warriors with their treasure and flash liked to build stuff in honor of the sun and manly manliness of manhood, but they were a strict minority. The little hearth goddesses and gods and the big Earth Goddess were the ones who really mattered to the vast majority of people.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Egypt. Geb and Nut. Nut’s the female sky, Geb the male earth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=687121933 Carrie Looney

    I’m now thinking of Dan Ackroyd as the skeevy art dude on the old SNL, talking about  how dis piece here was made by a guy named T-I-T-I-A-N, titty-an, honest ta gawd.  And what does Sebastian Moran have to do with this?

    On Fred’s original post, how much is Doing It How It Always Was Done, and how much was Doing What The Cool Kids Are Doing?  The latter is also a powerful drive in human history..

  • Anton_Mates

     Probably true.  Christian artists have no problem drawing little cupids and such in the context of love; doesn’t mean they’re actually advocating the worship of Eros.

  • The_L1985

     I thought of that as well.  Or the way that angels and demons represent Greco-Roman beings; the similarity between Pan and Satan (who isn’t actually described anywhere in the Bible) stands out as another example.

  • The_L1985

     True.  But while that would explain the zodiac wheel, and even the humanized representation of either the four Winds or the four Seasons (could go either way,  and I’ve seen both)–it doesn’t explain the “sun god” image in the center.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    I remember I first encountered the idea of female Sun, male Moon when reading Tolkien, and thinking it was a nifty inversion of the norm, at the time.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Tolkien was well versed in the Germanic myths, where that was the norm (as in Indo-European mythology in general); given how much those myths influenced his work, it’s not suprising the female sun / male moon thing appeared as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Oh, sure, I know that now, of course.  But back then, I was in 7th grade, and my second year of Latin, so….


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