Menorahs and Ark of the Covenant, Jewish Catacomb in the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 3rd century C.E., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Menorahs and Ark of the Covenant, Jewish Catacomb in the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 3rd century C.E., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Jewish Art in the Catacombs

 In the Late Antique period, when the Roman emperors were still in power and the official religion included the cult of the emperor and the pantheon of Roman gods, several religions were practiced in secret, among which were Judaism and Christianity.  The earliest examples of Jewish art are in the catacombs, or the ancient burial grounds beneath the city of Rome.

Typically for these earliest wall paintings, here we see symbols and ritual objects rather than figures and narratives.  Two menorahs flank the Ark of the Covenant.  (The menorah possibly originates from the Tree of Life from ancient Near East.)  The Law tablets are inside the Ark.  The circumcision knife and motzot are there, as are the shofar (rams horn used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services), etrog (a yellow citrus fruit used during Sukkot), lulav (a relative of a palm used in prayer), and cruse of oil.

There also are many decorative elements here that have an organic, plant-like quality that is typical in style of Roman wall painting from the period.

Happy Hanukkah!

 

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