Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Finds by Yale Archaeologists Force New View of Jewish Art

May 23, 1935
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A new interpretation of the Second Commandment, which forbade the ancient Hebrews to have graven images, is necessary in view of recent archaeological discoveries made in Palestine and in Dura-Europos by Yale University and the French Academy, according to Dr. Paul Romanoff, curator of the Museum of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Contrary to the age-old accepted opinion, art was never banned among the Jews, Dr. Romanoff said in an address at Yale. The Second Commandment, he stated, was not intended as a ban against plastic and pictorial art, but was mainly directed against the material representation of Jehovah, and against the making of idols of worship.

Dr. Romanoff, who has held an Alexander Kohut Fellowship in the Yale Graduate School, reported that recent archaeological discoveries reveal that the Jews had a flourishing art by the third century of the present era. This art, he said, influenced later Christian art and now explains many obscure points in the history of church art.


“It has commonly been accepted that because of the prohibition in the Second Commandment, the Jews could not have developed a distinctive Jewish art, nor could they have contributed anything to the world’s treasure of art,” he said. “Whatever manifestations of art were found among the Jews, scholars immediately put down to the influence of Christian art. The excavations at Dura-Europos, and in Palestine establish the very reverse of this widely held opinion. These discoveries not only open a new chapter in the history of Jewish {SPAN}a##{/SPAN}, but also demand a revaluation in the approach to early Christian art.”

A glance at the ancient world when the Ten Commandments were produced is necessary in order to find what made it possible for the Jews to have an art, Dr. Romanoff said.

The people of that time including the Israelites, were fetish and idol worshippers he stated. The Second Commandment aimed at the abolition of idol worship. The law, planned to emphasize the monotheistic idea, was enforced more than half a millenium before the birth of Christ, when the pantheons of Egypt and Babylon, not excluding the detities of the Canaanites and other small nations, still contained these forms of statuary.


“As long as the outside world with which the Jews come in contact practiced a certain form of idolatry, this same form was forbidden to the Jews,” Dr. Romanoff continued. “With the discarding of the worship of certain gods and idols among nations, the restrictions on modeling similar forms by the Jews would be eased and the interpretation of the law among the Jews could be amended to this effect. Thus the Mishnah (completed in the Second Century) tells us that statutes which were not made for worship, might be used by Jews. Later it was permitted to sculpture all forms, except the human features. The Talmud tells us that all kinds of statuary existed in Jerusalem, except human faces because of the anthropomorphic pagan worship of Greece and Rome. All forms were permitted except that of a dragon (a common feature, however, in later Hebrew illuminated manuscripts): all signs of the zodiac were permitted except those of the sun and the moon, since they were still {SPAN}w##shipped{/SPAN}.

“Jewish art during the period of the First Temple was pagan. In the days of the Second Temple plastic art (excepting human forms (was used as an ornamental motif. Painting, however, had a better chance for development among Jews. The term ‘graven images’ was applied to statuary but not to representations on flat surfaces. Here no prohibition was imposed. Since paganism consisted mainly in worshiping idols made in plastic forms, painting would not have been considered a violation of the law. To these flat-surface ornamentations belong murals and mosaics, even with the representation of human figures, since they were not made for worship but as Biblical motifs and symbols. The places where such artistic work could be displayed were the synagogues, for the motifs, taken from the Bible, afforded a rich source of material for the artist.”

The murals and mosaics in synagogues which have been excavated in recent years indicate that the Jews employed ‘visual instruction’ more than 1,700 years ago, Dr. Romanoff said. The murals and mosaics served as illustrations in the classes on the Bible and Jewish folk-lore. After the iconoclastic revolt, this idea of visual instruction was promoted by the church as a means of educating the masses.

Recommended from JTA