Interpreting an Ancient Mosaic

by Kathryn M. Duda

This fall, museum visitors can follow the path taken by Jewish worshipers in ancient Palestine to read a message revealed in a mosaic. Discovered in 1993 on the floor of a fifth-century synagogue in the city of Sepphoris, the mosaic and its interpretation shed new light on the beliefs of an ancient Jewish community in Galilee. Now traveling to museums worldwide, the mosaic will be exhibited in the Hall of Sculpture.This exhibition is a joint venture of Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the United Jewish Federation.

The synagogue mosaic, which measures 46 x 16 feet, is decorated with scenes depicting three subjects: the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac, a zodiac circle, and the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple. These themes are represented in several other ancient synagogue mosaics in a more abbreviated form, but their symbolism as a group has never been clear. The much more elaborate versions of the scenes in the Sepphoris mosaic have provided scholars with a chance to re-examine their content, leading to the realization that together the three themes may have conveyed a single message—one that was readily understood by the Jews of ancient Israel: God, the all-powerful ruler of creation, will remember his promise to Abraham and redeem his children in the future.

The message expresses the hope for future redemption, the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of goodness and plentitude to the land. This profound ideological statement is found also in the prayers and rabbinic literature of the time. The three themes of the mosaic are as follows:

Abraham and Isaac. While very little remains of this portion of the mosaic, it has been reconstructed on the basis of another mosaic from Ravenna, Italy. The figure partially shown is probably Sarah, standing at the entrance to her tent when she and Abraham were visited by angels. Also depicted in this portion of the mosaic is Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. These two scenes are thought to demonstrate God's promise to bless and protect Abraham's descendants, and both have connections with Christian art. The angel's visit is seen as a prefiguration of the Annunciation, in which an angel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce her role as the mother of Jesus. The Binding of Isaac was also a common theme in Christian art of the time, where it represents a precursor to Jesus' crucifixion.

Zodiac Circle. The zodiac is depicted in a number of ancient synagogues, but the Sepphoris example is particularly rich and detailed. In the center of the zodiac section is a chariot of the sun god, Helios, with an image of the sun—possibly a symbol for the power of God. Surrounding the chariot are the seasons, months and celestial bodies, representing the divine order implicit in nature and the universe. The zodiac signs feature youths bearing symbols, and are labeled in Hebrew. The four seasons are personified by women, with their names inscribed in Hebrew and Greek.

The Temple. At the time of the synagogue's construction in the early fifth century, the Temple in Jerusalem—the religious center of the Jewish people—had lain in ruins for over three centuries, replaced by community-based synagogues. In the mosaic, the Temple is suggested by vessels that were used in it—the basin, alter, menorahs, tongs, incense shovel and trumpets.

Three languages are represented in the mosaic, in inscriptions of three types. Hebrew descriptions accompany the zodiac signs and the seasons, the components of the daily offering and the figure of Aaron. Long dedicatory inscriptions appear in Greek, and shorter dedicatory inscriptions in Aramaic. Scholars believe the inscriptions are of two lengths because the Greek-speaking population was more affluent than the Aramaic, and therefore could afford to donate larger sums of money toward the elaborate mosaics.

Located among the chalk hills of Lower Galilee, Sepphoris has a rich history that goes back more than 2,000 years. Dubbed "The Ornament of All Galilee" after Herod Antipas rebuilt it early in the first century, it thrived until the end of the Byzantine period (mid 15th century). It was a peaceful city, ruled alternately by Jews, Christians and Roman pagans. Central to both Jewish and Christian religious histories, Sepphoris was a center for learning—a cosmopolitan city of some 30,000 multi-ethnic people. During the first century it served as the capital of Galilee, and it is mentioned in rabbinic literature more often than any ancient city except Jersualem.

Archaeological excavations in Sepphoris during the last quarter century have yielded much about this ancient metropolis and the people who lived there during the Roman period. A vast underground reservoir and water system were discovered in the late 1970s, followed by a variety of buildings both public and private—many with colorful mosaic floors—and a network of city streets. Ancient literary sources reveal that Sepphoris also contained many synagogues during the first several hundred years A.D. The first one, discovered in 1993, contained the magnificent mosaic that is being exhibited around the world. The findings reveal that the Sepphoreans were a culturally sophisticated people.

The city was known as "Diocaesarea" by the Romans, and as "Zippori" by the Jews. It became "Le Saphorie" during the Crusader period, until the Crusaders lost a battle to the first Ayyubid sultan, who named it "Saffuriyyeh." Israel overtook the city in 1948 and turned it into a cooperative farming community, and the name became "Zippori" once again. In 1992, it opened as Zippori National Park, where thousands of tourists from around the world come to see for themselves the wonders left by the ancient Sepphorians.
 

Related Programs

Lunch & Learn

The Shape of Holiness: Church & Synagogue in Ancient Times

Thurs., Oct. 15, 10:30am–2:00pm

Meet in the Museum of Art Theater

Join Museums of Art and Natural History docents for a fascinating look at the exhibition An Ancient Mosaic from Sepphoris. After lunch, enjoy a lecture on ancient church and synagogue architecture by University of Pittsburgh professor Franklin Toker. Fee includes lunch in the Museum Café. Call 622-3288 to register.

Roundtable Discussion

Sepphoris in Galilee: Where Judaism and Christianity Intersect

Sun., Oct. 18, 2:00–3:30pm, Museum of Art Theater

Professor Dvora Weisberg, University of Pittsburgh; Professor Sean Kealy, Duquesne University; Nancy Lapp, Bible Lands Museum at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A prominent and predominately Jewish city in the 1st through 7th centuries, Sepphoris saw the growth of its Christian population after the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the year 312. Subsequently, Sepphoris was for Judaism a center of Jewish scholarship and intellectual life and for Christianity a place vital to understanding the context of Jesus' ministry and the development of Christianity in the region. The speakers will address Jewish and Christian interaction in Galilee and the evidence that people of both religions lived in Sepphoris.

Lecture

Promise and Redemption: A Synagogue Mosaic from Sepphoris

Mon., Oct. 19, 7:00pm

Museum of Art Theater

Zeev Weiss, lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Sepphoris expedition.
 

Family Day

Imagining Ancient Israel

Sun., Oct. 25, 2:00–4:00pm, ongoing

Hall of Sculpture

Cutting-edge technology, fragments of an ancient mosaic floor, a treasure hunt, an art activity, and music will boost your power to imagine ancient Israel. The exhibition An Ancient Mosaic from Sepphoris will come to life in a live telecommunications hook-up. Ask experts in Israel what Sepphoris is really like. Teens will especially appreciate this opportunity for a live, international, video conversation. Don't miss this unique event for all ages!

Major funding for this exhibition has been provided by Sheila and Milt Fine, and the United Jewish Federation. Additional generous support has been provided by ASKO, Inc., Meyer and Merle Berger Family Foundation, The Allen H. and Selma W. Berkman Charitable Trust, B'nai Zion-Pittsburgh Region, The Alan D. and Marsha W. Bramowitz Charitable Trust, Buncher Family Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University, Equitable Resources, Inc., Giant Eagle Foundation, The Grable Foundation, Marcia and Stanley Gumberg, Marshall and Wallis Katz, Charles Litman, Mellon Bank, National City, Perlow-Kessler Family, PNC Private Bank, Donald and Sylvia Robinson Family Foundation, and Kitty and Harold Ruttenberg.

 

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