The Mosaic Table Project

First Session

Summary of our January Session

At our first meeting in January:
•        We learned about three remarkable synagogues with art that     produced great beauty and rich teachings. These examples serve as research for our project.

•        We made images for our mosaic samplers of an event/custom of the Jewish yearly cycle.

Dura Europos
Location: Ancient Syria / present Syria

Our first example is an ancient synagogue in Dura Europos situated on the Euphrates River in Syria. Dura Europos, meaning Fort Europos, was a Roman town destroyed in 257 C.E. It was discovered by accident in the 1920’s when an English soldier dug a trench. The synagogue was subsequently excavated in 1932. The excavation revealed the synagogue was covered with wall paintings (frescoes) on all four interior walls with dozens of pictures depicting events and people from the Torah and Bible. The frescoes were removed and reinstalled at the Damascus Museum for preservation and public viewing where they can be seen today. It is interesting to note that Dura Europos is relatively close to Sura and Pumbedita (which is present day Fallujah), locations of Talmudic academies in the late 200’s CE.

We saw frescoes of Moses and Pharoah’s daughter, Moses leading us out of Egypt, and the Purim story. The paintings include visual details found in Midrash. The Torah niche was located at the west wall, facing Jerusalem in the southwest, and has the earliest known pictorial representation of the Akeida. The frescoes are spectacular in both color and composition and were painted over a period of time. This method and style of painting was found in pagan and Christian buildings in other excavation at Dura Europos and is typical of the time and region.

The size of the synagogue is similar to Neve Shalom. Its width is similar to the distance from the elevator to the middle of the library and its depth is similar to the distance from the Kallah arch to the gallery wall. Built-in benches lined the walls, a feature found in many ancient synagogues.

Wooden Synagogue at Gwozdziec (Gov-vosz-djets)
Location: Poland / present Ukraine

This wooden synagogue was typical of small town synagogues in Poland in the 1700’s. Its prayer space is covered on all walls and ceiling with paintings, giving the impression of a lush and vibrant tapestry. The synagogue ceiling was renovated in 1731 to form a cupola making the interior see like a tent.

The square prayer hall has an entry at the west, the bimah in the middle and the ark in the eastern wall (even though Jerusalem is south). The entry, bimah and ark all align, like in the ancient synagogue plans. The bimah is placed so that the torah, when read, is located in the center of the space. The remarkable wall paintings include prayers, inscriptions, decorative motifs, animals and vegetation both real and imagined, and the zodiac. This technique of wall painting was found elsewhere in the region in non-Jewish buildings.

One scholar believes the purpose of the renovation was to create a tent or canopy to welcome the Shabbos Bride. Lecha Dodi had spread through the Polish communities in the 1600’s and by the 1700’s, it was part of the liturgy. A lattice window was installed above the entry door to be seen by the congregation when turning to the door during the last verse of Lecha Dodi. The lattice window symbolized the passageway for prayers to go out to G*d and also for the Shekhinah to look in at the congregation. This lattice imagery is found in the Zohar, which by the 1600’s was one of the most authoritative books in Judaism. The scholar speculates that its tent imagery, Tabernacle images and 12 windows described in the Zohar, were an attempt to model the Gwozdziec synagogue on earth as the equivalent of the heavenly place above.

The Gwozdziec synagogue, situated then in eastern Poland (now the Ukraine) had the second highest roof next to the monastery. It was built at a time of great cooperation between the Polish, German, and Ukranian inhabitants of Gwozdziec, who were all under the supervision of the local Polish ruler who owned a lot of the land. We can assume our families who lived in Polish towns at this time prayed at a synagogue similar to Gwozdziec Synagogue.

The synagogue was destroyed in 1939.

The prayer space was 36’ x 36’ x 36’ high. It compares in size to Neve Shalom’s plan of its main space excluding the rest rooms.

Loop Synagogue
Chicago, Illinois

Abraham Rattner, a major American artist, was asked to collaborate on a stained glass window for a new synagogue in 1957. The window faces east on Clark Street, and it glows from the inside artificial lighting at night. During the day, the glass is lit from the sun and it glows inside. It is a 40’ wide x 30’ high window and is brilliantly colored.

Rattner selected Genesis 1:1-4 to depict; ‘In the beginning….G*d saw that the light was good, and G*d separated between the light and the darkness.’ Rattner took two years to research and design and then lived in Paris for a year while the stained glass was constructed, picking every piece of glass, determining its thickness and its shade.

The design is a dynamic abstraction that seems to generate from the ark (located in the window) and expand outward with Jewish themes and symbolic colors. It is a spectacular experience to see it from Clark Street and from inside the sanctuary as well.

We each made a drawing for a mosaic sampler illustrating an event/custom in the Jewish year.

The table mosaic is being designed with extensive identification of the holidays, customs, and dates of the Jewish yearly cycle. Each attendee received a written description of one particular holiday/custom/date to sketch using an approach to art we learned from our research:

      Dura Europos Synagogue: scenes of stories

      Gwozdziec Synagogue: creates a place

      Loop Synagogue: abstract design with symbols

Next month, each person will make the picture into a mosaic and experience the making of one’s own mosaic.

Session 2

Summary of Session 2: Synagogue Art in the Ancient Land of Israel

At our second session:
• We learned about remarkable ancient synagogue mosaics in Israel. These examples serve as research for our project along with the synagogue art presented in Session 1.

• We each made a mosaic sampler of either an event/custom of the Jewish yearly or of decorative elements found in ancient mosaics.

Synagogue as revolutionary: a little background
The synagogue was a revolutionary concept. The synagogue was the first structure of its kind built as a sanctuary for the entire congregation to worship. Although scholars speculate synagogues existed in 600 BCE, there is no consensus among scholars on its origin. Synagogue is Greek for ‘bring together;’ ‘syn’ means together and ‘agogue’ means bring.

Synagogues in Ancient Galilee and Judea
In the early 200’s CE, there was rapid evolution of synagogue architecture. The synagogue was typically built at the highest point and reflected the concept of Jerusalem as the symbolic center of religious life. In addition to prayers, the synagogue was used as an education center, religious tribunal, and lodging for travelers.

In the 300’s CE, all synagogues used mosaic pavements. Their design reflects the style of Roman art of the time, with the addition of special elements and themes to convey the Jewish conception of the universe.

Hammath near Tiberias
The synagogue at Hammath was probably constructed in the early 300’s CE. The figured mosaic is about the size of the gallery portion in Neve Shalom’s main space.

The mosaic incorporates the zodiac wheel, also found in non-Jewish buildings, into a bigger composition with three main sections leading to the ark niche. This composition describes Jewish themes and principles. The first section has donor names in Greek flanked by lions on each side of the text.

The second section is the zodiac wheel, with each of the twelve months represented by its associated figure or animal. The wheel is a circular shape inscribed in a square. The four corners each have one of the four seasons represented. The center shows the image of Helios probably riding a chariot. A wall of a subsequent building constructed on top destroyed the chariot and adjacent zodiac figures.

In Leviticus 26:1 we read, “You shall not make idols for yourselves…” It is interesting to note the targum adds in Aramaic, “However you may put in your sanctuaries a floor decorated with drawings and figures, but not to bow down before it.” The tolerance towards figurative art was evidently not a threat to Jewish beliefs because the images themselves were not worshipped. The zodiac’s reference to time is, of course, important to Jewish practice throughout the year.

The third section, closest to the ark niche, contains images of the Temple with carved wood doors, a curtain and a conch shell in the pediment above. There is a candelabrum on each side of the ark along with a lulav, etrog, incense shovel, and shofar. The style has a sense of depth with some elements shown with a perspective and shadow.

The sequence of the mosaic sections begins with the terrestrial world, on to the constellations, and ends with the image of the Ark and candelabra referring to the invisible G*d. One scholar concludes the zodiac is dominated by the Jewish concept of the universe.

Beit Alpha
The mosaics at Beit Alpha were built in the early 500’s CE and discovered in 1929 by farmers. It too has the three-part composition, yet its style is more frontal than the Roman-inspired art of Hammath. The mosaic is roughly the size of the Hammath mosaic. A built-in bench is located at the perimeter of the space.

The progression of pavement sections begins with the Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, preceded by inscriptions of the donors and builders flanked by lions. This is the earliest known Akeida in Israel. The image of the hand of G*d is used at the top of the Akeida scene symbolizing G*d’s presence.

In the second section the zodiac wheel depicts figures and animals associated with each month in a motionless, schematic style. Helios and a chariot of four horses are at the center of the zodiac wheel and the four seasons are portrayed in the corners, similar to Hammath in content, but not in style.

The third section contains the same Temple figures as the mosaic at Hammath; the Temple Shrine with a conch shell in the pediment, candelabrum at each side along with a lulav, etrog, fire pan, and shofar. In addition, there are two roaring lions guarding the threshold of the sacred Ark.

One scholar interprets the visual vocabulary as the summary of the covenant as G*d’s promise to Abraham leads to a messianic age in the future. Since the story of the Akeida takes place on the mountain where the Temple was built, a new Temple will be built there when the messiah comes. This mosaic represents the fulfillment of the covenant and its brilliant use of images conveys central Jewish beliefs.

Gaza, Maon, Ein Gedi, Jericho
The mosaics at Gaza, installed in the 500’s CE, have ‘inhabited scrolls’ of vines surrounding beautifully rendered creatures including a lion and her cub, birds, a zebra, and David taming the animals with his music.

The mosaic pavement at Maon has circles containing the candelabrum flanked by lions and animals in a more schematic style.

The mosaic at Ein Gedi has a simplified composition and the animals appear to be decorative.

The Jericho mosaic is deliberately austere showing the candelabrum, lulav, etrog, and shofar very simply in a small composition surrounded by decorative patterns.

In the 550’s CE, anti-Jewish legislation forced the decline of the communities. Subsequently, the themes of the mosaics were transferred to the art of illuminated manuscripts.

Summary of our broad survey of Jewish art in synagogues
Each of our examples used the artistic style and technique typical of its time to depict Jewish texts. Reoccurring images include: a zodiac, candelabrum (Temple menorah), lulav, etrog, shofar, the Akeida, the hand of G*d, figures, animals both real and imagined, a conch shell above the Temple Shrine, and vines and plants. A built-in bench at the perimeter of the space was an architectural feature as well.

Our examples include narrative art (Dura Europos), art that creates a place based on beliefs in the Zohar (Gwozdziec Synagogue), symbolic art (Loop Synagogue), and art that depicts the messianic vision (ancient synagogues).

MOSAIC SAMPLER: like a sewing bee
We each made a mosaic sampler illustrating either an event/custom in the Jewish year or a decorative motif. We selected colors and arranged tiles, much like artists did in ancient synagogues. We started to understand the possibilities and limits of the material. As we all sat around a big table working on our samplers, we were encouraged by the children who dived right into the project. We told stories, talked about family news, books, and movies as well as talking about the remarkable Jewish imagination reflected in the ancient mosaics.

SESSION 3: Mosaic Samplers from our Drawings

We each made a mosaic sampler.

Here are some examples of the drawings and the samplers:

The first one is for the 10th of Nissan. Miryam dies and the well dried up. The well accompanied us throughout the Wilderness journey, sustaining us when we became thirsty.

The second one is for Elul. The shofar is sounded throughout the month of Elul.

The third one is for Shabbat Naso, following Shavuot. The three-fold priestly blessing depicting the hands of the Kohen.

This program is made possible (in part) through a grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, through the generosity of the Gladys K. Crown Foundation honoring the memory of Shirlee Green and the Jewish Federation’s Rich Fund.