Early Jewish Art

Early Jewish art forms included frescoes, illuminated manuscripts and elaborate floor mosaics.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the form, content, and context of key works of Early Jewish art
  • Define critical terms related to Early Jewish art
  • Discuss how the prohibition of graven images influenced the production of Jewish art

The Second Commandment and Its Interpretations

The Second Commandment, as noted in the Old Testament, warns all followers of the Hebrew god Yahweh, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” As most Rabbinical authorities interpreted this commandment as the prohibition of visual art, Jewish artists were relatively rare until they lived in assimilated European communities beginning in the late eighteenth century.

Although no single biblical passage contains a complete definition of idolatry, the subject is addressed in numerous passages, so that idolatry may be summarized as the worship of idols or images; the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols or images; the worship of trees, rocks, animals, astronomical bodies, or another human being; and the use of idols in the worship of God.

In Judaism, God chooses to reveal his identity, not as an idol or image, but by his words, by his actions in history, and by his working in and through humankind. By the time the Talmud was written, the acceptance or rejection of idolatry was a litmus test for Jewish identity. An entire tractate, the Avodah Zarah (strange worship) details practical guidelines for interacting with surrounding peoples so as to avoid practicing or even indirectly supporting such worship. Attitudes towards the interpretation of the Second Commandment changed through the centuries. Jewish sacred art is recorded in the Tanakh and extends throughout Jewish Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Tabernacle and the two Temples in Jerusalem form the first known examples of Jewish art.

While first-century rabbis in Judea objected violently to the depiction of human figures and the placement of statues in temples, third-century Babylonian Jews had different views. While no figural art from first-century Roman Judea exists, the art on the Dura-Europos synagogue walls developed with no objection from the rabbis.

Illuminated Manuscripts and Mosaics

The Jewish tradition of illuminated manuscripts during Late Antiquity can be deduced from borrowings in Early Medieval Christian art. Middle Age Rabbinical and Kabbalistic literature also contain textual and graphic art, most famously the illuminated Haggadahs like the Sarajevo Haggadah, and manuscripts like the Nuremberg Mahzor. Some of these were illustrated by Jewish artists and some by Christians. Equally, some Jewish artists and craftsmen in various media worked on Christian commissions.

Byzantine synagogues also frequently featured elaborate mosaic floor tiles. The remains of a sixth-century synagogue were uncovered in Sepphoris, an important center of Jewish culture between the third and seventh centuries. The mosaic reflects an interesting fusion of Jewish and pagan beliefs. In the center of the floor, the zodiac wheel was depicted. The sun-god Helios sits in the middle of his chariot, and each zodiac is matched with a Jewish month. Along the sides of the mosaic are strips that depict the binding of Isaac and other Biblical scenes.



This is a photo of a mosaic on the floor at the Sepphoris synagogue. There is a large Zodiac with the names of the months written in Hebrew. Helios sits in the middle, in his sun chariot.
Mosaic floor at Sepphoris synagogue: This fifth-century mosaic is a depiction of the Zodiac Wheel.

The floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, built during the reign of Justinian I (518–527 CE), also features elaborate nave mosaics. Each of its three panels depicts a different scene: the Holy Ark, the zodiac and the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. Once again, Helios stands in the center of the zodiac. The four women in the corners of the mosaic represent the four seasons.



This is a panoramic photo of the nave mosaics in Beth Alva. It shows three panels. The left panel depicts the binding of Isaac. The center panel depicts a zodiak circle. The right panel depicts a synagogue scene.
Beth Alpha mosaic: The Byzantine synagogue at Beth Alpha features elaborate nave mosaics.

As interpretations of the Second Commandment liberalized, any perceived ban on figurative depiction was not taken very seriously by the Jews living in Byzantine Gaza. In 1966, the remains of a synagogue were found in the region’s ancient harbour area. Its mosaic floor depicts a syncretic image of King David as Orpheus, identified by his name in Hebrew letters. Near him are lion cubs, a giraffe and a snake listening to him playing the lyre.

A further portion of the floor was divided by medallions formed by vine leaves, each of which contains an animal: a lioness suckling her cub, a giraffe, peacocks, panthers, bears, a zebra, and so on. The floor was completed between  508 and 509 CE.



This is a photo of a Gaza synagogue mosaic. It shows a depiction of Orpheus, a Greek mythological figure who was commonly associated with David and used in Byzantine art.
Gaza synagogue mosaic: This mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Gaza is an unusual example of figurative depiction in early Jewish art.


Dura-Europos, a border city between the Romans and the Parthians, was the site of an early Jewish synagogue dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 CE. It is also the site of Christian churches and mithraea, this city’s location between empires made it an optimal spot for cultural and religious diversity. The synagogue is the best preserved of the many imperial Roman-era synagogues that have been uncovered by archaeologists. It contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, as well as a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem.

The synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical narrative cycle, are conserved at Damascus, together with the complete Roman horse armour. Because of the paintings adorning the walls, the synagogue was at first mistaken for a Greek temple. The synagogue was preserved, ironically, when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256 CE.



This is a photo of the remains of the Synagogue at Dura-Europos. It shows the ruins of the courtyard, western porch and prayer hall. The remains resemble a sand castle in color and shape.
Remains of the synagogue at Dura-Europos: This is the best-preserved ancient synagogue to be uncovered by archaeologists.

The preserved frescoes include scenes such as the Sacrifice of Isaac and other Genesis stories, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, scenes from the Book of Esther, and many others. The Hand of God motif is used to represent divine intervention or approval in several paintings. Scholars cannot agree on the subjects of some scenes, because of damage, or the lack of comparative examples; some think the paintings were used as an instructional display to educate and teach the history and laws of the religion.



This is a photo of a fresco depicting a scene from the Book of Esther. It depicts Mordecai dressed in colorful robes as he is led about town on a white horse by Haman and the king's men.
A fresco depicting a scene from the Book of Esther: From the synagogue at Dura-Europos, c. 244 CE.

Others think that this synagogue was painted in order to compete with the many other religions being practiced in Dura-Europos. The new (and considerably smaller) Christian church (Dura-Europos church) appears to have opened shortly before the surviving paintings were begun in the synagogue. The discovery of the synagogue helps to dispel narrow interpretations of Judaism’s historical prohibition of visual images.



  • Jews, like other early religious communities, were wary of art being used for idolatrous purposes. Over time, official interpretations of the Second Commandment began to disassociate religious art with graven images.
  • The zodiac, generally associated with paganism, was the subject of multiple early Jewish mosaics.
  • An ancient synagogue in Gaza provides a rare example of the use of graven images in mosaics, depicting King David as Orpheus.
  • Dura-Europos is the site of an early synagogue, dating from 244 CE.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/early-jewish-and-christian-art/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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