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Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire

DATES September 16, 2005 through July 16, 2006
RELATED LINKS Main Exhibition Page
  • Introduction
    This exhibition presents a mosaic floor from the first ancient synagogue to be discovered in the Mediterranean basin. The remains of the synagogue at Hammam Lif, Tunisia, were uncovered by the French army captain Ernest de Prudhomme in 1883, while preparing a garden for planting. Since his fortuitous discovery, archaeologists have identified nearly three hundred other synagogues, dating to between 300 and 600 c.e. (Common Era), in the Mediterranean region.

    The principal mosaics from Hammam Lif (called Naro in ancient times) were added to the synagogue’s sanctuary about 500 c.e., the gift of a woman named Julia Nap., as indicated by an inscription within the floor. The main subjects depicted are scenes related to the biblical Creation and to the idea of Paradise. Additional mosaic panels, also collected by Captain Prudhomme, came from other rooms in the synagogue or from nearby buildings. These other panels were made earlier, in the first or second century c.e., and feature animals, a male figure, and a female figure.

    The Brooklyn Museum acquired the Hammam Lif mosaics as a group in 1905. The hundredth anniversary of their arrival in Brooklyn offers an excellent opportunity to reevaluate the development of Jewish art in the late Roman world. These notable examples of ancient Jewish art are therefore presented within the context of other artworks in the Museum’s collection from the late Roman Empire. In presenting these materials, Tree of Paradise raises such intriguing issues as the role of female patronage in the ancient synagogue; the complex inter-relations among Roman, Christian, and Jewish symbolism in Late Antiquity; and the relationship between ancient and modern understanding of the synagogue as an institution.

    The accidental discovery of the Hammam Lif synagogue helped to broaden the historical account of Late Antiquity. It opened up a valuable source of knowledge that continues to enrich our understanding today.

    Edward Bleiberg
    Associate Curator
    Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art
  • Women in the Ancient Synagogue
    Julia Nap. commissioned the sanctuary floor at the Naro synagogue and paid for it from her own funds. Wealthy women participated fully in the life of the synagogue. They served on the synagogue board, acted as synagogue head, and, in one known case, founded a new synagogue.

    Rabbinic custom assigns women only three religious duties: lighting candles at the beginning of the Sabbath, burning a piece of dough prior to baking bread, and maintaining ritual purity. Archaeological and inscriptional evidence, however, shows that the synagogue provided a place where women could participate fully in religious life, often acting beyond Rabbinic prescriptions. More than one quarter of the known donors to ancient synagogues were women.

    Wealthy women of the era, presumably Julia Nap. among them, wore jewelry like the pieces from Egypt on display here.
  • Religious Diversity
    The late Roman Empire contained many groups and peoples practicing a wide variety of religions. Official repression of certain of these groups was sometimes carried out by the state. Pagan Romans had begun to persecute Christians in the first century c.e.; later, when Christianity became the official state religion, in the fourth century, Rome discouraged the observance of Judaism.

    Yet the reality of religious life in local areas, such as Naro, might have differed from official state policy, at times permitting the development of a degree of tolerance within the diverse Mediterranean world. The objects in the nearby display case represent aspects of paganism, Christianity, and Judaism during the era when the sanctuary of the Naro synagogue was being paved with mosaic. The objects suggest connections and interchanges between pagan, Christian, and Jewish symbolism in a relatively fluid cultural landscape. The intersections suggest closer connections and regular exchanges of ideas among different groups. Such evidence contrasts with the textual sources, which are much less tolerant of differing opinions and urge separation of Jews and Christians.
  • Roman Textile Designs
    A growing vine forming symmetrical spaces filled with symbolic animals was a common Roman design device. It is repeated on the Naro synagogue’s sanctuary floor and on these textiles. Birds and rabbits, common fertility symbols, were enclosed in the vine originally associated with the wine god Dionysus. In Christian and Jewish symbolism, the embracing vine stood for God’s divine plan, constraining and guiding natural forces.

    Though these textiles are often called “Coptic,” a word referring to the Christian minority in Egypt, where the textiles were found, they represent Late Roman clothing in all parts of the Empire. That clothing included tunics decorated with wool bands and medallions such as these. These examples attest to the widespread popularity of the symbols found on the Naro synagogue sanctuary floor.
  • The Peoples of Tunisia
    Ancient Tunisia included many ethnic groups. The indigenous Berbers were perhaps the people known in ancient times as the Afri. When the Romans named this province Africa, later the European name for the entire continent, they did so because it was the land of the Afri.

    The ancient Phoenicians, from the coast of present-day Lebanon, arrived in Tunisia by the ninth century b.c.e. and founded Carthage in 815 b.c.e., which grew to become the largest and most important city in the region. They spoke a Semitic language. By the third century b.c.e., their empire was in direct competition with the expanding empire of the Romans. After several wars, Rome finally conquered Carthage in 146 b.c.e.

    Jews traditionally trace their arrival in Tunisia to the period of Phoenician domination, but certainly had arrived by the first century b.c.e., in Roman times. Many Latin-speaking Italians also settled in Tunisia during Roman rule. North Africa’s participation in Roman culture is still evident in its many important Roman archaeological sites.

    During Late Antiquity, Roman North Africa was ruled successively by several different groups, and its mixture of peoples became even more complex. Between 429 and 439 c.e., the Vandals, a Christianized Germanic tribe, conquered Tunisia. In 533 c.e. Byzantine Christian Romans reconquered the area. Between 648 and 669 c.e., Arabs conquered Tunisia, bringing Islam with them.

    In modern times, the Turks took charge of the area in 1574. The capital city of Tunis was then under the rule of a hereditary governor, called the bey, who established practical independence from the Turkish sultan under the Tunisian Muradid dynasty (1628–1705) and the following Husainid dynasty (1705–1957). The French occupied Tunisia from 1881 until full independence in 1956. The present Republic of Tunisia abolished the monarchy in 1957.

    With its interplay of different ethnic groups over the centuries, Tunisian culture is woven from many historical strands.
  • The Ancient Synagogue
    A first-century c.e. inscription from Jerusalem summarizes the functions of ancient synagogues: a place to read the Torah, to give instruction in the commandments, and to provide hotel accommodations for guests from abroad. To these might be added its function as a place of prayer and for the celebration of holidays.

    Reading the Law (or Torah) in the synagogue is one of the firmest links with modern Jewish practice. By the first century c.e., officials read the Torah in a fixed cycle and also read from the prophets. Rules were set for translating from Hebrew into the daily spoken language of the congregation. In Naro, this language was Latin.

    It is impossible to know whether the mosaics on the sanctuary floor were used for instruction. Certainly, they illustrate contemporaneous concerns about the destruction of Jerusalem and hopes for the coming of the Messiah that are found in prayers of the same period.

    No evidence survives for Jewish prayers used in Roman North Africa in the period from about 200 to 700 c.e., when the Naro synagogue flourished. Evidence from Egypt suggests that prayers could have included the Shema and the Eighteen Blessings, still included in the service. The standard Orthodox prayer book used today derives from an eighth-century c.e. text written in Babylonia by Rabbi Amram.

    Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Sukkot were observed in the Diaspora synagogues by Late Antiquity. Passover was celebrated on 14 Nissan, its date in the Aramaic (Jewish) calendar. As late as 380 c.e., the church father John Chrysostom complained that Christians were trying to celebrate Easter on the same date of 14 Nissan. Numerous Roman laws that attempted to separate Christians and Jews suggest that many early Christians wanted to preserve a link to Judaism by attending synagogue.
  • The Naro Synagogue Sanctuary Floor
    The arrangement of the Brooklyn Museum mosaic panels within the Naro synagogue sanctuary is known from Corporal Peco’s watercolor of the entire floor, published in 1884. Overall, the mosaics were oriented so that the viewer faced east, toward Jerusalem. The floor was divided into four distinct sections of pictorial decoration and in addition featured the patron’s inscription.

    On the viewer’s left is a design of vines, forming areas filled with images of birds, two baskets, and a hare. In the upper center is a depiction of the Creation, featuring fish, ducks, and a wheel, while the lower center depicts Paradise, with a fountain, two palm trees, and birds. On the viewer’s right is a smaller area of vine pattern with areas for a lion and a bird.

    The inscription, at center, between two menorahs, states that Julia Nap. paid for the floor from her own funds “for her salvation.” The reference to a future salvation may suggest that Julia looked toward the Messianic Age and that the mosaic scenes she donated referred not only to the Genesis descriptions of the Creation and Paradise, but also to the re-creation of the world with the anticipated coming of the Messiah.

    The individual elements in the complex design can be associated with a widespread vocabulary of Roman, Christian, and Jewish fertility symbols. The floor also features specifically Jewish symbols, such as the menorahs and baskets. Though not every detail can be explained today, it seems clear that the floor design conveyed an array of symbolic meanings to its original audience.

    The floor expresses theological ideas and might have been used to illustrate lessons about the world to come taught in the synagogue. Contemporaneous church mosaics were used in just this manner.
  • Paradise
    As indicated in the watercolor of the sanctuary floor, the mosaic-maker imagined a symmetrical Paradise consisting of a central fountain, two peacocks facing it, and two palm trees, with quails, at the sides. Each of these elements may be interpreted as playing a part in the re-creation of the world in Paradise. The flowing fountain resembles a cup decorated with a scallop shell pattern, a motif also used to decorate Torah shrines, ossuaries, and lamps in the Jewish tradition: the shell sanctifies whatever it touches. In addition, peacocks were common Roman and Christian symbols of rebirth. And quails, understood by the Greeks as a symbol of the passions, perhaps here refer back to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the biblical Paradise.
  • Mosaic "Carpets"
    The left and right sections of the floor mosaic resemble the patterns found in carpets of later periods and in contemporaneous textiles. The sections each consist of a vine growing from the bottom of the image and creating spaces that are filled with animals and, in the case of the larger carpet, two baskets.

    The Greeks and Romans associated the vine with the god Dionysus. Jews and Christians adopted the vine as a motif but gave it a larger significance; here, the all-encompassing vine wraps itself around the other elements in the mosaic to represent the divine plan that controls and gives structure to the world. The birds and hare enclosed in the pattern are common fertility symbols, pointing to ideas of creation and re-creation in the Messianic Age, while the lion is, as so often, a symbol of divine power.

    Other elements in the carpets relate to the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed centuries before. The basket of bread refers specifically to the ceremony of consecrating priests in the Temple. And the fruit basket may refer to the dedication of first fruits to God at the Temple. These elements, too, are contained by the vine.
  • Captain Prudhomme's Mosaic Collection
    Captain Ernest de Prudhomme’s mosaic collection included nine panels that did not appear in the watercolor he commissioned of the newly discovered sanctuary floor, published in 1884.

    Two of these panels, depicting a fish and a rooster, are close in style to the sanctuary mosaics. Scholars have assigned these two to the synagogue’s entrance hall, or atrium.

    The remaining seven panels were made at least two or three hundred years earlier than the sanctuary floor and might come from another room in the synagogue or a nearby building. Two of these remaining panels depict the human figure. Images of the figure have been found in situ in other ancient synagogues, and the figural subject does not on its own exclude these panels from consideration as belonging to the synagogue decorations. However, only the connection to Prudhomme argues that these mosaics did indeed come from the Naro synagogue he discovered.
  • Creation
    Three mosaic panels remain of the original Creation vignette, including a large fish (perhaps a tuna), a dolphin, and a duck. Corporal Peco’s watercolor shows that the three biblical categories of animals—creatures of the sea, air, and land—were represented in the mosaic. The allegorical meaning of the scene, suggesting the recreation of the world in the Messianic Age, is implied through the vines protruding from the mouths of the fish and the dolphin, which suggest that the creatures are being caught. That is, the fish could be associated with Leviathan, a biblical sea monster reconceived by Rabbinic tradition as a kosher fish that would be served to the faithful in the Messianic Age. In addition, classical tradition associates dolphins with the idea of divine help. Finally, ducks are associated with birth and rebirth in many Mediterranean cultures.
  • Making Mosaics
    Mosaics provided durable and colorful decoration for floors, walls, and ceilings in ancient buildings. They were made from colored stones cut into small cubes, called tesserae (pronounced TES-ser-ree), that were set into mortar.

    The mosaics on view here once covered floors. Typically, workers put down three preparatory layers before making the mosaic itself. An initial layer of fine rubble (statumen) was covered by a second layer made of compacted mortar (rudus). The third and final preparatory layer contained crushed terracotta (nucleus). A setting bed of fine mortar, applied to one small section at time, received the tesserae. Archaeological evidence suggests that craftsmen prepared the tesserae on the spot at construction sites. Itinerant mosaic-makers offered clients their choice of motifs from pattern books. Figures of humans and animals, such as those seen in these mosaics, were the most expensive choices, while geometric patterns were cheaper.

    Mosaic-makers drew guidelines for laying the tesserae in the mortar based on the pattern, setting the tesserae with the aid of a straight wooden rule and a plumb bob to keep the floor level. Finally, they rubbed the set tesserae smooth to avoid protruding irregularities that might lead to damage.
  • July 8, 2005 Twenty-one extraordinary Roman-period mosaics from the first archaeological ruins of an ancient synagogue to be discovered in modern times will be on view October 28, 2005 through June 4, 2006, at the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition will examine the role of these mosaics, acquired by the Museum in 1905, in the development of synagogue decoration in the late Roman Empire. Approximately thirty-eight related artifacts, such as contemporaneous textiles, marble statues, gold jewelry, and bronze ritual objects, will be included.

    Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire will investigate the origins of synagogues, thedevelopment of Jewish art in the Roman period, female patronage in the ancient synagogue, the differences between early Christian and Jewish symbolism in art, and the relationship between ancient and modernsynagogues.

    Twelve of the mosaic panels that will be on display were part of the sanctuary floor of the synagogue inHammam Lif, Tunisia (the ancient Punic city of Naro, later the Roman Aquae Persianae), the primary subjects of which are Creation and Paradise. The Latin inscription on the floor panels indicates that Julia of Naro gave the floor to the community. Two menorahs flank the inscription. Included are depictions of a tree in Paradise, sea animals and birds in a scene portraying Creation, and symbolic birds and baskets that relate to the themes of Creation and the coming of the Messiah. Decorative motifs include birds and fruits. The remaining nine panels come from other rooms in the building and other nearby buildings. They depict animals, a male figure, and a female figure.

    The discovery of these mosaics, last on view in Brooklyn in 1998, ushered in the birth of synagogue archaeology on February 17, 1883, when the French army captain Ernest de Prudhomme ordered soldiers under his command in Hammam Lif, Tunisia, to prepare his backyard for a garden. Instead of planting vegetables, Prudhomme and his men unearthed the first archaeological ruins of a Roman-period synagogue. Eventually, synagogue archaeology would revolutionize modern understanding of ancient Jewish life and religion.

    Modern scholars have recognized that the gloomy picture of Jewish life in the later Roman Empire portrayed in texts must be viewed alongside a decidedly different picture formed from archaeological evidence.Archaeological remains of ancient synagogues from Turkey to Spain and from Hungary to Tunisia showthat many Jewish communities prospered in spite of official intolerance. Other discoveries of ancientsynagogues in modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Italy reveal the vitality ofJewish life around the Mediterranean Sea during the Roman Empire and an unexpected tolerance fromtheir non-Jewish neighbors.

    Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire
    has been organized by Edward Bleiberg, Ph.D., Associate Curator in the Brooklyn Museum’s Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art. It is accompanied by a full-color catalogue by Dr. Bleiberg, published by the Brooklyn Museum. As an appendix, the volume includes a previously unpublished 1905 study of the mosaics by the early Brooklyn Museum researcher Henri de Morgan.

    A variety of educational programs will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition, including gallery talks. The exhibition will also be featured on the Museum’s Web site at
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