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Prof. Lee Israel Levine

Project Description:

This project attempts to explain the dramatic and extensive appearance of Jewish art in Late Antiquity (third–seventh centuries CE), particularly in light of the triumph of Christianity which, on the one hand, threatened Jewish survival but, on the other, served to prod and stimulate the Jews to fashion creative religious and communal responses to the challenges posed by these new historical circumstances. The study will first present and analyze the six major sites in Palestine and the Diaspora where Jewish art is most fully represented, and will explain how the social matrix of each locale and period played a major role in what was depicted and how it was represented.

A second focus will be on art-historical issues. Jewish attitudes towards figural art changed dramatically during the course of antiquity, from a positive orientation in the Biblical period to a total prohibition in the late Second Temple era, and then back to widespread usage in Late Antiquity. Why these changes took place will be discussed fully. Attention will also be paid to similar issues within the early Church. The appearance of Biblical scenes and Jewish symbols in the Byzantine-Christian era should be viewed as an attempt to forge a new and more visually prominent identity in light of Christianity’s dominance.

A third focus addresses social and religious issues. Inter alia, the following topics will be treated: how does synagogue art relate to its liturgy? What was the attitude of the Talmudic sages to art in general and to figural art in particular? Did the local community determine what was depicted and how it was interpreted? How does one account for differences in the uses of art between various communities in Palestine and then between Palestine and the Diaspora.

It is hoped that the proposed study will contribute to an enhanced understanding of Jewish life under Christian rule of Late Antiquity, of varying Jewish attitudes toward art in different periods, of the role of art in understanding Jewish liturgy and beliefs, and of the importance of the artisan and wealthy patrons in creating and disseminating art forms and their concomitant meanings within a given community. Such a monograph, then, will be of use not only to students of Jewish history and art, but to those studying the cultural and religious dimensions of early Christianity and of Late Antiquity generally.