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Yale Library

Ancient Jewish Archaeology: Figural Art


Figural Art

Jews, like other early religious communities, were wary of art being used for idolatrous purposes. However, interpretations of the Second Commandment (Ex. 20:4-6: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them [...]") changed through the centuries. First-century rabbis in Judea were violently aniconic and objected the depiction of human figures and the placement of statues in temples. 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. Byzantine synagogues also frequently featured elaborate mosaic floor tiles. The remains of a sixth-century synagogue were uncovered at Sepphoris, an important center of Jewish culture between the third and seventh centuries, where a mosaic reflects an interesting fusion of Jewish and pagan beliefs. The floor of the Bet Alpha synagogue, built during the reign of Justinian I, also features elaborate nave mosaics. Throughout antiquity, as interpretations of the Second Commandment liberalized, any perceived ban on figurative depiction may not have been taken very seriously.

Zodiac in a 6th-century synagogue at Bet Alpha.