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Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire
A Special Exhibition Review by Gail S. Myhre

In 1884, a French Army captain having a garden dug on his property in Tunisia made a startling discovery: the beautiful and well preserved mosaic floor of a synagogue which dated from the late Roman Empire.


There are two things to remember about Roman culture during the period from the reign of Augustus in the First Century A.D. to the period in which the synagogue mosaics found at Hamman Lif were laid in the Fifth Century A.D. that are pertinent to the understanding and appreciation of these works.

The first is that Rome was an extremely tolerant culture. Romans were flexible in their willingness to incorporate foreign peoples and ideas into the body politic, relaxed and even accepting in their attitude toward foreign religions.

In Rome itself, temples to the Hellenistic pagan deities lay cheek and jowl alongside temples to Isis and synagogues. Even members of the Patrician class were known occasionally to convert to Judaism and, later, Christianity – though it's true that this was often to their detriment. Still, Roman religious tolerance was and is justly famous.

Place made: Egypt
Marble Head of Serapis
Early Roman Period
10 3/8 x 7 3/8 in. (26.4 x 18.7 cm)
diam: 6 3/4 in. (17.2 cm)
Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

The second thing to remember is the old cliché: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It's particularly apt here. Though contemporary sources tell us that the oppression of Jews living in Roman-occupied Judaea was harsh indeed – they had after all revolted, and suffered a crushing defeat – we may nevertheless infer that the Jews of the Diaspora as a whole did not do too badly. During this period the Empire was rich and getting richer, and the members of the Jewish communities which were scattered all over the Empire benefited as much as any other provincial citizenry would. New synagogues were built despite the later Empire's official proscription, and decorated with inscriptions identifying their well-to-do patrons. Since the discovery of the synagogue at Hamman Lif, which was called at the time of its building by its Roman name Aquae Persianae, or by its Punic name Naro, over three hundred such sites have been found around the Mediterranean.

As for the Jews themselves, they were by this time capable of becoming Roman citizens, and they assimilated well into the local cultures which surrounded their Diaspora communities, doing business in and with them, maintaining civic identities that were commensurate with this high level of assimilation.

We see this demonstrated in the most immediate fashion by the mosaics before us in this exhibition. Roman Jews were indeed Roman, with Roman sensibilities and virtues as well as Jewish ones. This applies to their aesthetic sense as well as to their civic and religious ideas. Mosaics are a Roman art form, not particularly a Jewish one; yet on this synagogue floor, in beautiful synthesis, we see the blending of the two cultures. Moreover, this blending is typical of the entire Roman Mediterranean at the time.

The Mediterranean basin was not a clash of cultures so much as it was a caldron of common cultural symbolism. The symbols seen in the mosaic floor of this synagogue repeat themselves over and over from one culture to the next, and from one art form to the next, with similar or even identical meanings. The fountain indicates renewal; the bread, consecration. These were symbols that any viewer of the period could recognize and understand.

Unknown Roman artist
Place found: Tunis, Tunisia
Mosaic of Round Basket with Bread
3rd Century-5th Century A.D.
27 9/16 x 23 1/4 in. (70 x 59 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire has been curated by Dr. Edward Bleiberg, Associate Curator of the Brooklyn Museum's Department of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, with the idea of cultural continuity in mind. He makes a specific and directed effort not merely to show these beautiful mosaic fragments, but to illustrate the cultural and artistic context in which they would have been found. While exhibiting the mosaics as a cohesive group, Dr. Bleiberg has purposely looked elsewhere among his museum's extensive collections for supporting materials that will provide this context.

One enters the exhibition space through a smaller anteroom, in which are shown a few pieces intending to orient the viewer as to time and place. These include a Punic stela to one side, and directly facing the viewer, an arrangement of five Roman coins, dating respectively to the reigns of Augustus, Nero, Hadrian, Constantine and Justinian (30 BC-565 AD). On the wall behind these are enlarged photos so that the coins may be studied in greater detail.

Proceeding through an archway into the main exhibition hall, one comes immediately upon a few of the museum's lovely examples of Roman figural art. Before you are three torsos, Roman copies of earlier Greek sculptures. To the right stands a case containing various sacred objects intended to illustrate the diverse religious threads that weave through the region and the period. Behind these are some of the museum's Coptic textiles, woven and embroidered woolen garment borders exhibited here for their representation of the recurring symbols and designs that we will encounter later in the synagogue mosaics. As we proceed through the hall, we are being presented quite deliberately with a series of contextual clues that will permit us to understand the significance of the synagogue art as it relates to the common experience of the synagogue members themselves in the wider community.

Place purchased: Egypt
Incense Burner
ca. 5th Century A.D.
Coptic Period
11 1/4 x 5 1/2 in. (28.5 x 14 cm)
Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

To the left is a case of objects containing several lovely pieces of contemporary jewelry, and behind this, shielded with a vinyl flap to protect the light sensitive piece, a Coptic textile depicting a coiffed and bejeweled woman of the period. Again, these are provided as context, in this case illustrating a surprising and yet not uncommon fact – the patroness of this synagogue was a woman. Indeed, Jewish women of the period had a far more active participation in religious life than had previously been supposed before this and other synagogue excavation. They behaved as Roman women with regard to their civic identities, more so than our concept of what we would call “normative” Judaism would suggest. It is clear from the mosaic dedication panel, however, that a woman dedicated these mosaics, and in fact the inscription asserts that she has done so with her own money, for her own purpose.

Unknown Coptic Artist
Place made: Egypt
Textile of Haloed Head
6th Century A.D.

Coptic Period
Wool, linen
9 7/16 x 9 7/16 in. (24 x 24 cm)
Gift of Pratt Institute
© Brooklyn Museum

This brings us to the mosaics. All the pieces currently housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art are those kept by the French Army captain in whose garden they were found, Ernest de Prudhomme. Upon his discovery of the mosaic, Captain Prudhomme had a watercolor painted of the complete floor before it was taken up in blocks. The museum has blown this up to actual size, and has laid the actual mosaic fragments upon this black and white reproduction of the watercolor, thus achieving the dual purpose of giving us a more complete idea of what the pieces would have looked like in place, and of showcasing the beautifully colored mosaics in a most complimentary fashion.

And so as we come to the rear of the hall, we see the floor fully sized, almost as it would have looked to its original users. The low wall separating foot traffic from the floor is open in places, and replaced with horizontal bars; these show the viewer where the doors to the room would have been in the actual plan of the synagogue. And so even the physical display of the mosaic fragments works within the larger idea of presenting context.

The central panel of the floor, the inscription, is not present at this museum; it is one of four mosaics from this floor now at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia. However, the watercolor provides a good rendering of how it looked, and a translation is given in the caption:

Your servant, Julia Nap., at her own expense, paved the holy synagogue of Naro with mosaic for her salvation.

Two menorahs flank the inscription, one of which includes a lulav and ethrog - the green palm frond and citron fruit - which together act as symbols of the four trees used in the mitzvah of waving the four species at the Sukkot festival as a memorial to the destroyed second temple, and expressing a hope for its restoration.

Above this inscription, the floor depicts an allegory of the Creation. The three types of animals mentioned in Genesis are present: a bull for land, fish and dolphin for sea, and waterfowl for air. The dolphin and fish mosaics present are naturalistically colored and quite vivid, and in their style you can see the first hints of the Byzantine civilization to come. However, there are also two unusual designs, not at all naturalistic: a wheel, possibly a reference to Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a chariot, and who will return to announce the coming of the Jewish messiah. And from the upper corner, one of the missing portions depicts the stylized Hands of God as creator. These and other designs in the floor, including the fish and bull mentioned above, which allude to the battle between Leviathan and Behemoth at the end of time, appear to follow a messianic theme, an idea most uncommon in modern Judaism but apparently in current use, or at least being discussed, at the time.

Unknown Roman Artist
Place found: Tunis, Tunisia
Mosaic of Fish's Head Facing Left
3rd Century-5th Century A.D.

28 1/16 x 31 15/16 in. (71.2 x 81.2 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

Below the inscription, mirroring the Creation and continuing the unusual theme of messianic salvation as desired by its patroness, the floor depicts Paradise. This is represented by the central fountain, which as mentioned above was a symbol of renewal, by the peacocks or phoenix which fly above, and by the two flanking palms, whose lovely symmetry also suggests the two famous trees of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – which was traditionally depicted as a date palm.

Unknown Roman Artist
Place found: Tunis, Tunisia
Mosaic of Date Palm Tree
Right end of lower center, pavement of main sanctuary,
Synagogue of Hammam Lif.
Upright oblong panel, date palm.
3rd Century-5th Century A.D.

Terracotta, glazed
31 x 70 9/16 in. (78.8 x 179.3 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

To either side of this central area are two “carpet” panels containing what scholars who study mosaics call inhabited scroll motifs. Vines form a scroll which surround iconic images of symbolic animals and objects. We find a lion, a traditional Jewish symbol which is also found in early Christian churches of the same period. There are water birds, symbols of fertility. We also see two baskets in the left carpet, which constitute biblical symbols not generally found in comparable Roman mosaics. One holds bread, signifying consecration; the other, fruit, symbolizing the Sukkot pilgrimage to the temple. Of course, by the time this mosaic was laid the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed, so the reference to it here seems again to be an allusion to the end of time and the coming of the messiah, when the temple will be recreated.

Unknown Roman Artist
Place found: Tunis, Tunisia
Mosaic of Lion
3rd Century-5th Century A.D.

28 7/16 x 6 13/16 in. (72.2 x 17.3 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
© Brooklyn Museum

The last mosaics in this exhibition are appropriately shown in a small chamber to themselves at the rear of the hall behind the main floor display. These date from the First to Second Century A.D., nearly 400 years earlier than the other mosaics. They are very typically Classical in design and subject, far more naturalistic than the later pieces. There has been some question as to whether they were included in the synagogue at all or were perhaps from another chamber within the building, or even another nearby structure. There are two human figures here, which are found nowhere else in the synagogue mosaics. One appears to depict a Good Shepherd figure. The other, a personification of the goddess Roma, may perhaps have been included in the synagogue much in the way a modern synagogue would display the American flag - simply as an expression of patriotism unconnected with religious function. The rest of these mosaics, including a gazelle, an oryx, a lion and a partridge, were common North African images. These may simply have been decorative pieces in another room of the synagogue outside the sanctuary. There are Roman floors in Egypt showing human figures in central medallions with similarly depicted animals arranged around them. But it is impossible to know exactly where they were found because Captain Prudhomme left no notes indicating this. We know only that they were part of his personal collection, and were included in its ultimate purchase by the Brooklyn Museum.

The last mosaic panel in the exhibition is shown only because of its inclusion in that original purchase. It depicts a hyena, and its shading, the size of the mosaic tiles and the technique in general tends to indicate that this mosaic dates from the Nineteenth Century Neoclassical period, rather than having been an original second-century Roman piece. The curator finally decided to include it in the exhibition with its questionable provenance noted in its caption, and allow the viewers to form their own opinion about the work.

The final contextual piece in this last room is a portion of an Islamic panel screen. It depicts birds among a vine motif, and is the final reminder of the way these symbols echo and echo again around the Mediterranean and down through time from culture to culture.

The layout of Tree of Paradise... is straightforward and suits the stated purpose of the exhibition well. Between the objects at the front providing context and the laid out floor at the rear is a free-standing wall with a map of the Mediterranean showing other Roman archaeological sites from Tunisia. Before this hangs a screen on which may be viewed a short movie about the exhibition. This movie is brief, and neither adds nor detracts from the rest of this very well placed and well captioned material.

About the captioning, it is indeed well done. Individual object captions carefully explain the provenance of the object, and also give a brief discussion of the purpose of its inclusion in the exhibit and how it relates to the central theme. The floor itself is also well captioned, and much of the symbolism discussed in this article can be found there, giving the viewer a richer understanding of the material. Context is indeed a watchword for this particular exhibition, and it has been amply and intelligently provided.

The accompanying catalog is more in the nature of a scholarly essay on the material, its discovery, and the synagogue and surrounding culture itself than a mere listing of objects. Those of us who are used to the large and glossy coffee table volumes cataloguing other showings will be surprised by its size. It is brief, treating as it does the single subject of the synagogue in question, but again it is rich with information and context, and for those of us who prefer to read a catalog rather than skim it, this one is a treat, something like having Dr. Bleiberg offer a seminar on the material.

In other words, the exhibit as a whole succeeds admirably, both on the merits of the material presented and on the accomplishment of its function as stated by its curator. It deserves a wider audience than it will no doubt attract as being thought of only as Judaica, or only as ancient Roman mosaics, for it speaks to the minority experience everywhere with the discussions raised of assimilation and the dissemination of cultural ideas through the universal themes of art.

Special thanks to Dr. Edward Bleiberg, Associate Curator, Department of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, and Adam Husted, Media Relations Manager, Brooklyn Museum.

Dr. Bleiberg graciously consented to an interview while lending his time and expertise during a personalized tour of the Tree of Life... exhibition. You may read a full transcript here for more information on the underlying symbolism, cultural context and curatorial intent of the exhibition.

The Brooklyn Museum is located at 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY; (718) 638-5000. Admission to this exhibit is free with Brooklyn Museum admission: Contribution, $8; students with valid I.D. and older adults, $4; free to members and children under 12 accompanied by an adult. Group tours or visits must be arranged in advance. Museum hours: Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; first Saturday of each month, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; all other Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Parking is available in the Museum's lot on Washington Avenue.


From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre has been studying Roman history and art for twelve years. Her eclectic range of interests includes the surrealism of Dalí and Magritte, the post-modernism of Warhol and Lichtenstein, and the Ukiyo-e prints of Hasui and Toshida, among others. Gail resides in New York City and has a young son.

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