Mosaics in Israel
Israel: Ancient Mosaics.
by Michael Avi-Yonah, preface by Meyer Schapiro.
New York Graphic Society by arrangements with unesco. 18 pp. with illustrations. $18.00.
The grandiose mosaics which all the world knows—at Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome of the 5th century, at San Vitale at Ravenna of the 6th, at Torcello and Palermo of the 12th and 13th—were expensive decorations for the walls of monumental buildings. But from the Hellenistic period through the Byzantine and from the Euphrates to the Thames, mosaic was used to pave floors, and was relatively as common, and as varied in quality and taste, as rugs are today. The masterly Alexander battle-piece from Pompeii (2nd century B.C.E.), the sensational “Bikini girls” at Piazza Armerina in Sicily (3rd century C.E.), and the countless excellent examples from Antioch and its environs illustrate the abundance and the range. Over five hundred specimens are known in Israel alone.
It is to mosaics that the volume on Israel in the Unesco World Art Series is devoted. It is a princely volume. The colored plates, thirty-two in number, are judiciously chosen and reproduced with stunning fidelity. The introduction, by Professor Michael Avi-Yonah, the acknowledged master in the art of the ancient synagogue, is an expert treatment of the artists and their techniques, the special problems of synagogue mosaics, their stylistic elements and their aesthetic and historical importance, and the relationship between the art of the church and the synagogue. Professor Meyer Schapiro’s learned and perceptive preface considers the place of the mosaics in the general history of aesthetic taste and expression. Illuminating distinctions are drawn between provincial and metropolitan elements, the Greek and the native, true archaism and imperfect craftsmanship, the conceptual and the representational, the unique and the typical.
The specimens presented are drawn from synagogues, churches, and some secular structures built mainly in the 5th and 6th centuries in the area between Gaza and the Sea of Galilee. The subjects are geometrical designs, animals and vegetation, cult objects, and religious symbols. Like the wall paintings at Pompeii and Dura all derive from standard copybook repertories. The execution is generally mediocre. Far the most striking monument is the synagogue at Beth Alpha, which contains a good Zodiac with the Signs labelled in Hebrew, and an elaborate Sacrifice of Isaac. Here, reading from right to left, is the altar with tongues of flame; Isaac, bound and somewhat startled; Abraham, knife in hand, his attention arrested by the voice of God; the ram which is to substitute for Isaac caught in a thicket; the two servants left with the ass. The persons are labelled in Hebrew, the whole work signed in Greek by a father and son bearing Semitic names. The figures do not constitute a unified composition but are rather a series of disparate symbols. The drawing is naive and the coloring monotonously garish, but there is an engaging freshness about the whole. Here as in the other specimens, we have a telling index to sociological and religious as well as aesthetic levels.
There is a peculiar fitness in the sponsorship of this volume by an agency of the United Nations. The object of the United Nations is to reconcile competing claims of jealous sovereignties with the interests of humanity as a whole; the historical phenomenon which this book documents affords an example of practical symbiosis. Even when individual cultural manifestations seem to be insulated and independent, they are deviations which grow out of, and eventually return to enrich, the main cultural stream. The technique of mosaic was not a Jewish or local invention, but was adopted, as was the basilica type of building, even for the synagogue, which is the focus of Jewish life. The attractions of the medium even overcame a specific Biblical injunction against artistic representations of living creatures. But this did not mean rejection of Jewish values, for what the artist chose to represent was an eminently religious theme. The lesson, in turn, of unquestioning obedience on the one hand and divine mercy on the other is not limited to the communicants of the synagogue. It would have been a pity if the parnassim at Beth Alpha had not borrowed an effective artistic device from the general store, and a pity too if they had not used the medium for propagating their own contribution to the store.