Jewish and Early Christian Art

One of my main passions offline is research into Dura Europos. I had the privilege to catalogue, photograph and work with much of what remains of Dura Europos’ artwork while a grad student at Yale (Yale led the Dura Europos excavations in the 1930’s and brought thousands and thousands of pieces back to the Yale Art Gallery where much of it resides in the basement of the Gallery now).

I’ve always been intrigued by the Synagogue at Dura Europos. It’s an amazing and even puzzling place for westerners who like to assume that Jewish communities have always followed the non-graven images rule strictly in their worship spaces since Sinai. However, the Dura Europos Synagogue is filled with artwork, both biblical and pagan in nature, and shows a complex artistic tradition that extended beyond the Syrian desert where Dura Europos is located.

Here’s a well thought out (and researched) post expanding that idea entitled “The Protestant Revision of History” from the Turretin Debate Blog (Turretin was a Reformed theologian who was especially influential in Calvinist and Puritan circles… evidently this blog should be read through those lens):

Neither were later Jews against images and veneration. The ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos, which was destroyed in the mid 200s AD is filled with icons and imagery. And ancient house churches from the same period were also found containing icons. As the Christians inherited Jewish worship practices, they must have been guided in interpretation of Exodus 20:4 by the Jewish practices, which clearly were not iconoclastic. No wonder Orthodox churches are covered in images, since the Jewish synagogues were the same. And yet there is no condemnation of the Jews by Christians over this issue…Protestants think to themselves that the early church must have been
primitive and basic, with no relationship to the ornate and colourful
world of Orthodoxy with its churches and vestments. But the facts and
archeology say differently. Ancient Jewish and Christian worship is
characterised by the ornate, by images, icons and symbolism. The
ancient Christian catacombs contain icons, including those of Mary
holding the Christ child as would be familiar to any Orthodox
Christian. (Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Vol 1, Crestwood,
NY (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), c1978, pp. 74-75).

Fun stuff to ponder on a beautiful Monday afternoon!

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