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Art review

Jewish mosaics, ancient insights

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2008

In 1883, a French army captain stationed in Tunisia, Ernest de Prudhomme, went outside to dig in his garden and happened upon a trove of mosaics. It was quite a find: The mosaics dated to the sixth century, the period known as Late Antiquity. They included images of two menorahs, and a Latin inscription between them read "Your servant, the girl Juliana, paved the holy synagogue of Naro for her own salvation out of her own resources."

They came from the floor of an ancient temple.

Rome ruled North Africa in the sixth century, and Roman law forbade Jews from building synagogues or repairing them. But scholars say the law was not strictly enforced; indeed, many synagogues thrived.

Twenty-one of Prudhomme's mosaics from the ancient city of Naro (now Hammam Lif, Tunisia) lie at the heart of "Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics From the Roman Empire," an intriguing exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. The show was organized by the Brooklyn Museum, which acquired many of the mosaics in 1905.

Mosaic mavens will remember "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City," a blockbuster show staged by the Worcester Art Museum in 2000. Built around that museum's remarkable sixth-century "Hunt Mosaic," the exhibit featured other Roman mosaics and scores of additional relics that evoked life in this multicultural city, located in present-day Turkey.

"Tree of Paradise" is smaller, and it doesn't have the knockout centerpiece of "Hunt Mosaic." Still, shedding light on Rome's Jewish diaspora and the interrelationships among Jews, Christians, and pagans in the last centuries of the Roman Empire, it's an enlightening corollary to "Antioch." Since Prudhomme dug up these mosaics, archeologists have found evidence of hundreds of other synagogues in the Mediterranean region, dated 220 to 770.

At the time of Prudhomme's discovery, another French soldier, Corporal Peco, made a watercolor sketch of the floor in the Naro synagogue's main sanctuary. When Prudhomme left France, he took 25 of the Naro mosaics with him, 21 of which ended up at the Brooklyn Museum, many from that sanctuary. But some pieces were left behind, and exactly where all the missing mosaics have gone remains a mystery. For this exhibition, Peco's sketch has been enlarged to scale, evoking the entire sanctuary floor. About a dozen mosaics lie on top of it, like pieces of an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle.

Packed with symbolic import, the panels on the floor dance with geometric design and bold characters. In addition to the menorahs, there are baskets of bread and fruit, images that might have had different import to pagans and to Jews. To pagans, they signified the earth's bounty. To Jews, they were also offerings once made to the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by Romans centuries before.

Three spectacular mosaic panels remain from a Creation vignette section: a large fish, a dolphin, and a duck. Most of the floor has been laid out symmetrically, but not this dynamic area. In the watercolor, vines or ropes spin from the mouths of the fish and the dolphin, suggesting they have been caught and will perhaps be served, according to Jewish tradition, when the messiah comes.

Prudhomme's collection included several mosaic panels that don't match up to Peco's watercolor. One, of an incongruous hyena, is probably a fake made in the 19th century. Some date as far back as the first and second centuries - from an earlier incarnation of the synagogue building, or an adjacent structure. The female figure of Roma, the personification of the Roman state, armed with a spear and wearing a helmet, appears boldly in one of these panels. What is she doing here? Wall text suggests that the Jews of Naro were steeped in Roman culture and iconography, despite rabbinic injunctions against pagan idolatry.

Like "Antioch," "Tree of Paradise" is packed with supplemental objects, 40 in all. Some seem extraneous, such as a silver-plated German Hanukkah menorah from 1820. The familiar eight-candled menorah contrasts with the seven-lamped menorahs depicted in the mosaic, which probably counted the days of the week.

Ancient relics on view are more enticing. Some, such as a marble bust, the stout-faced and noble "Portrait of an Old Man" (69-79 AD), contribute to a thumbnail history of Judaism in the Roman Empire. The bust is possibly that of Emperor Vespasian, who had suppressed the Jewish revolt in Judea; his son Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD.

A Roman "Torso of Dionysus" dating to the second or third century and probably copied from a Greek original raises the issue of public nudity, not uncommon in pagan Rome, but problematic for Jews, who followed an implied biblical prohibition against public nudity.

The textiles here are stunning. Often, although tattered and dated to the more recent Islamic period, they retain motifs and patterns that correspond to many in the mosaics.

Rich as they are with evidence of how Jews adapted to Roman culture, the exhibition's objects can't adequately explain who the synagogue's benefactor, Juliana, might have been. In a section titled "Women in the Ancient Synagogue," wall text states that more than 25 percent of the known donors to ancient synagogues were women. But what we see on display are several sixth-century Egyptian earrings, no doubt worn by North African women of means. Though the jewelry is lovely, this is akin to illustrating who Hillary Clinton is by showing us her earrings.

The catalog tells us that the texts of Rabbinic Judaism during Late Antiquity limited women's religious roles to ritualistic ones. Yet here was a patron, and according to the catalog, women also often held leadership roles in temples at the time. Why the dissonance between ancient texts and what materials like Juliana's mosaic tell us? How did the relative power of wealthy Jewish women compare to that of other women? When it comes to women, "Tree of Paradise" leaves as many blanks as Prudhomme's panels do on the museum floor.

Tree of Paradise:

Jewish Mosaics From

the Roman Empire

At: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, through June 8. 617-552-8100. bc.edu/artmuseum

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