Ancient Jewish Icons

Ancient Jewish synagogues were filled with icons. While Scripture required the inside of the Jerusalem Temple to display icons of angels, the icons in Jewish synagogues depicted numerous scenes from Scripture, including:

Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.

Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.

The Early Church emerged from Israel, and we inherited the Israelite’s ancient love for icons.  Like the early Jewish synagogues, the catacombs and the most ancient Christian Churches were filled with holy icons.

Nearly 1800 years after these Jewish icons were originally painted, a number of people are now acquiring icon reprints of these ancient paintings from Dura Europos.

In the next article, we will take a look at three-dimensional iconography in ancient Israel and the early Church.

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Church History, Holy Images, Holy Scripture, Icons, Israel, Prayers to Angels & Saints, Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Ancient Jewish Icons

  1. 尼克 says:

    I never knew! Awesome!

  2. Your Intrepid Blogger says:

    Excellent photo and links. I knew a little about this, but the articles and the photos are great for learning more.

    • Inga says:

      Alex: There is an exhibit in NYC right now until early January, and the Dura-Europos artifacts are part of the collection of Yale Art Museum. The synagogue murals are exhibited in the full-scale reconstruction of the Dura-Europos temples in Damascus. I took a few pics of the stuff exhibited in NYC (murals from the pagan temple and from the Christian house church, which happens to be the earliest known that’s survived), they are on my FB page. The funny thing is that when you see all this art side by side, it looks like it was done by the same artists (which is quite possible, actually).

  3. I have a dual response. One, this is amazing and so very interesting from the point of view of the connections of Judaism and the Church as the New Israel. The second is surprise and consternation — because I have read — and seen pictures of — the synagogue at Dura Europa, but I have never, ever, read of such iconography that is so analogous to Eastern Orthodox icons. I knew of a fresco, a large one, and that’s it. Either I’m enormously imperceptive or somebody hasn’t put this stuff out there clearly … (I wonder why!).

  4. Albertus says:

    Nothing exists in a vacuum, and it certainly seems logical that christian holy images should have their forerunners in the hebrew religion – the old divinely revealed covenant – (as well as in the natural, pre-christian cults of our greek, roman, germanic, celtic and slavic forefathers). These particular ancient jewish holy images are suprisingly vivid and beautiful, indeed, similar to icons. Later jewdom seems to have forbidden this kind of imagery precisely in order to distance itself from christianity, which was growing ever stronger, and appealed for its validity to the fulfillment of the hebrew prophecies. For the same reason later jewery drew up a shorter canon of scriptural writings, opposed to the Septuaginta, precisely because of the particular fondness that christians had for the deutero-canoncial books of the Old Testament. Obviously the Law of Moses did not forbid sacred images absolutely, for that same Law – presented as a command of God Himself – demands the placing of two statues of cherubim within the Sanctuary of the Temple. What the Jewish Law forbade was the adoration of anything or anyone but God, something that the ancient jews understood perfectly, as the excavations of their places of worship prove. The use of the word ”icon” in the above article perplexes me, though; eikona in classical and biblical greek meant simply ”image”. The Cherubim in the ancient Jewish Temple were three-dimensional statues (such as venerated in western christianity till this day), and not two-dimensional flat pictures such as are modern-day byzantine icons. So perhaps the ancient meaning of ”eikona” would include those Cherubim, but would the modern-day use of the loan-word ”icon” in modern-day languages such as english also include three-dimensional carvings or statues?

    • Albertus . . . great question! . . . Yes, the Greek word εἰκών has always meant simply “image” regardless of whether it is two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Even as late as the 8th century, the 7th Ecumenical Council specifically discussed icons, and did not draw any distinction between 2D and 3D icons. As you noted, the 3D cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple were the forerunners for statues in the Orthodox Church. In an upcoming post on this blog, I plan to display several pictures of three-dimensional icons which have been used within the Orthodox Church at various points in history. My favorite 3D icon is a statue of the Theotokos Hodegetria, which was in Constantinople around the 10th century.

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  6. tim says:

    My experience as a Christian was mainly in a non-denominational, evangelical, protestant, mega-church. About 2 years ago I went to an Antiochian Orthodox Church to watch a friend get baptized and never looked back. The evangelical church I belonged to was iconoclast and you will not find an image of Christ anywhere in the church. I always wondered in the back of my mind why there were no images at all. Well needless to say, when confronted with Orthodoxy, I had a ton of questions, questions that all the pastors at my evangelical church had no answers for. Most of them didn’t know what the schism was ( as well as myself until Orthodoxy). I had no choice but to pursue Orthodoxy in order to find answers to some of my questions. I still love my buddies at my old church but the modern evangelical church is missing out. I thank God every day for leading me into his church.

    • Glenn says:

      Tim – I could not agree more. Your experience is very similar to mine. I am so thankful that God led me to Orthodoxy!!

    • Jeremiah says:

      Tim, as Glenn said, “you experience is very similar to mine.” This past Pascha was my first in the Orthodox Church. After the service, I turned to a friend and asked, “Where has this been all of my life?!”

  7. grammysue says:

    What I don’t understand is how does this fit with the 1st Commandment and not making any image or likeness of YHVH?

    • Well, Grammysue, none of the pictures try to depict God, so there’s really no conflict at all with the first commandment. After all, this was a Jewish synagogue. Their pictures are of biblical figures and scenes, and were not adored or the object of worship belonging only to God. They manifested salvation history, knitting that community to God’s people and covenant.

  8. JR says:

    Tim, I understand completely. Our experience was similar. We had some questions that no one in the churches we had attended could answer, and no matter which denomination the church was, we couldn’t agree with everything in their doctrine – things just did not fit with scripture. I knew that once I set foot into the Orthodox church I wouldn’t look back, and I resisted going for some time because of my fear of ritual and formality. I’m so glad I went, and my family and I are all catechumens now, and I’m blogging about the experience.

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  14. BE says:

    Do you know where I can find the earliest church father(s) to advocate icon use? I have found many early Christians that seemed to reject them (St. Augustine, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanagoras, Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesaria– if I’m remembering all these correctly), but I have been able to find none before St. John of Damascus in the 7th/8th century that advocated them. (When I checked St. John’s references to earlier fathers like St. Basil, the references don’t appear to be about icons.) Do you have any ideas where I can look further?
    Many thanks.

  15. andreaskoutsoudis3 says:
  16. M E Wood says:

    I studied Art History as part of my degree at Edinburgh University in the U.K. with Prof D Talbot Rice who was an authority on Eastern Orthodox Art especially ikons. He wrote many books and papers. I recognised the pictures of Dura Europas as soon as I saw them! That was back in the 1960’s but I think the books will still be worth looking at.

  17. cynthia curran says:

    Synagogues found in the 6th century also have scenes from the bible.

  18. cynthia curran says:

    Also, recently a lantern was found from the 6th century that is shaped like a church.

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