Practical Depictions: Interpreting Images of Divinity in the Heavens in Late Antique Eretz Israel
For centuries, Jewish places of worship were thought to be decisively aniconic, until the 1920s when a 6th-century synagogue was discovered in Israel containing multiple figurative images. Most notable of these was the depiction of Helios in his chariot of light, surrounded by personifications of the zodiac; a motif which appears in no less than six Late Antique synagogues in this area that have since been discovered.
This lecture analyzes these curious solar, lunar, and constellation representations through archaeological, textual, theological and liturgical sources to explore the practical and religious use of this apotropaic imagery, used by our predecessors to understand the heavens and planetary influence in daily life. This includes a very direct link to ritual practices in and around the synagogue, which used the heavens alternately for prognostication as well as calling on celestial manifestations for protection or vengeance. Interestingly, this indicates a strong belief in the equal binary of the heavens being at once pre-destined and also under influence to directly affect human lives. Pictorially and architecturally, these zodiac mosaics provided an explicit channel between the laity and the divine for religious worship beyond calendrical reckoning- giving those angelic bodies consequential agency, where even the sun and moon are anthropomorphically portrayed as active participants in ancient Jewish life.
Rachel Schmid is Curator of the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art at California Lutheran University, where she currently teaches arts management and museology. She received her degrees in Byzantine Art History, including an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from UCLA; her thesis for the prior proposed a link between late-antique magical ritual practice and synagogues by deciphering zodiacal floor mosaics. She often lectures on the relationships between image and worship and iconoclasms. She most recently published a selection of catalogue entries in A Taste for Porcelain: The Virginia A. Marten Collection for the Snite Museum of Art.