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Date Palm Tree (Tree of Paradise)

Date Palm Tree (Tree of Paradise). From Hammam Lif, Tunisia. Sixth century C.E. Stone. Brooklyn Museum; Museum Collection Fund, 05.14.

Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire

October 28, 2005–July 16, 2006

This exhibition examines the role of twenty-one extraordinary Roman-period mosaics in the development of synagogue decoration in the late Roman Empire. Approximately thirty-eight related artifacts, such as contemporaneous textiles, marble statues, gold jewelry, and bronze ritual objects, are included. The presentation also investigates the origins of synagogues, the development of Jewish art in the Roman period, female patronage in the ancient synagogue, the differences between early Christian and Jewish symbolism in art, and the relationship between ancient and modern synagogues.

The Brooklyn Museum acquired these twenty-one mosaic panels in 1905. Twelve of the panels on display were part of the sanctuary floor of the synagogue in Hammam Lif, Tunisia (the ancient Punic city of Naro, later the Roman Aquae Persianae), the primary subjects of which are Creation and Paradise. The Latin inscription on the floor panels indicates that Julia of Naro gave the floor to the community. Two menorahs flank the inscription. Included are depictions of a tree in Paradise, sea animals and birds in a scene portraying Creation, and symbolic birds and baskets that relate to the themes of Creation and the coming of the Messiah. Decorative motifs include birds and fruits. The remaining nine panels come from other rooms in the building and other nearby buildings. They depict animals, a male figure, and a female figure.

The discovery of these mosaics, which were last on view in Brooklyn in 1998, ushered in the birth of synagogue archaeology on February 17, 1883, when the French army captain Ernest de Prudhomme ordered soldiers under his command in Hammam Lif, Tunisia, to prepare his backyard for a garden. Instead of planting vegetables, Prudhomme and his men unearthed the first archaeological ruins of a Roman-period synagogue. Eventually, synagogue archaeology would revolutionize modern understanding of ancient Jewish life and religion.

Modern scholars have recognized that the gloomy depiction of Jewish life in later Roman Empire texts must be viewed alongside a decidedly different picture formed from archaeological evidence. Archaeological remains of ancient synagogues from Turkey to Spain and from Hungary to Tunisia show that many Jewish communities prospered in spite of official intolerance. Other discoveries of ancient synagogues in modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Italy reveal the vitality of Jewish life around the Mediterranean Sea during the Roman Empire and an unexpected tolerance from their non-Jewish neighbors.

Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire has been organized by Edward Bleiberg, Ph.D., Curator in the Brooklyn Museum’s Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art. It is accompanied by a full-color catalogue by Dr. Bleiberg, published by the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Brooklyn Museum’s Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Exhibition Fund.

Meridian Capital Group, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, and Patti Cadby Birch have also provided generous support. Jewish Week is media sponsor.