Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Accanthus Wreath

The Accanthus Wreaths in Church-and-Synagogue-interiors in the Holy Land
While the Mosaic Floors of the Church interiors, we saw, were all conceived after the multiple principle, representing the congregation as such, the interior decoration of walls, of chancel-screens, of lintels above entrances a.s.o. was done by single emblematic David's Stars, accompanied by related Symbols. It is obvious that the appearance of the single emblem is dedicated to the individual devotion of the members of the neo-Christian congregations.

48. Khirbet Sufa marble chancel-screen showing David’s shield, a trefoil Lily in its center, (instead of the six-partite one) inscribed in an acanthus wreath. (From: R. Milstein, King Solomon's Seal, Tower of David Museum, Jerusalem, 1996, fig.19, p. 38)

In 1954, at Khirbet Sufa in the northern Negev (near Kibbutz Khatzerim), a rectangular marble plate with a Star of David in low relief was found by Prof. R. Reich from the Haifa University, among the remains of a Byzantine Church, without doubt a survivor of the Chancel-Screen of the latter. (Pl. 48). The tri-foil Lily Sign in the hexagonal center of the Davidic Star is, much as I see, the only example where this occures as a regular filling ornament is the six-partite Lily Sign (as we saw). The plate belongs to a well-known series of marble plates; all bearing the same acanthus wreath of a framed central emblem, while the plate itself is framed by two or three flat raised stripes.

All the known plates were made flat to fit into the narrow slots of the supporting marble uprights, and for this reason all look as coming from the same workshop. Yet, the astonishing fact is, that, judging by their emblems, they represent different creeds - Jewish, Judeo-Christian and Gentile-Christian.

49. Massuoth-Yitzhak Marble chancel screen with Greek Cross with four trefoil lilies sprouting from its center, encircled by acanthus wreath. Ivy tendrils spread left and right from the wreath; two large Latin Crosses, upper left and upper right on top of the tendrils (Photo by the author)

A marble-plate from Massuoth-Yitzhak in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, with the Greek Cross and four trifoil Lilies sprouting from its center and surrounded by an Acanthus wreath and four Ivy leaves of Greek tradition at the end of the scroll-work descending from the acanthus frame and two Latin Crosses in the upper corners of the plate (Pl. 49) is with equal certainty Constantinian Christian.

A Menorah in an acanthus frame and Ivy ornaments, very similar to the Massuoth plate forming a trifoil Lily Sign between them, on one of the pillars of the Gaza Mosque (Pl. 50), is again Jewish, without question.

Yes, but all the three Symbols at Khirbet Sufa, Massuoth-Yitzhak and Gaza – belong to three different religions; have the same accanthus frame, indicating that they were worked by the same workshop.

50. Gaza Mosque relief of Menorah on column. From: the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy land. Carta, Jerusalem, 1993, pp. 467

Since the plates cited here represent only a small selection of the total-known chancel-screens bearing a composite symbolism must have been a characteristic feature of the interior decoration of both Synagogue and church. But the workshops, serving them, did not make any difference in the technical completion of their works for all of them, and even not, when the bearer of the Menorah Acanthus ornamentation is on a marble pillar of a former Synagogue like in Gaza.

Yet, in contrast to this ''conservatism'' of the workshops the presentation of the symbolic signs themselves shows the tendency of the historic development to universal Christianity very clearly. The Kh. Sufa plate has shown the Davidic sign still in its undisturbed completeness, but with the tri-foil Lily in its center instead of the six-partite one till now.

The reason for this replacement seems to be, that the Constantinian Church accepted the six-pointed Lily Sign as one of its official Symbols (as we shall see in the following chapter).

But this acceptance of the six- partite Lily Sign by the Constantinian Church puts the date of the Sufa Sign around the middle of the 4th century.

The Massuoth Yitzhak plate shows the replacement of the six- partite core of the former Judeo-Christian sign by the Cross-without any doubt, but, at the same time retaining the tri-foil Lily Signs, the ancient Jewish inheritance.

But, beyond that, I think we have to understand the Acanthus wreath as distinguishing symbol of the highest degree. Only the most exalted religious Signs like the Constantinian Cross (in Masuot Yitzhak) or like the Judeo-Christian Davidic Sign (in Kh. Sufa) and like the Jewish Menorah in the Gaza Mosque are distinguished by it.

Yet, we are shown by this also that only some specific times have the freedom of thought, to see all these religious Signs on the same level of estimation, as we saw already in the plate of Acco. showing the Greek Cross and Davidic Star together. But such times are rare enough in history.

The Constantinian time in the first half of the 4th century, seems to have been such a time of the "freedom of thoughts", and our three examples with the distinguishing Accanthus Frame seem to belong to it.