The creation and restoration of God’s chosen people—as a holy nation—is the underlying theme of the twenty-six biblical subjects depicted in the Dura-Europos Synagogue murals. Created around the year 250 CE, these images are the most extraordinary artefacts of Jewish art to have survived from antiquity. Painted on three surviving walls of the synagogue sanctuary they include stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the Ark of the Law, the Temple, Elijah, the Triumph of Mordechai, and, most relevant to this discussion, Ezekiel’s Vision.
Just to the right of the Torah niche at eye level, on the north wall of the synagogue, is the largest scene of all the decorations, the sequential narrative of Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1–14). It is played out in six discrete depictions of the prophet Ezekiel, explicating specific verses from chapter 37: i.e. 1, 4, 7, 9, and 10. The pivotal role of the prophet as the direct agent of the Divine is overwhelming. With the ‘Hand of God’ appearing five times, directing six depictions of Ezekiel, nowhere else in the fresco cycle is the main character pictured this frequently.
The first section (shown here) depicts verses 1, 4, and 7 against a light background; each Ezekiel gestures in a way that connotes a distinct Divine command: placed among the dead, commanded to speak to them, and then made witness to the bones coming alive. The inclusion of a mountain split by an earthquake recalls the Midrash Pirque Rabbi Eliezer 33 that describes how the bones were forced together by the power of an earthquake.
In the second section a red background unifies the resurrected Jewish people. Ezekiel is now approached by three winged ‘spirits’, representing animating wind angels. After he acknowledges the angels, ten men appear (perhaps representing the ten lost tribes). The final image of Ezekiel shows him extending his arm to them in greeting and recognition of the great miracle of national resurrection. A nation is reborn out of dry bones and the Lord says ‘I will bring you home into the land of Israel’ (v.12).
These simple images are created a mere 180 years after the complete destruction of the Jewish Temple and homeland, and yet, 1700 years later, a modern democratic Jewish nation thrives in its ancestral land. Dura’s Ezekiel represents the genesis of Jewish art as well as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
Friendlander, Gerald (trans.). 2004. Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (North Stratford: Ayer Company Publishers): 248–49
Leriche, Pierre, and Gabrielle Sed-Rajna. 1997. ‘Dura–Europos Synagogue’ in Jewish Art, ed. by Gabrielle Sed-Rajna (New York: Harry N. Abrams): 553–68
Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert L. Kessler. 1990. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection)