Bowl Fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Bowl Fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark, 300–50, Glass, gold leaf, 6.9 x 7 x 0.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund, 1918, 18.145.1a, b, www.metmuseum.org

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The Holy Ark

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These fragments were once part of a bowl produced by ‘sandwiching’ gold leaf between two layers of glass to display Jewish images and a Latin inscription. The bowl was probably made in Rome between 300 and 350 CE, when artists created numerous gold glass vessels for Jewish, Christian, and pagan patrons, evidencing a common artistic culture shared between these late antique religious communities.

A horizontal line bisects the circular composition on this vessel, creating two registers. Jewish ritual objects appear on top, including a Torah shrine or ‘ark’ at the centre, two menorot (candelabra) on either side, a shofar (ram’s horn), and an etrog (citron). Doors on the Torah ark open to reveal Torah scrolls within. A Torah scroll, or Sefer Torah in Hebrew, typically contains the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, although this format was not yet standardized at the time when this vessel was made.

Most of the lower register of this composition has been lost, but part of a fish on a table suggests it once displayed a banqueting scene. A fragmentary Latin inscription exhorts the user to ‘Drink with praise’.

In Deuteronomy 10, Moses recounts how God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, which Moses then placed in a wooden ark. Following the death of Aaron, the Lord gave the tribe of Levi the task of carrying the ark. In Deuteronomy 31:9, 25–26, we hear how Moses wrote down the Torah and entrusted it to the Levites to be placed in the ark as well.

In late antiquity, the Torah ark and menorah were two of the most prevalent Jewish symbols, appearing on small objects like this vessel and monumental art such as mosaic floors. The ark on this gold glass vessel evokes the Torah shrines found in the synagogues after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. It is still precious, even in memory.

 

References

Fine, Steven. 2005. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

———. 2007. ‘Jewish Art and Biblical Exegesis in the Greco-Roman World’, in Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, ed. by Jeffrey Spier (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 25–49

Howells, Daniel Thomas. 2015. A Catalogue of the Late Antique Gold Glass in the British Museum (London: British Museum)

———. 2013. ‘Making Late Antique Gold Glass’, in New Light on Old Glass: Recent Research on Byzantine Mosaics and Glass, ed. by Chris Entwistle and Liz James (London: British Museum), pp. 112–20

Stein, Wendy A. 2016. How to Read Medieval Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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