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.
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)
10 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Hew two tables of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. 2And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3So I made an ark of acacia wood, and hewed two tables of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tables in my hand. 4And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the ten commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. 5Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me.
6 (The people of Israel journeyed from Be-erʹoth Bene-jaʹakan to Moseʹrah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; and his son Eleaʹzar ministered as priest in his stead. 7From there they journeyed to Gudʹgodah, and from Gudʹgodah to Jotʹbathah, a land with brooks of water. 8At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. 9Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)
10 “I stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord hearkened to me that time also; the Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’
12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good? 14Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; 15yet the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. 16Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. 22Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.