Jewish art is quite fascinating as the range of themes (motifs) is rather large. Jewish art during the Second Temple period was a creative endeavor, represented by various art forms and influenced by both native tradition and non-Israelite ideology. However, to avoid the biblical prohibition against making a “graven image” (פסל; pesel cf. Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 4:16), Jewish artists provided very few figurative motifs in their work. Ornamentation in Jewish art usually included architectural or geometric patterns, or depicted plant and animal life, but the lack of figural images shows the ancient Jewish dedication to God’s commandments.
Temple vessels – or what the Aramaic of Ezra 6:5 calls “vessels of the house of God” (מאני בית־אלהא; manei beit-elaha) – are also prominent in Jewish iconography. The menorah and showbread table were some of the most commonly replicated images – from being engraved on coins to being etched on the first-century Arch of Titus. In this way, ancient Jewish artists brought the Bible to life! According to the book of Numbers, the “menorah” (or “lampstand”; מנורה) and the “showbread” (הפנים; hapanim) are included in a list of important vessels that the priests employed in their duties (Num 4:7-9). Through artistic renderings, ancient Jews could see the inner-workings of the Temple even when they weren’t on the grounds of God’s house in Jerusalem.
Another prevalent motif in Jewish art was plant life. Flora and vegetation were used commonly as “space fillers” on lintels and mosaic floors. These floral motifs regularly rendered the local plants and trees, which may reflect the Israelite concern for greenery. When the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, God commands, “You shall not destroy its trees (עצה; etsah) by wielding an axe against them״ (Deut 20:19). Indeed, the trees of the land were important aspects of Israel’s festivals. During the feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot; סכות), the Israelites were to take the “fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees… and rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). Other horticultural adornments in Jewish art include acanthus leaves, lilies, and grapes, and let us also not forget the olive branches that feature in Paul’s olive tree illustration in Romans! The work of ancient Jewish artists brought the words of the Bible’s authors off of the page and into the physical world. Even today, when we view this Judaic artistry, we can get a glimpse of what the world of Scripture really looked like!