The Medieval World, C. 400–1300

Early Jewish and Christian Art

What are important symbols in Jewish iconography?

Though idols are forbidden in the Jewish tradition, some images are frequently repeated, especially in the decoration of synagogues and the Jewish holy book, the Torah. Scenes from Jewish history, including the story of Moses, were common choices for synagogues, and can be seen in the decoration of Dura Europos. Important Jewish symbols include the following:

  • Menorah—a sacred, seven-branched candelabrum
  • Shofar—a ram’s horn used like a trumpet during ceremonies
  • Etrogs—citrus fruit used to celebrate Sukkot, a harvest festival
  • Lulav—a palm branch also associated with Sukkot

In a sixth-century synagogue located in ancient Menois (in modern-day Israel), the floors are decorated with Roman-style mosaics which feature the traditional Jewish symbols mentioned above, along with stylized birds, plants, and animals, which are thought to represent earth’s bounty and the unity of the Jewish people.

Symbolism is an important part of Christian art tradition. The lamb is a common symbol for Christ; the Four Evangelists (Gospels) are often represented according to their symbols. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are depicted as men, or angel, lion, ox, and eagle, respectively.


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