Current Project - Mosaic with Educational Component

The program is for children and adults.

This program is made possible (in part) through a grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, through the generosity of the Gladys K. Crown Foundation honoring the memory of Shirlee Green and the Jewish Federation’s Rich Fund.


SESSION 1: Three Remarkable Examples of Synagogue Art

  • We learned about three remarkable synagogues that incorporated art of great beauty and rich teachings. These examples serve as research for our project.
  • We drew images for our mosaic samplers of an event/custom of the Jewish yearly cycle.

Dura Europos Synagogue

Location:Ancient Syria / present Syria

Our first example is an ancient synagogue in Dura Europos situated on the Euphrates River in Syria. Dura Europos, meaning Fort Europos, was a Roman town destroyed in 256 C.E. It was discovered by accident in the 1920’s when an English soldier dug a trench. The synagogue was subsequently excavated in 1932. The excavation revealed the synagogue was covered with wall paintings (frescoes) on all four interior walls with dozens of pictures depicting events and people from the Torah and Bible. The frescoes were removed and reinstalled at the Damascus Museum for preservation and public viewing where they can be seen today. It is interesting to note that Dura Europos is relatively close to Sura and Pumbedita (Pumbedita is present day Fallujah), locations of Talmudic academies in the late 200’s CE. Perhaps the Rabbis prayed in synagogues similar to Dura Europos.

We saw frescoes of Moses and Pharoah’s daughter, Moses leading us out of Egypt, and the Purim story. The paintings include visual details found in Midrash. The Torah niche was located at the west wall, facing Jerusalem in the southwest, and has the earliest known pictorial representation of the Akeida. The frescoes are spectacular in both color and composition and were painted over a period of time. This method and style of painting was found in pagan and Christian buildings in other excavation at Dura Europos and is typical of the time and region.

Wooden Synagogue at Gwozdziec (Gov-vosz-djets)

Location:Poland / present Ukraine

This wooden synagogue was typical of small town synagogues in Poland in the 1700’s. Its prayer space is covered on all walls and ceiling with paintings, giving the impression of a lush and vibrant tapestry. The synagogue ceiling was renovated in 1731 to form a cupola making the interior see like a tent.

The square prayer hall has an entry at the west, the bimah in the middle and the ark in the eastern wall (even though Jerusalem is south). The entry, bimah and ark all align, like in the ancient synagogue plans. The bimah is placed so that the torah, when read, is located in the center of the space. The remarkable wall paintings include prayers, inscriptions, decorative motifs, animals and vegetation both real and imagined, and the zodiac. This technique of wall painting was found elsewhere in the region in non-Jewish buildings.

One scholar believes the purpose of the renovation was to create a tent or canopy to welcome the Shabbos Bride. Lecha Dodi had spread through the Polish communities in the 1600’s and by the 1700’s, it was part of the liturgy. A lattice window was installed above the entry door to be seen by the congregation when turning to the door during the last verse of Lecha Dodi. The lattice window symbolized the passageway for prayers to go out to G*d and also for the Shekhinah to look in at the congregation. This lattice imagery is found in the Zohar, which by the 1600’s was one of the most authoritative books in Judaism. The scholar speculates that its tent imagery, Tabernacle images and 12 windows described in the Zohar, were an attempt to model the Gwozdziec synagogue on earth as the equivalent of the heavenly place above.

The Gwozdziec synagogue, situated then in eastern Poland (now the Ukraine) had the second highest roof next to the monastery. It was built at a time of great cooperation between the Polish, German, and Ukranian inhabitants of Gwozdziec, who were all under the supervision of the local Polish ruler who owned a lot of the land. We can assume our families who lived in Polish towns at this time prayed at a synagogue similar to Gwozdziec Synagogue. Possibly the Baal Shem Tov prayed in the Gwozdziec Synagogue, or in another synagogue painted in a similar manner.

The synagogue was destroyed in 1939.

Loop Synagogue

Chicago, Illinois

Abraham Rattner, a major American artist, was asked to collaborate on a stained glass window for a new synagogue in 1957. The window faces east on Clark Street, and it glows at night from the inside artificial lighting. During the day, the glass is lit from the sun and it glows inside.It is a 40’ wide x 30’ high window and is brilliantly colored. Rattner selected Genesis 1:1-4 to depict; ‘In the beginning….G*d saw that the light was good, and G*d separated between the light and the darkness.’ Rattner took two years to research and design and then lived in Paris for a year while the stained glass was constructed, picking every piece of glass, determining its thickness and its shade.

The design is a dynamic abstraction that seems to generate from the ark (located in the window) and expand outward with Jewish themes and symbolic colors. It is a spectacular experience to see it from Clark Street and from inside the sanctuary as well.


We each made a drawing illustrating an event / custom in the Jewish year.

Each attendee received a written description of one particular holiday/custom/date to sketch using an approach to art we learned from our research:

  • Dura Europos Synagogue: scenes of stories
  • Gwozdziec Synagogue: creates a place
  • Loop Synagogue: abstract design with symbols


SESSION 2:Synagogue Art in the Ancient Land of Israel

  • We learned about remarkable ancient synagogue mosaics in Israel. These examples serve as research for our project along with the synagogue art presented in Session 1.
  • We each made a mosaic sampler of either an event/custom of the Jewish yearly or of decorative elements found in ancient mosaics.

Synagogue as revolutionary: a little background

The synagogue was a revolutionary concept. The synagogue was the first structure of its kind built as a sanctuary for the entire congregation to worship. Although scholars speculate synagogues existed in 600 BCE, there is no consensus among scholars on its origin.Synagogue is Greek for ‘bring together;’ ‘syn’ means together and ‘agogue’ means bring.

Synagogues in Ancient Galilee and Judea

In the early 200’s CE, there was rapid evolution of synagogue architecture. The synagogue was typically built at the highest point and reflected the concept of Jerusalem as the symbolic center of religious life. In addition to prayers, the synagogue was used as an education center, religious tribunal, and lodging for travelers.

In the 300’s CE, all synagogues used mosaic pavements. Their design reflects the style of Roman art of the time, with the addition of special elements and themes to convey the Jewish conception of the universe.  

Hammath near Tiberias          

The synagogue at Hammath was probably constructed in the early 300’s CE.

The floor mosaic incorporates the zodiac wheel, also found in non-Jewish buildings, into a bigger composition with three main sections leading to the ark niche. This composition describes Jewish themes and principles. The first section has donor names in Greek flanked by lions on each side of the text.

The second section is the zodiac wheel, with each of the twelve months represented by its associated figure or animal. The wheel is a circular shape inscribed in a square. The four corners each have one of the four seasons represented. The center shows the image of Helios probably riding a chariot. A wall of a subsequent building constructed on top destroyed the chariot and adjacent zodiac figures.

In Leviticus 26:1 we read, “You shall not make idols for yourselves…”  It is interesting to note the Targum adds in Aramaic, “However you may put in your sanctuaries a floor decorated with drawings and figures, but not to bow down before it.” The tolerance towards figurative art was evidently not a threat to Jewish beliefs because the images themselves were not worshipped. The zodiac’s reference to time is, of course, important to Jewish practice throughout the year.

The third section, closest to the ark niche, contains images of the Temple with carved wood doors, a curtain and a conch shell in the pediment above. There is a candelabrum on each side of the ark along with a lulav, etrog, incense shovel, and shofar. The style has a sense of depth with some elements shown with a perspective and shadow.

The sequence of the mosaic sections begins with the terrestrial world, on to the constellations, and ends with the image of the Ark and candelabra referring to the invisible G*d. One scholar concludes the zodiac is dominated by the Jewish concept of the universe.

Beit Alpha

The floor mosaics at Beit Alpha were built in the early 500’s CE and discovered in 1929 by farmers. It too has the three-part composition, yet its style is more frontal than the Roman-inspired art of Hammath. The mosaic is roughly the size of the Hammath mosaic. A built-in bench is located at the perimeter of the space.

The progression of pavement sections begins with the Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, preceded by inscriptions of the donors and builders flanked by lions. This is the earliest known Akeida in Israel. The image of the hand of G*d is used at the top of the Akeida scene symbolizing G*d’s presence.

In the second section the zodiac wheel depicts figures and animals associated with each month in a motionless, schematic style. Helios and a chariot of four horses are at the center of the zodiac wheel and the four seasons are portrayed in the corners, similar to Hammath in content, but not in style.

The third section contains the same Temple figures as the mosaic at Hammath; the Temple Shrine with a conch shell in the pediment, candelabrum at each side along with a lulav, etrog, fire pan, and shofar. In addition, there are two roaring lions guarding the threshold of the sacred Ark.

One scholar interprets the visual vocabulary as the summary of the covenant as G*d’s promise to Abraham leads to a messianic age in the future. Since the story of the Akeida takes place on the mountain where the Temple was built, a new Temple will be built there when the messiah comes. This mosaic represents the fulfillment of the covenant and its brilliant use of images conveys central Jewish beliefs.

Gaza, Maon, Ein Gedi, Jericho

The mosaics at Gaza, installed in the 500’s CE, have ‘inhabited scrolls’ of vines surrounding beautifully rendered creatures including a lion and her cub, birds, a zebra, and David taming the animals with his music.

The mosaic pavement at Maon has circles containing the candelabrum flanked by lions and animals in a more schematic style.

The mosaic at Ein Gedi has a simplified composition and the animals appear to be decorative.

The Jericho mosaic is deliberately austere showing the candelabrum, lulav, etrog, and shofar very simply in a small composition surrounded by decorative patterns.

In the 550’s CE, anti-Jewish legislation forced the decline of the communities. Subsequently, the themes of the mosaics were transferred to the art of illuminated manuscripts.

Summary of our broad survey of Jewish art in synagogues

Each of our examples used the artistic style and technique typical of its time to depict Jewish texts. Reoccurring images include:a zodiac, candelabrum (Temple menorah), lulav, etrog, shofar, the Akeida, the hand of G*d, figures, animals both real and imagined, a conch shell above the Temple Shrine, and vines and plants. A built-in bench at the perimeter of the space was an architectural feature as well.

Our examples include narrative art (Dura Europos), art that creates a place based on beliefs in the Zohar (Gwozdziec Synagogue), symbolic art (Loop Synagogue), and art that depicts the messianic vision (ancient synagogues).  

Mosaic Sampler:like a sewing bee      

We each made a mosaic sampler illustrating either an event/custom in the Jewish year or a decorative motif.We selected colors and arranged tiles, much like artists did in ancient synagogues. We started to understand the possibilities and limits of the material. As we all sat around a big table working on our samplers, we were encouraged by the children who dived right into the project. We told stories, talked about family news, books, and movies as well as talking about the remarkable Jewish imagination reflected in the ancient mosaics.


SESSION 3:Mosaics from our Drawings 

We each made a mosaic from our drawing.

Here are some examples of the drawing and its corresponding mosaic. 

Please scroll down to see each drawing paired with the mosaic.

Dura Europos Synagogue, painted interior

Wiki Commons

Photo by Maurice Le Palud, July 29, 1933

Dura Europos Synagogue, replica of painted interior

Wiki Commons

Photo by Sodabottle

Gwodzdziec Synagogue

Wiki Commons

Photo by Ethnographic Museum in Lviv

Gwodzdziec Synagogue, ceiling panel replica

Flickr Commons

Photo by Shabbat-goy Photostream

Gwodzdziec Synagogue, ceiling replica

A collaboration between the Museum of Polish Jews, Handshouse Studio, and the TIimber Framers Guild

Photograph:  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblatt

Rabbi Reading, 1921, by Isador Kaufmann (1853-1921)

Wiki Commons

Loop Synagogue interior stained glass

Chicago, Illnois

Tzippori Synagogue floor mosaic (similar to Hammath)

Torah Shrine

Wiki Commons

Photo by Itamar Grinbert

Beit Alpha Synagogue floor mosaic, Akeida

Wiki Commons

Photo by Yair Talmor

Gaza Synagogue floor mosaic

Wiki Commons

Photo provided by Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection program

Maon Synagogue floor mosaic

Wiki Commons

from 'Land of Israel,' photo by Beno Rothenberg, Shocken Pub., Tel Aviv, 1958

Maon Synagogue floor mosaic

Wiki Commons

Photo provided by Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection program

Ein Gedi Synagogue floor mosaic

Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Orientalizing Photostream

Jericho Synagogue floor mosaic

Wiki Commons

Photo provided by Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection program

Mosaic sampler of decorative motif

Burning Bush, drawing

Burning Bush, mosaic

Moses with Tablets, drawing

Moses with Tablets, mosaic

Priestly Blessing, drawing

Priestly Blessing, mosaic

Shofar, drawing

Shofar, mosaic

Miriam's Well, drawing

Miriam's Well, mosaic