Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University, thinks that the Second Commandment has always posed a problem for Christians and Jews. “This commandment has often been ignored, not just in Christian art, but also in Jewish art,” he says.

We were discussing the upcoming exhibition Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, which will display examples of the breaking of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

The exhibition, which explores the imagery and art of the first millennium of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, does not avoid controversy. When it opens at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on October 19 it will show the iconography and the visual identity of these faiths. Indeed, images, symbols and objects will challenge some commonly held views, especially regarding the contradictions between the Second Commandment and religious expression. One myth is that Jewish culture was then aniconic, that is, without religious imagery.

Professor MacCulloch uses as an example the Jewish artworks from the walls of the 3rd-century synagogue in Dura Europos (now in Syria). Like other places in the Roman Empire, Dura Europos hosted both a Jewish and a Christian community.

The Dura Europos synagogue proves that Jews were sometimes not averse to ignoring the Second Commandment. Vivid scenes from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Esther and Ezekiel decorated its walls. One is of Aaron wearing a brown cloak standing in a sacred enclosure, surrounded by five men who had brought a goat and two cow-like animals to him for ritual sacrifice. The forefront is dominated by a seven-branched menorah, already then a Jewish symbol. ISIS has looted and destroyed Dura Europos, but fortunately all these images are in the Damascus National Museum.

The Dura Europos Jewish murals cannot be dismissed as an exception to the general respect given to the commandment in the 1st millennium. In Palestine alone, archaeologists have found more than 100 synagogues and other buildings with “figural mosaics”. A large graphic from the mosaic floor of the Hamat Tiberias synagogue in Israel depicts a figurative personification of the sun. There is, though, ambiguity in the Old Testament about images. God told Moses that the Ark of the Covenant should include golden statues of Cherubim. (Exodus 20:4-5).

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