Unlike Heinrich Schliemann, who set out to discover the ancient city of Troy with a copy of The Iliad in hand, French Army Capt. Ernest de Prudhomme merely wanted his back yard dug up for a garden.
But on February 17, 1883, his plan to plant vegetables was foiled when soldiers under his command unwittingly unearthed the first archaeological ruins of a Roman-era synagogue on the grounds of his villa in Hammam Lif, Tunisia — the ancient Punic city of Naro, later called Aquae Persianae by the Romans.
Instead of a harvest of tomatoes or carrots, Prudhomme suddenly found himself with a crop of stunning mosaic panels whose primary subjects were the Creation and Paradise. The works had been part of a sanctuary floor dating from the Third to Sixth centuries A.D. The astounding discovery led to the birth of synagogue archaeology and a re-examination of Jewish life in ancient times.
Lowe Art Museum
Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics From the Roman Empire and Kitchen Dreams: Through January 24. Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-3535; lowemuseum.org. Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Since Prudhomme uncovered the mosaics, archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of other synagogues dating from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region. They have discovered that despite an official policy of intolerance by the Romans, in some regions of the empire, Jewish communities not only proliferated but also prospered.
A Latin inscription on one of the surviving panels tells that the mosaic floor was a gift to the temple by a woman named Julia, a resident of Naro in the Sixth Century.
In 1905, the Brooklyn Museum purchased most of the mosaics Prudhomme had owned and later transported to his home in Lyon.
The treasure trove is on display at the Lowe Art Museum in "Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics From the Roman Empire." The exhibit also features nearly 40 related artifacts, including period textiles, marble statues, gold jewelry, and bronze ritual objects, offering further context for the mosaic panels.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, this intriguing show strives to open a window onto the origins of temple art, female patronage of synagogues, and the connection between Jewish, Christian, and pagan symbolism of the times.
It also examines a society during the early Diaspora in which Jews were much more assimilated into local culture than previously believed.
Laid out on the floor in the center of the gallery, the fragments of the Naro temple floor teem with images of fish, fowl, bread, fruit baskets, a tree in what might be the Garden of Eden, menorahs, and an inscription by the woman who commissioned the piece.
It reads, "Your servant, Julia Nap, at her own expense, paved the holy synagogue of Naro with mosaic for her own salvation."
Beneath the inscription are pictures of peacocks and a fountain, thought to symbolize the hope for immortality after death, while fish, lions, and partridges on adjacent panels were popular motifs shared by Christians, Jews, and pagans alike. The images reveal the spiritual nature that informed daily life during the times.
Throughout the gallery, worn Roman coins, incense burners, lamps, and embroidered textiles convey the sense of an age when a cross-pollination of ideas and beliefs seemed to thrive.
A striking sixth-century Coptic textile, protected from light by a vinyl curtain, depicts the haloed head of an elegant woman of the period, who evokes the spirit of the mosaic's patroness, as do glittering gold earrings nearby.
The exhibit also features several Roman and Greek busts and torsos along with the Jewish artifacts, suggesting a high level of tolerance and coexistence during the late Roman rule. Seen side by side, the works reflect a culture where people seemed unafraid to express individual beliefs.
That came as a surprise to many. Prior to the synagogue's excavation, it was firmly held that Rome had been tyrannical in its suppression of the Jewish faith and had decreed by 423 A.D. that Jews were forbidden to build new temples or repair ones in existence.
At the Lowe, this smartly organized show — curated by Edward Bleiberg, the Brooklyn Museum's associate curator of the department of Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art — peels back the curtain of misconception and, in an engaging and informative fashion, sheds new light on a misunderstood time.
Contrasting rather nicely, in an adjacent room, Ricky Bernstein's back-yard anthropology fast-forwards 1,500 years to a heaping serving of Eisenhower-era Americana — showing that people's desire for happiness and aspirations of redemption in increasingly confusing times rarely, if ever, seem to change.
His "Kitchen Dreams" features blown glass, aluminum, wood, plastic, and other mixed-media materials in seven sprawling, eye-popping assemblages with a notable pop-art flavor. Highly narrative and autobiographical, the pieces reflect his upbringing during the '50s and the popular sitcoms, comic books, and quirky cast of characters plucked from his childhood memories.
The zany Dog Dreams depicts a couple nodding off in front of a boob tube with rabbit ears. An episode of I Love Lucy flickers on the screen. As the husband and wife snooze after an evening of coupon clipping, their three mutts raid the fridge and pantry, gorging themselves on pizza, Fritos, and ice cream.
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In a rainbow-splashed piece titled Zippity Do Dah, a chore-addled Ward Cleaver type juggles the laundry, ironing, cooking, and sweeping — an ironic twist on the notion that for most postwar women, housework was the bane of their existence.
Bernstein's wacky take on domestic bliss also shows up in a work that gives the exhibit its name. The piece features a mom wearing rollers and a hairnet, her tits buried deep in a stack of dirty dishes. The poor woman peers heavenward as if praying or wondering if her salvation will come in the form of an automatic dishwasher.
In Voila, the woman's entreaties seem to have been answered when a friend shows up for a smoke and a cup of java after the sink has been emptied. The two ladies appear to be asserting their independence for a moment, leisurely puffing away as if they just shared some Valium. But upon a closer look, the scene reveals that the dishes, rather than having been washed, have been dumped in the trash, offering a fresh take on desperate housewives.