The Crescent on the Temple

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The Dome of the Rock, often represented with an Islamic crescent on top, became the image for the Temple in Jewish, Christian and Moslem art for over 500 years. How and why this historical anomaly persisted is the subject of a fascinating in-depth study of Jewish, Christian and Moslem imagery and its interpretation spanning more than 2,000 years of biblical & later history by Dr. Pamela Berger, professor of Medieval Art at Boston College, Boston, MA.


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    The Crescent on the Temple

    By: Joy Schonberg

    Published: October 11th, 2013

    The Dome of the Rock as Image of theAncient Jewish SanctuaryBy Pamela BergerPublished by Brill, Leiden/Boston 2012, 367pages, $164

    The Dome of the Rock, often representedwith an Islamic crescent on top, became theimage for the Temple in Jewish, Christianand Moslem art for over 500 years. How andwhy this historical anomaly persisted is thesubject of a fascinating in-depth study ofJewish, Christian and Moslem imagery andits interpretation spanning more than 2,000years of biblical & later history by Dr.Pamela Berger, professor of Medieval Art atBoston College, Boston, MA.

    For the Jews, the Rock represents the site ofboth Temples: for the Moslems the Rocksymbolizes the site of the Night Journeyof Muhammad from earth to heaven whilefor Christians it recalls Jesuss association

    with the Jewish Temple. Interestingly, for all the three religions the Dome of the Rock is commonly used toportray The Temple in art imagery.

    Dr. Berger, in her scholarly, well-researched book, describes works of art using this image, evaluating howfeelings of mutual respect and recognition between these three religions throughout history waxed and wanedand how it led to its universal use and acceptance from the 15th century till the 1930s.

    [caption id="attachment_148576" align="alignleft" width="300"]

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    Tetradrachma showing faade of Temple in Jerusalem and theTable of Shewbread in centre, 132-135 CE. Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem.[/caption]

    The earliest known representation of the Temple occurs on a tetradrachma coin used in the Bar Kochba revoltagainst Rome 131-135 CE. The star on top of the Temple alludes to the name of the commander of the revolt,Shimon Bar Kochba (son of a star in Aramaic). The Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria, 245 CE, boasts the firstsurviving paintings showing the Temple and is similar to the Bar Kochba coins. Berger, who has written aboutTemple/Tabernacle images in Dura, believes that perhaps these coins were an inspiration for the Dura Europospaintings.

    Therefore, with an established visual tradition of representing the Jewish Temple how did the Islamic Dome ofthe Rock image emerge to represent the Temple?

    Ever since it was brutally razed by the Romans, the site of the Temple continued to be remembered and reveredby Jews, Christians and later Moslems alike even though the site was totally destroyed and left as exposedbedrock littered with debris, a haunting symbol of all the Jews had lost.

    Interestingly, our relationship with the site of the Rock midrashically goes back to Bereishit as the source ofAdams creation, the sacrifices of Adam, Cain, Abel and Noah as well as Akedat Yitzchak and Jacobs Ladder andDavids sacrifice.

    Later in Isaiah 28:16 the Rock is referred to as the Foundation Stone or Even ha-Shetiyah. This lay in the mostsacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and the Ark of the Covenant rested upon it. According to the sagesof the Talmud (Yoma 54b) it was from this rock that the world was created, itself being the first part of the Earthto come into existence. In the words of the Zohar (Veyechi 1: 231): The world was not created until G-d took astone called Even haShetiya and threw it into the depths where it was fixed from above till below, and from itthe world expanded. It is the centre point of the world and on this spot stood the Holy of Holies. In Midrashicsources, the prophet Yonah, when swallowed up by the large fish, saw the base of the Even ha-Shetiyah in theabyss beneath the Temple. Such sources describe it as a precious stone plucked from beneath G-ds throne, or asa covering of the source of all the waters the world drinks. It has been told that the Ten Commandments werehewn from that Rock, which was also said to be the navel of the world (Tanchuma, Kedoshim,10). According toDr. Berger these midrashim were probably familiar to those Jews who throughout the ages continued to visit theTemple site and weep and anoint the Rock.

    From the 7th century on, Dr. Berger points out that there was a multi-directional flow of influence from Judaismto Islam; Jewish folklore material relating to biblical figures being imported into Arab tales and vice versa, asboth traditions used one anothers stories. In both traditions the Rock is close to Heaven.

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    Eventually the Even ha-Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, became al-Sakhra, the Rock, in Arabic. For the Moslems,too, the Rock was the last remaining vestige of the Holy of Holies in the ruined temple.

    [caption id="attachment_148578" align="alignright" width="217"]Maimonidess Mishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah, opening page, northern Italy 1457-65.Courtesy Sothebys[/caption]

    Dr. Berger relates that when the invading Moslem forces captured Jerusalem in 638 CE, their arrival was seen as agreat deliverance for the Jews who were again allowed to walk freely into the city and to live and pray on theTemple Mount. The Moslems built a rudimentary mosque on the southern part of the Temple Mount later to becalled al-Aqsa. In 691/692 CE, a Moslem caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, a wooden, octagonalshrine, and it is documented that the Jews became servants there; keeping the place clean, making glass vesselsfor the lights and kindling them (reminiscent of the rituals in ancient times). Even a synagogue may have existedon the esplanade.

    Dr. Berger maintains that by the 9th century the Dome of the Rock had already merged with the ancient Templein the popular imagination and from then on the Jewish Temple was seen in imagery as polygonal or circularcovered by a dome; even though the Christians and Jews knew that the Bible had described the Temple asrectangular. Evidentially the physical reality of the building in that place simply supplanted the ancientdemolished historical reality.

    When the Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099 CE, they wiped out nearly the entire Jewish population alongwith the Moslems. They also identified the site of the Dome of the Rock as that of the Temple, calling itTemplum Domini and the nearby al-Aksa mosque was associated with the Temple of Solomon. After Saladinexpelled the Crusaders in 1187 CE, the Jews returned to Jerusalem. The visual tradition remained the same inByzantine, Western and Islamic Art with the circular, or polygonal domed building used as the image for theTemple.

    The earliest surviving depiction of the Temple as the Dome of the Rock in Jewish art is in Maimonidess MishnehTorah, Sefer Avodah (the eighth of the fourteen books), northern Italy, 1457-65. This manuscript, previouslyowned by Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York, was recently bought jointly (Sothebys May 2013) by the IsraelMuseum and the Metropolitan Museum, for approximately 5.5 million dollars the highest price ever paid for aJudaic item!

    Reflecting amicable Jewish/Islamic relations, 15th century Rabbi Meshullam ben Menachem of Volterra observesthat on Tisha BAv the servants at the Dome of the Rock made sure to extinguish the candles, exhibiting anaffinity between the practices of Jews and Moslems. Dr. Berger observes that from the texts that Tisha BAv wasactually commemorated by Moslems too! The Jews did not suffer any type of persecution by the Moslems in this

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    By the mid 16th century, this polygonal domed image

    [caption id="attachment_148579" align="alignleft" width="225"] SeferZevach Pesach, commentary on the Haggadah by Don Yitzhak Abravanel, with Temple in the image of the Domeof the Rock, as Hebrew book Printers mark. Giustiniani, Venice, 1545[/caption]

    appeared widely in Jewish books, especially as a Hebrew Printers mark, such as on Shaar Blette (title pages) inthe books of Marco Antonio Giustiniani, Venice 1545-52. Though Giustiniani was a gentile, he worked for Jews,since the Jews of Venice were forbidden to own Hebrew presses at that time.

    In Jewish art of the 16th century the Dome of the Rock symbolically stands for the Temple at the end of days,seen in the final page of the Venice Haggadah, 1609; showing the walled-Jerusalem with an octagonal domedTemple building and depicting the Messiah riding a donkey lead by the prophet Elijah towards the Gate of

    Jerusalem. The 18th century Washington Megillat Esther (Library of Congress), continues this tradition withimages of the Temple alluding to the Jews desire for redemption; showing dancers rejoicing and the Messiah atthe End of Days approaching Jerusalem with the domed Temple building.

    In descriptive views of Jerusalem the Dome of the Rock as the Temple was found in many different motifsincluding Shabbat tablecloths, ketubot, many textiles as well as Christian, Moslem and Jewish decorative maps,

    placing the holy sites around a centralized Jerusalem. A 19th century Italian textile shows the Dome of the Rockas the Temple in the triadic image of Midrash Shlomo, Beit HaMikdash and the Kotel Maaravi. Midrash Shlomowas the name given to the Al-Aksa mosque as the site of Solomons Temple and is thus depicted next to the"Beit haMikdash".

    Until 1930 this iconography was widespread in the Holy Land and in the Diaspora, suggesting a modicum ofrespect and friendship between Jews and Moslems. After 1930 the image of the Dome of the Rock is no longerfound in Jewish Art or it is kept in the background. The unprecedented riots of August 1929 in Jerusalem andHebron resulting in the deaths of 133 Jews was the immediate cause. The continued rise in the Middle East ofnationalist politics had changed the region forever and the imagery reflects this.

    So the question remains: why until 1930, was the polygonal/circular Dome of the Rock adopted by Jews todepict our most sacred spot on earth and the Temple of the End of Days, the embodiment of the desire forredemption?

    One reason, in my opinion, is the mere fact that the domed structure was a reality on that holy spot, a realisticimage before ones very eyes and this caused it to be artistically rendered again and again in our works or art.

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    Dr. Berger believes that another reason is that until 1930 the Jews regarded the Moslems neutrally. The image ofthe Dome with the crescent didnt have a negative connotation. Both Jews and Moslems fought the Christiansand when the Crusaders were defeated they rejoiced together. Anti-Semitism towards Jews in Moslem lands wasless marked and developed than in Europe. European Jews in times of persecution readily sought refuge inMoslem countries. Historically understood in this light one can begin to appreciate the use of the image of theDome of the Rock for the Temple.

    In her easy to read, flowing, eloquent presentation of the material, Dr. Berger shows us how one apparentlysmall iconographic detail can be an eye opener to an entire weltanshaung of harmonious and peacefulrelationships between Arabs and Jews.

    She concludes by suggesting that we should use our imagery of the past as a role model for the future to try tofind a peaceful solution to the Middle East problem to invoke the holiness of the place of the Foundation Stonetogether thus rather stretching an examination of art appreciation and imagery into matters a little beyond thescope of the material.

    As for the rebuilding of the Beit haMikdash on the Even HaShetiyah this will have to be left for the Messiah!

    About the Author: Joy Schonberg is an art historian. Formerly head of the Judaica Dept. of

    Christies Intl, she is presently an appraiser of fine arts, lecturer and President of Joy

    Schonberg Galleries a gallery dealing with Antique Judaica, paintings, silver artifacts, and

    archaeology. She can be reached at or at

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