SBL 2018 Book Review Panel | Art and Religion in Antiquity

by David Frankfurter in


Jewish (and Christian) Symbols in the Late Modern Period:

Jensen’s Cross and Fine’s Menorah [1]

With these two very learned and very accessible books Harvard University Press might seem to be embarking on a series on core religious symbols. Steve Fine assures us that they are not doing so, but the whole idea of matching Cross and Menorah volumes invites an immediate question: is there anything uniquely or especially valuable in focusing on such symbols? Do all religions have core symbols? It is to these authors’ credit that they show in many ways that these two symbols really weren’t particularly central to the practice of the religion over history, even if they have become critical to identity in the modern age. But what will be next in the series: the Yin/Yang? The Wheel of the Dharma? What really does it mean – in the twenty-first as opposed to the early twentieth century – to produce such books? I want to touch on this issue of core symbols at the end of my response.

Two books on core religious symbols, though, demand some comparison. And yet, as Jonathan Smith insisted, you really need three things to compare; otherwise, how do you know whether it’s “apples and oranges”? And what are we comparing here: abstract symbols? Material objects? Abstractions of material objects? Jensen focuses on the history of the cross’s representation and devotion and Fine on the menorah’s cultural status, especially in relationship to the Arch of Titus. Furthermore, one comparandum originated as an implement in the mythical Tabernacle and then the Temple of Jerusalem – a ritual lampstand – while the other originated in the mists of early Christian practice as an insignia with various functions (not, Jensen avers, as a shorthand for Jesus’s crucifixion). Each gathered form and function in very different ways over time. How can we think of them as more than two very different kinds of fruit? How can we think of them as more than opportunities for spectacular – and sometimes amazingly tacky – craftsmanship?

There are two themes that I do think could bring these symbols together, and in their material rather than abstract manifestations. First, both authors alert us in various ways to the vitality and importance of the symbol in motion – in procession – rather than emblazoned on a coin or a door lintel. And from this processional vitality comes the second theme that struck me as key in the discussion of these symbols: their intrinsic agency as material things – that is, not just what they convey in terms of “memory” or “tradition” but their capacity to work in the world.

I. Symbols in Motion

Anyone who ventures into the African galleries of the Yale Art Museum can see the influence of Robert Farris Thompson, who revolutionized the very concept of African art objects with his 1974 book African Art in Motion.[2] Far from static and abstract, or “primitive” and functional uses of the human form, he showed us how the images should be imagined either in the context of performance or as representing motion, even when just standing. Thus most of the galleries position sculptures and masks in a way to highlight their appearance in dance and public movement.

In late antiquity there was also, of course, dance; but the main performative context for any religious craft was procession. I think more and more scholars who consider late antique material culture are beginning to reckon with procession. How can we give life to those great caches of processional crosses in the Metropolitan Museum and the Walters Art Gallery, or all those early modern Torah breast-plates?

Coptic Processional Cross. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 22.2.1 (photo courtesy of the author).

Coptic Processional Cross. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 22.2.1 (photo courtesy of the author).

Thompson teaches us to watch the performative object as it reflects its rhythmic or processional context; the sight-lines and routes it follows; the magical agencies it’s meant to convey along the way; the stance and awe of the viewers; and the balance and serenity it conveys, even while wobbling up above the crowd. That’s what I mean by the symbols in motion.

In conjuring the cross in motion Jensen is lucky to have, not only the corpus of late antique processional crosses, but also the late fourth-century “diary” of Egeria to illustrate the interconnection of cross and procession. In Egeria the Jerusalem Holy Week festivals are a nonstop sequence of overlapping processions: to get to the True Cross in its portable, jewel-encrusted reliquary box, to interact with some movable cross that came out from the Golgotha shrine,[3] and to follow various sacred routes through the new holy city.

Cross-processions in Jerusalem, Good Friday 2008 (photos courtesy of the author).

Cross-processions in Jerusalem, Good Friday 2008 (photos courtesy of the author).

And if scripture-readings and sermons try to connect these processional crosses with some ignominious death that someone suffered centuries ago, the processional atmosphere is awestruck, multisensory, crowd-engulfed, beholding a cross in performance radiating victory, not crucifixion.[4]

Cross-processions in Jerusalem, Good Friday 2008 (photos courtesy of the author).

Cross-processions in Jerusalem, Good Friday 2008 (photos courtesy of the author).

By the eighth century the True Cross has its own story of movement. Taken captive by a Persian king, the True Cross eventually makes its way back to Jerusalem with the help of the Byzantine emperor, healing and blessing all along the way.[5] I take this story as sanctioning a cross in motion – a cross that moves across the landscape or through a city rather than sitting in a church.

What of the menorah? Temple lampstands were pretty solid, as both the Torah and the Book of Revelation make clear; and when the author of 2 Baruch imagines the stowing of the Temple furniture for the messianic age it is only an angel that can carry it all off to hide it (2 Bar 6). The “mobility” of the menorah – the menorah as processional symbol – begins with the paradoxical image of Roman soldiers bearing the Temple’s lampstand into Rome as booty, displayed on the Arch of Titus in Rome. For Fine, even if there is scriptural background in the Torah, it is this Roman relief that is the real starting-point in the history of the menorah that we know. It is paradoxical because it is both triumphant and ignominious, evidence of the Temple’s glory and of its destruction, proof of the pillaging of the one temple in Jerusalem and an indication of Jewish portability, even back to Zion.

Now, this is not a procession like the processions that Egeria witnessed with the cross; it’s a Roman victory procession in which the menorah could just as well be an elephant. But what Fine shows is that this relief inspires a whole “processional imaginary” in modern Judaism. For example, those guys carrying the menorah – they’re not wearing helmets; are we sure they’re not Jews? Thus the relief is renarrated as the refugee procession of defeated Jews into slavery or diaspora. Or they are proud Jews, disdainful of their captors.[6] Indeed, in one imaginative retelling the chief menorah-bearer beholds “the gods . . . falling from their pedestals, and the statues . . . hurled to the ground at the sight of our Menorah”[7] – an image virtually plucked from the pages of early Christian hagiography (where it is the cross that defeats the gods, not the menorah).

All this imaginative projection takes place because the menorah is depicted in procession, borne along by people in what is clearly a deliberate movement-display. The retellings and reimaginings both resolve the ignominy of the menorah in the relief and highlight a new function for the menorah: as processional object. Thus by the mid-twentieth century Fine shows us a holiday card where the menorah is borne by kipah-wearing Zionist youth,[8] an actual procession with a menorah in Central Park by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry,[9] and another processional performance with a menorah by angry settlers expelled from Gaza.[10] Obviously the Titus relief is reenacted with a different spin in each case. My own point here is that it is the very notion of the Torah in procession, with all its multiple, conflicting meanings, that stimulates a distinctive kind of performative piety around the symbol. Where is it going – to a better or worse land? Who is bearing it? Who is watching us as we process? It is, indeed, the menorah as thing in motion. And I would extend this observation to the other main performative response to the menorah that Fine briefly discusses: that many Jews refuse by tradition to walk under the Arch of Titus.[11] This is not processional; but it is an embodied response to the menorah in the relief and to the Roman arch that has “captured” that menorah. That is, to the extent that any triumphal arch dictates processional movement, this Jewish tradition refuses it.

II. The Agency of Symbols and Their Objects

The other principal theme I saw in these two books is the agency borne by these symbols in the real world: to instigate and irritate, to move in different ways, to craft representations. I think this Jewish tradition of avoiding passage under the Arch of Titus is a useful entré to this complicated idea, since here a Roman monument dictates one’s behavior around it. One feels the prohibition, the need to avoid, as coming from the monument, not from one’s will. The “materiality of religion” approach to things in the landscape or in our lives considers how they exert agency upon us – demand our responsive movement or our particular gestures, or even that of animals, demons, or angels.

Briefly, there are two perspectives on, or dimensions of, this object-agency. On the one hand, we or our subjects accept the world as simply pulsating with various agencies (trees, shrines, vestments, swords), and religion involves the charting and routing of our responses as well as our reappropriations of those agencies in new media, in new contexts.[12] On the other hand, certain agentive things derive their agencies from the craftsmen who made them or from what they imitate, from the blessings they gained in their lives as objects, or from their context – their place in an assemblage. That is, they distribute prior agencies. Here we might think of the agency in Torah scrolls, or Eucharists, or icons – not from what they represent but their actual powers in the immediate world to demand human responses or transform themselves or even speak.[13] Each of these cases assumes an assemblage – the thing’s juxtaposition to and enmeshment among other materials that help direct or articulate its powers. But even outside assemblages Eucharists express vivid agency in medieval legend, even when lying on a Jew’s table in blood-libel legends – that is, they cry out – and icons act equally in legends when they wash up on the beach, sending up fire.

So menorah and cross both exert agency in culture and on the world through their crafted representations, through their performances and assemblages, and even through their mythical presence. The cross is a paragon example: not only its late antique reputation for defeating enemy armies,[14] but “where the sign of the cross occurs,” as Antony of Egypt declares, “magic is weakened and sorcery has no effect.”[15] In late antiquity, it seems clear, the cross was first and foremost an apotropaic sign, whether inscribed on a lintel or an amulet or gestured in the air. A Byzantine frieze in the Dumbarton Oaks museum shows the cross yoked to and subduing two antelopes, images of the encroaching desert – another expression of victory meant to repel the demonic.[16] And anyone who caught the Transition to Christianity exhibition at the Onassis museum in New York in 2011 may remember the three Roman heads that had been deeply gouged with crosses – whether to “sanctify” or to obliterate we can’t know.[17] These popular uses of the cross in buildings and textile, on stone and amulet, on door-frames and lintels, show that this symbol projected agency and efficacy in the world rather than recollecting the gospel passion or signifying religious identity, and that Christian material culture revolved around the ways craftsmen could wield the cross in different media.

It was not decoration or accoutrement but a vital agent in the world: Jensen describes an Anglo-Saxon poem in which the Cross itself is a narrator,[18] while during a Calvinist bonfire of Catholic treasures one person shouts to the crucifix, “‘If you are God, help yourself; if you are man, then bleed!’”[19] The cross had a life of its own, Jensen shows, before and beyond the tentative efforts to render it as the vehicle of Jesus’s death. Two second-century Christian “gospels,” in fact, reveal the cross as the very form of the divine Christ, thus reinforcing this symbol as intrinsically vital, illuminating its heavenly origin.[20]

Jensen also shows the various ways the cross was combined in ritual assemblages, where different aspects of its agency were explored: compounded with relics, for example;[21] or as the monumental frame for elaborate narrative reliefs, as in Irish high crosses,[22]

Irish high cross: “Cross of the Scriptures” (X ce), Clonmacnois, County Offaly (photo courtesy of the author).

Irish high cross: “Cross of the Scriptures” (X ce), Clonmacnois, County Offaly (photo courtesy of the author).

or to commemorate sacred sites, as in the enormous Armenian Khachkars recently on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

Armenian  Khachkar , Monastery of Havuts Tar, Ayrarat (XII-XIII ce), History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan, 2936 (photo courtesy of the author).

Armenian Khachkar, Monastery of Havuts Tar, Ayrarat (XII-XIII ce), History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan, 2936 (photo courtesy of the author).

If we recognize the development of the cross symbol as fundamentally separate from the crucifixion legend, then it is all the more interesting to see the character of this symbol emerging through juxtaposition to Jesus’s body, all mediated through the material assemblage of paint or relief or textile, as Jensen describes in her Chapter 4.

As for the menorah, Fine does not address the material vitality of all the little menorot in action throughout the world every Hanukkah but rather the distributed agency– in the words of the late anthropologist Alfred Gell – of the great lampstand being hauled away on the Arch of Titus. That relief, he shows, points back to early Jewish legends of the Temple treasures’ secret whereabouts after the Destruction of 70 CE. Those treasures were supposedly designed according to divine instructions in the Torah, signifying the perfect priestly cult. Thus the real menorah from the Temple intrinsically radiated the divine agency endowed through those instructions. It is in that light that many Jews read the relief on the Arch, as documentingthe foreign appropriation of this same holy lampstand, essential to the temple’s function. But is the Menorah on the Arch actually a Menorah from the Temple? Fine shows that this Roman-imaginedmenorah is actually Roman, with only the most general relationship to whatever might have stood in the Temple. Still, that view has little impact on popular assumptions about the True Menorah of God in antiquity and in the messianic Temple to come. For the True Menorah of God must – people think – be exactly as the Arch of Titus depicts it.

The agency of the True Menorah of Titus thus manifests itself in two ways. One, which Fine addresses in a quite amusing chapter (ch. 6), involves a widespread Jewish belief that the treasures of the Temple remain secreted inside the Vatican to this day. Fine shows how widespread this legend is, even today, with Jews (Hasidic and otherwise) regularly showing up in Rome and asking politely to see the Temple’s holy menorah. In this way the True Menorah of Titus maintains an agency in drawing Jews to Rome, in cultivating a conception of Rome as the guardian of the Temple’s Menorah, even though there is no Menorah there. The Temple Menorah holds a mythical agency over Jews, even though it is not a central object by any means in the Torah.

It also conveys an agency through (allegedly) precise reproduction of the Perfect Original, as anyone who has walked by the Third Temple Institute in Jerusalem knows well. For outside the doors, overlooking the Western Wall, is a large gold menorah, crafted for the anticipated messianic Third Temple but according to the model of the menorah on the Arch of Titus.[23]

Menorah for the Third Temple, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, March 2008 (photo courtesy of the author).

Menorah for the Third Temple, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, March 2008 (photo courtesy of the author).

Now, the Third Temple folks are well aware that they need seven such menorot for the Third Temple to function for the Messiah, and they are avidly fundraising to get the additional six. But in the meantime, their single Temple Menorah enjoyed a procession to its current site, where it stands in active, even militant opposition to the Haram el-Sharif across the courtyard, essentially saying, “I will stare you down until Moshiach comes, and then I will be right up on top of you!”[24] This is object agency in a big way – indeed, it is the whole assemblage of Jewish Quarter, Haram el-Sharif, crowds at the western wall below, and gold Temple Menorah that cumulatively give it power.

Finally, when we think of material agency in the sense of compelling people to respond to something – either in adoration or hatred – Fine offers a remarkable case of a large menorah actively threatening Orthodox Christian sanctity in the Moldovan capital city in 2009. The large bronze menorah was apparently set up as a gift in a city square. As recorded in several YouTube videos, a Moldovan priest loudly denounced its presence in Orthodox space and led onlookers in hymns and prayers while a group of men pulled the menorah out of the ground, got it ritually asperged with holy water by the priest, processed with it through a park, and finally placed it in pieces, upside-down, by a statue of Stephen the Great, hero of Moldavia.[25] On the video you can see how carefully and deliberately the acts of removal, neutralization, and destruction are performed, as if these specific acts were necessary to resolve the presence of this menorah in the city.

Of course, this kind of incident is hardly unique, either in the history of antisemitism nor more broadly; but it does teach us to look at the inciting object as in no way neutral or passive. The menorah is an actor in this city, for better or for worse, and the people are responding to that status. Objects like the menorah or the cross – or Roman statuary or Egyptian reliefs, or even photographs by André Serrano – do indeed anger, incite violence against them, galvanize or scatter crowds, and so on, as much as they intervene in people’s lives, frighten them, convert them, heal blindness, halt storms, and kill rats. That is object – or material – agency, and it lies at the very heart of religion.

III. Religious Symbols

Finally, let me raise some concerns and hopes about this appearance of a “religious symbols” publication project on the part of Harvard University Press. The concern is what I raised in the beginning: there is a methodological danger in capturing a diverse religion through an ostensibly common symbol no less than through its “historic scriptures” or its “great thinkers.” The focus on symbols as somehow capturing religious essences calls to mind the popular t-shirt arrangement of “all the world’s religious symbols” in a square (except there it’s a Star of David instead of a Menorah).

All the World’s Religious Symbols (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

All the World’s Religious Symbols (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

And like the other attempts to gather religions together in one book or easy-to-behold collage, it tends to render all religions a version of Protestant Christianity. When you read these two books, however, you realize how utterly different the cross in history and the menorah in history are. They are not even comparable symbols. And yet these books do basically match in size and format, implying a parallel – a comparability.

Of course, this rendering all religions easily digestible through instant memes is not just a Protestant thing but, really, a phenomenon of late modernity. Fine shows in detail how, by the mid-twentieth century, the menorah symbol was emblazoned everywhere: an innovation in a Jewish material culture that was gradually establishing itself amidst a Protestant material culture.[26] These days find the Chabad Lubavitcher movement deploying giant menorahs as aggressive holiday counterpoints to Christmas trees in public venues – and thus changing not only the menorah but Hanukah itself into a new American Jewish holiday. And then the late twentieth century sees the polarization of crosses with and without bodies in popular Christianity, and then of course the fish-symbol and all its strange permutations. We are obsessed with symbols that distinguish us, that repudiate people similar to – but unlike – us, that give us kinship with other symbol-bearers, that intrigue outsiders, that threaten enemies, and so on. I suspect this dependence on symbols comes from the commodification of religion in late modernity. And in that sense I worry about what Harvard Press might be doing in granting another commodity to the mix: the scholarly but accessible full-color book on the history of a religious symbol.

But here is my hope. Neither Jensen nor Fine have really done what a “Harvard Series on Religious Symbols” might be expected to do. By the end of Jensen you cannot say that the cross somehow distills or exemplifies Christianity, for it means too many different things and doesn’t seem to spring from Jesus’s passion anyway. By the end of Fine you not only don’t know much about the history of Hanukah lamp-lighting, but you realize that the image of the “Ur-Menorah” displayed everywhere is simply a variation on a Roman monument. Both authors, then, have written extremely readable, rich, and thought-provoking books, but they have hardly distilled these religions into single symbols. And in many ways they have demonstrated that this effort is impossible.

David Frankfurter is the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.

[1] Response to Robin Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), and Steven Fine, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), presented at the SBL review panel (S19-214), SBL 2018 Annual Meeting (19 November 2018), Denver CO. Title with apologies to E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: 1953-68).

[2] Robert Farris, Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974).

[3] Egeria: Itin. Eg.24-37. See Jensen, Cross, 62-63, 100

[4] Jensen, Cross, 115.

[5] Jensen, Cross, 116-17.

[6] See Fine, Menorah, 104.

[7] Fine, Menorah, 107.

[8] Fine, Menorah,128-30.

[9] Fine, Menorah, 151-53.

[10] Fine, Menorah, 220-21.

[11] Fine, Menorah, xix-xx, 104.

[12] Exemplified in Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[13] Exemplified in Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

[14] Jensen, Cross, 54, referring to Eusebius, v.Const.2.7

[15] Athanasius, v.Ant.78.

[16] See David Frankfurter, “The Binding of Antelopes: A Coptic Frieze and Its Egyptian Religious Context,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 63, 2 (2004): 97-109.

[17] See Anastasia Lazaridou, ed., Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd- 7th Century AD (New York: Onassis Foundation, 2011), ##113-15. On the issue of Christian mutilation of statuary there is no better study than Béatrice Caseau, “ΠΟΛΕΜΕΙΝ ΛΙΘΟΙΣ: La désacralisation des espaces et des objets religieux païens durant l’Antiquité tardive,” in Le sacré et son inscription dans l’espace à Byzance et en Occident: études comparées, ed. Michel Kaplan (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2001), 61–123.

[18] See Jensen, Cross, 136.

[19] Jensen, Cross, 187.

[20] Gos.Pet. 10.39-41; Ac.Jn.98.

[21] Jensen, Cross, 110-11.

[22] Jensen, Cross, 137-40.

[23] Fine, Menorah, 217.

[24] See Fine, Menorah, 210-19.

[25] See Fine, Menorah, 208-10.

[26] Fine, Menorah, 124-27.

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