By David Topper

When the foyer of Temple Shalom was built in conjunction with the rise of Shalom Gardens in 1989, the architect designed a round window facing Grant Avenue. The original empty window is now filled with a sculpture depicting Jewish iconography (symbolism).

The following is a short three-part essay on: (I) how that sculpture came to be, (II) the meaning of the symbolism, and (III) a brief history of imagery in Judaism.


The idea of filling the round window with a work of art was initiated by Irma Nepon, z”l, a longtime member of the Temple, who donated funds in memory of her husband, Harry W. Nepon, z”l. At the time, Marilyn Levitt, z”l, an accomplished artist (mainly a potter) was a member of the Board, and she approached me to work with her on choosing the window project, since I taught courses in art history at the University of Winnipeg.

We initially talked about a stained-glass work, which was an obvious first choice for a window. But when she showed me some small-scale sculptures, with moveable parts, made by local artist Richard Finney, our focus quickly shifted toward the possibly of a large-scale sculpture. We contacted Finney and he told us that he had worked on large-scale sculptures. He directed us to his “Copper Landscape” in the Holy Spirit Credit Union on Selkirk Avenue, which we visited, finding his piece to be impressive and expressive. He became the potential artist of choice.

Richard “Rick” Finney received his Diploma of Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba in 1985 and won the “Individual Craftsperson Award” in 1987 from the Manitoba Arts Council for his work using metal and glass to create sculptures, reliefs, constructions, and interior wall pieces. The Temple Shalom commission would be his first window-piece.

Having hooked me up with Rick, Marilyn turned over the content of the sculpture to me. But what to do? Rick, not being Jewish, didn’t have a clue about what to depict in the work. Luckily, I had recently written an article on imagery in Jewish art.

Serendipitously, the round window provided the perfect space for a motif that is found in ancient artifacts from the Jewish catacombs (burial chambers) in and near Rome. Called “gold glasses,” they are really the bottoms of broken glass cups (three to four inches in diameter) that were pushed into wet mortar on the catacomb’s walls. These glasses contain imagery in gold leaf of arks, menorahs, lions, and other symbols from the Bible. Working with Rick, I designed the overall motif incorporating symbols from Judaism found in the gold glasses, and he chose the style of the individual figures. There was some give and take, until we came up with the specific version for our window, which is essentially a composite from several ancient glasses. In essence, our window is a mock-up of a very small ancient circle of Jewish art in glass – but enlarged many, many times – from about four inches to seven feet in diameter.

The sculpture was installed in the spring of 1990.It is a mixed-media installation, made out of brass, glass, wood, and gold paint. A range of techniques was used in its construction: forging, metal-spinning, soldering, threading, and sandblasting. After being polished with a wire brush, the sculpture was finished with several coats of lacquer. As with Rick’s small-scale sculptures, it has moveable parts: the doors of the ark open and close.

Our window, I believe, encloses a significant piece of Winnipeg Jewish art. Have a closer look the next time you visit our Temple.


The gold glasses of ancient Rome were made by using thinly beaten gold leaf between layers of fused glass. Putting symbolic images in the bottoms of cups was a rather strange practice, whose meaning is unknown. But what is generally known is each symbol’s meaning.

All the gold glasses are, of course, circular, and the compositions therein are thus similar. They all are divided in half with an upper and lower space, within which they incorporate major Jewish symbols: the ark (with Torah scrolls seen on end), menorahs, lions, shofars, lulovs, etrogs, and other symbols associated with Jewish holidays. Most of the images are rather cluttered, sometime with two menorahs, with much of the remaining space filled with other symbols – so Rick and I decided to pare ours down to a more minimalist image. As with most glasses, our motif has the ark and two flanking lions in the top half, but only one menorah is in the bottom half (not two), and nothing else. It is modern: simple and sparse.

Starting at the very top, we placed a little triangular cap on the ark (the ancient images have a little roof on the arks) in which is the Magen David or Star of David. This is now the most common symbol of Judaism and its prime placement in our window is appropriate today. But it also is an anachronism; no Magen David is found in the ancient gold glasses. Although that symbol is found among some ancient Jewish tombstones, it was not the most common symbol, which instead was the menorah. Furthermore, the Magen David was not unique to Judaism; indeed, it was not until the late Middle Ages that it was used more and more, so that by the nineteenth century it became the quintessential Jewish sign. Putting it at the top of the Temple’s sculpture therefore bridges the gap between ancient and modern Judaism.

The ark is commonly depicted on ancient Jewish artifacts, but it too is not uniquely Jewish. It surely was derived from pagan shines, which housed small gods or other totemic images. The content of the depicted arks, as is true for our real ark on the bima, is the Torah scrolls (the ark in our window has four scrolls). Ultimately, the Jewish ark is derived from the original Ark of the Covenant holding supposedly the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments, which was lost sometime during the destruction of the First (Solomon’s) Temple.

Lions flanking the ark are also common symbols for guarding sacred objects in ancient art, from Mesopotamian to Egypt and Greece. As emblems of power, they may be there to symbolize the authority of the Torah. The specific Jewish context could also relate to the Lion of Judah in Genesis (49:9). There is no scholarly consensus on their meaning.

The bottom half shows the menorah alone. It is one of the oldest symbols used in Judaism. Although it too is found in pagan settings, there is evidence that it was inherently Jewish in origin. The command by God to make a seven-branched lampstand first appears in Exodus (25:31-40). It later is in Zechariah (4:1-2), where the prophet describes a vision of a golden lampstand with seven lamps. (Incidentally, I use the term lampstand, not candlestick, since there were no candles at the time; the cups held oil. See the menorah sculpture in our window.)

The use of seven branches raises the question: why seven? The Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, connected the number with the seven so-called “planets” by the ancients: namely, the five visible planets, and the sun and moon. In his vision Zechariah calls the lamps “the eyes of Adonai” (4:10), so perhaps the seven celestial lights may be viewed as the eyes of God. The number seven is also related to the days of the week, as entailed by their names.

We have material evidence that the menorah was used in ancient Judaism. Titus was the Roman general who led his army against the Jewish revolt and was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. He later became emperor and erected a Triumphal Arch in Rome. Within the interior of the Arch of Titus is a relief carving showing the spoils of war; Roman soldiers bringing back artifacts looted from the Temple. The relief is badly worn, but still conspicuous is a very large menorah carried on the shoulders of several soldiers. Some scholars contend that it was only after this that the menorah was extensively used as a Jewish symbol, in defiance of the destruction of the Temple and as a sign of hope for its rebuilding. (Of major symbolic significance is the fact that the coat of arms of the modern state of Israel has the menorah at its centre, and especially that it is a representation of the specific menorah found on the Arch of Titus – a clearly defiant gesture.)

The Roman defeat led to the Diaspora, the dispersal of Jews throughout the ancient world, with a large number going to Rome as slaves but later set free. They brought with them the practice of burying their dead in hillside caves, as they had done on the hills of Jerusalem and throughout Judea. In and around Rome there were natural caves, the catacombs, in which they buried their dead and painted murals depicting Jewish symbols; they also began the practice of placing the broken-off bottoms of cups into the walls as some form of funerary rite. (Later the early Christians, who are often identified with the catacombs, used these caves for the burial of their martyrs and as places of worship, since their religion was banned, whereas Judaism was not.)

One motif ubiquitous in the Jewish catacombs was the depiction of the menorah. This continued in the synagogues (often as mosaic images on tiled floors) as these houses of worship proliferated throughout the Diaspora. A possible turning point was the seventeenth century, with the rise and fall of Sabbatai Zevi, the false messiah, who adopted the menorah as his personal symbol. The association of the menorah with the notorious Zevi probably was a cause of the gradual shift away from the menorah and toward the Magen David among Jewish congregations.

What we ultimately find is that Judaism in the ancient world was not isolated from other cultures; rather, Jews were living in a sort of multi-cultural milieu, where symbols and images were exchanged and borrowed in an eclectic mix. How fitting it is that the sculpture in our window is in the foyer of a synagogue connected to a non-denominational housing complex in a multi-cultural city.


What may come as a surprise in all this is the apparent contraction with, or even flaunting of, the prohibition of image-making that is said to be an integral part of Judaism. The condemnation against “idols” first appears as the Second of the Ten Commandments given to Moses (Exodus 20:4). The Hebrew word is pesel (פֶסֶל), variously translated as idol, image, or graven (carved) image, with our Reform Plaut edition of the Torah using “sculptured image.” Variations of this injunction are repeated at least six more times in the Torah, which surely is a reason why it was taken serious by many close readers.

This Second Commandment is an oft-quoted Biblical passage supposedly showing why Jews are called “the people of the book.” Of course, the Torah is picture-less, indeed it is even vowel-less. There are also no pictures in the Talmud. But what about the gold glasses and murals in the Jewish catacombs, mention above? Or later, Haggadahs, proliferated with pictures? Where did that practice originate?

Put candidly and bluntly, the Biblical injunction against images notwithstanding, the practice in life and worship among Jews from the start was steeped in visual imagery. The evidence comes from a close reading of the Biblical text and material remains in modern archeological excavations. It is true that the injunction was invoked when the Israelites routed their enemies and smashed the idols they worshiped. There were also occurrences among small cult-like sects of Judaism that took the Second Commandment literally so that any visual likeness was taboo. But, more importantly, the extreme version of what is called iconoclasm (the banning and sometimes actual destruction of images) came from the later religions, Christianity and Islam.

There were two main episodes in Christianity when the Commandment was taken literally, and marauders destroyed what today would be works of art. The first was in the late eighth and early ninth centuries CE in the Byzantine church, a legacy whose remnants are seen in the rigid stylization of their art thereafter. (Visit any Greek- or Ukrainian-Orthodox church in Winnipeg and look at the stark icons.) But I should point out that some historians today question the extent of the destruction as found in older textbooks. The second occurred during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, when scores of stained-glass windows, statues, altar paintings, and other image-carrying objects were smashed, defaced, or burnt during the revolt against the “idolatry” of the Catholic Church. The Reformers’ justification of this massive vandalism – a repeat of what supposedly happened in the Byzantine church centuries before – was the behavior of the ancient Israelites against the pagans. Today, churches in some branches of Protestantism remain imageless.

From its start in the seventh century CE Islamic religious art also was imageless (no human-like, animal, or vegetable forms were permitted); instead, they channeled their creative energy to convoluted and intricate abstract and geometrical forms. Witness the “arabesque” art in the Alhambra in Spain. The iconoclasm of Islam was dramatically displayed in 2001, when the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited two large statues of the Buddha as “idols.”

The struggles of Christians and Muslims with the Second Commandment reflected back on its origin in Judaism and thus arose the myth of Jewish iconoclasm – a false historical “fact” that continues to be believed and affirmed in popular writings and even amongst those who should know better. Contrary to the myth, written evidence of imagery abounds in the Bible. One of the first artists mentioned is Bezalel, the artist-architect of the Ark of Covenant and the accompanying Tabernacle in the desert (Exodus 31:1-11). There are detailed descriptions of not only floral and faunal images, but especially of two statues of winged cherubim made of gold that are guarding the Ark (Exodus 25:10-22; & 37:1-9).

Statues of gold are surely important artifacts in this story of Jewish imagery. But what are cherubim? Regrettably, we do not know precisely. Here is what we do know. The word cherubim is first used in Genesis (3:24), when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and the east gate is guarded by two cherubim with flaming swords. But there is no further description of them and also no way of invoking an image from the Hebrew root of the word. The most probable image is that of composite beings that appear throughout ancient Near Eastern art: having animal bodies, human heads, and wings (such as the Sphinx), they guard palaces and temples. (Later, of course, Christianity borrowed the term cherub for their image of an angel, but to impose that on earlier Jewish art would be anachronistic.)

These cherubim guarding the Ark in the desert reappear in the First Temple in Jerusalem, built in the tenth century BCE. There are detailed descriptions of the architecture of Solomon’s Temple in First Kings 6 & 7, with further explications of the carved and cast art-images used throughout the building. But most important to this brief story are the statues within the holy of holies, where the Ark containing the tablets of stone was kept. The Ark was guarded by flanking golden cherubim sculptures, their wings extended and touching over the Ark and spanning the entire wall touching on both sides of the room. The width of the sanctuary was twenty cubits (about thirty feet), and the heights of the cherubim were ten cubits (about fifteen feet), with open wingspans of ten cubits each. What a commanding and imposing mental-image this conjures-up. If nothing else, this formidably contradicts the concept of Jewish opposition to imagery.

This textual evidence is reinforced by scattered small artifacts (ivory carvings. statuettes, coins, and such) unearthed in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. Supplementing this are also larger archaeological excavations of ancient synagogue floors, which show an extensive quantity of mosaic tiling filled with imagery portraying the Zodiac, calendars, and Jewish symbols. One of the most important findings took place in the early 1930s in present-day Syria, in what was the ancient Roman town of Dura Europos, where the remains of a third century CE synagogue were dug out of the earth, with (originally) all four walls covered with murals depicting Biblical stories (only the murals on the west wall are entirely intact today; with about half of the north and south wall murals still visible). As an example, one story portrayed is the Exodus from Egypt with Moses leading the Israelites across the parted Red (or Reed) Sea. Above them, coming out of the clouds, is the hand of God, the ultimate source of power for this miracle. This picture alone gives the lie to the concept of a historical Jewish iconoclasm.

Given the material artifacts – however fragmentary they may be – it is not much of a leap from the world of the Jews in the Bible through their tenure among the Greeks and Romans and into their world during the Middle Age and onto the modern era – all this time-span viewed as a continuum across the ages linking imagery in pictures and sculptures, Haggadahs, the Dura synagogue, gold glasses and murals of Rome, and even perhaps Bezalel’s craftsmanship on the Ark of the Covenant. In short, throughout Jewish history the people of the book supplemented their words with images, unabashedly and prolifically.

Endnotes on terminology: z”l = of blessed memory. Shofar = a ram’s horn trumpet. Lulov = a frond of a date palm tree. Etrog = a large lemon.

Finally, if you want to read more on this topic, see the first chapter of my book, Idolatry & Infinity: Of Art, Math & God (2014).