New Met Galleries Reveal Stunning Art, Ossuaries
Amid the dramatically imposing new Greek and Roman galleries at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum—a $220-million project—two small items peek out at the end of the great hall. They caught my eye at the press preview on April 16: bone boxes not vastly different from those found in Jerusalem by the thousands.
Several of the Jerusalem ossuaries have been featured in these pages, especially the one inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” For about a hundred years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E., Jews in the Holy City practiced secondary burial: About a year after initial burial in a loculus, or niche, in a cave, when the flesh had fallen away, the bones were reburied in a limestone box called an ossuary. Many of them are decorated and sometimes inscribed.
After the fall of Jerusalem, we find none from Jerusalem; however, a few from a later period—made of clay—have been discovered in the Galilee, where Jews may have fled from Jerusalem.
Now it turns out that some Jews from the heart of the Roman empire continued to practice secondary burial long after the fall of Jerusalem.
Both of the ossuaries in the Metropolitan exhibit are made of limestone and feature rosettes not dissimilar to the rosettes on Jerusalem ossuaries. The Met ossuaries are elegantly engraved while the Jerusalem exemplars are mostly just scratched on with a stylus. One has a column engraved on it (pictured), an architectural feature also found on some Jerusalem ossuaries.
Both of the ossuaries in the Met exhibit are inscribed. The one with the column is inscribed next to the base of the column with a name in Aramaic, presumably the name of the person whose bones lay inside: “Yohanan bar [son of] Sh …” The rest of the father’s name has not survived.
The other ossuary is inscribed in Greek with two names: Philetarios and Annios. We are told by the placard that these were Hellenized Jews who had adopted Greek names.
These Jews supposedly continued to observe Jewish burial customs although the Temple had been destroyed and they were living outside the Holy Land.
I wonder if these ossuaries actually came from Jerusalem.
I cannot close without a little criticism of this otherwise beautifully mounted show. The identifying placards are printed in small type and placed so low (apparently in an effort not to detract from the aesthetic impact) that they are virtually unreadable. This is true of the descriptive notes of many pieces in the show. Of the two ossuaries, the text of one is a foot from the floor and the other 2 feet. Either sit on the ground, risk throwing your back out, or just forget it.—H.S.
The colorful frescoes of Herod’s palace at Masada have been restored to their past beauty. The project, led by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protections Authority (INNPPA), spent three years preparing and two weeks of work to remove and restore the wall paintings.
The frescoes were discovered in the 1960s, when Professor Yigael Yadin led archaeological excavations at the site. At that time, the frescoes were removed from the walls, placed on fiberglass and sealed in glass. Archaeologists then returned them to their original location. However, that preservation technique proved severely harmful. Italian expert renovator Maurizio Tagliapietra, who was part of the international team working on the project, said that “the damage sustained during the past 40 years has been greater than that of the previous two millennia.”
Now that the wall paintings have been properly cared for, they are exhibited in the new museum at the foot of Masada that just opened in May. Some frescoes have also been returned to the palace’s southern wall, where there is only negligible light (see photo).
To make the palace as colorful as it once was, the INNPPA created replicas that imitated the originals in design and method. Renovators aligned the walls, covered them with whitewash, applied a layer of rough plaster and then finished with a layer of soft plaster. The new frescoes were drawn while the soft plaster was wet, sealing in the color. The paint was made using the original method and ingredients such as egg yolk, milk and resin.
The Roman-style frescoes decorated the walls of the Masada palaces of King Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.). The site then became a fortress where Jewish refugees held off the Roman forces for three years after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—M.D.G.
Amid the dramatically imposing new Greek and Roman galleries at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum—a
$220-million project—two small items peek out at the end of the great hall. They caught my eye at the press preview on