Dragons: A Symbol of Evil in European Synagogue Decoration?
By Ilia Rodov
Ars Judaica, Vol.1 (2005)
Introduction: At first glance, images of evil would seem to be an unexpected element in synagogue art. Only during a relatively short period in eighteenth-century eastern-European synagogues were paintings of predatory beasts and birds catching their prey depicted to convey the idea of the People of Israel pursued by enemies. The theme of piety oppressing evil was also developed in depictions of the stork, hasidah in Hebrew, a symbol of a hasid (“pious”), catching a snake, a primary symbol of Satan and evil. However, most of the symbols and allegories used in synagogues represent Torah, divine dispensation of worldly life, undying faith, remembrance of the Sanctuary, longing for the Holy Land, messianic expectations, and moral virtues. Such a minor part of synagogue representations of antagonistic powers contrasts with the thematic repertoire of church art, where the scenes of evil in the form of anthropoid devils and satanic beasts punishing the heretics, threatening the faithful, but being repressed by the true faith were frequent. Yet, archaeological finds from medieval synagogues in France and Germany and several images from eastern European synagogues in the early modern period suggest that symbols of evil in synagogues have afar lengthier history.
The origins of the zoomorphic representations of evil can be traced back to dragon images from the earliest Ashkenazi synagogues. Reliefs of a dragon and a lion were discovered on the southern façade of the medieval synagogue in Rouen. The dragon carved on the base of a half-column has a canine head, partly damaged, a protuberant tongue, a long body with a small wing, and a serpent-like coiled tail ending in a tassel. The lion relief is found in an upside-down position under a column. The lion’s additional body attached to its head relates to the scheme of “one head – two bodies” characteristic of Romanesque sculpture. Basing herself on the stylistic resemblance of the reliefs in Rouen to the architectonic decoration in Norman churches of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, Maylis Baylé dated the dragon and lion to the period of the building of the synagogue between ca. 1096 and 1116.