Menorah, incense altar, and shewbread table

Menorah, incense altar, and shewbread table
Jewish Quarter excavations, Jerusalem, Israel
Herodian period, 1st century BCE
Incised plaster
H: 32 cm; W: 32 cm
Israel Antiquities Authority
Accession number: IAA 82-1055
Photo © IMJ, by Yoram Lehmann

“Three most wonderful, world famous works of art, a candelabrum, a table and an altar of incense" (Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, Book 5, chapter 5). This piece of incised plaster bears the oldest known representation of the menorah - the seven-branched candelabrum that stood in the Second Temple in King Herod's day. It was discovered in a private house in the Upper City of Jerusalem during excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. As it was made before the destruction of the Temple, it is likely that the artist who made it - perhaps one of the priests - had actually seen these objects in the Temple. The two partially preserved rectangular elements to the right of the menorah are most probably the incense altar and the shewbread table that stood in the Temple. Representations of the menorah and the shewbread table dating to these early times are extremely rare. They feature on coins from the period of the Hasmonean king Mattathias Antigonus (40-37 BCE); on the arch of Titus in Rome, erected in 81 CE to commemorate the Roman victory over Judea; and on coins dating from the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE).

Zalmona, Yigal, ed., The Israel Museum at 40: Masterworks of Beauty and Sanctity, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2005