Synagogue decorations

Architectural elements with Jewish religious repertoire

The church was adorned both inside and out with rich and complex architectural decorations. While the internal walls would have been decorated with stucco and colored plaster of excellent quality, the numerous carved blocks found on the site evoke the image of a synagogue richly decorated with a variety of symbols, of both a Jewish religious nature and from the Roman and pagan tradition, which makes one think of a Jewish community that was very liberal with regard to the use of images.

The systematic cataloguing of all of the architectural blocks from the synagogue permitted the identification of those to be reused for rebuilding the walls: the restoration began in January 1976 and was carried out gradually over time, with works accelerating in the winter months when the inflow of pilgrims to Capernaum diminished.
Beginning in 1983 the carved blocks that had not been replaced in situ were positioned in an orderly manner along the path of the visit of the archaeological park, notably beside the synagogue and the caretaker’s lodge in the direction of Peter’s house.

The reconstruction of the upper part of the facade still involves some uncertainty, according to whether or not one assumes the presence of a women’s gallery. On the other hand, it is clear that above the central door there was an archway whose keystone had a seashell decoration centered in a wreath whose ribbons, tied in a Hercules knot, were held by eagles.

The cornices that embellished the interior and exterior of the synagogue would have been richly decorated with perforations, gadroons and acanthus leaves.
There were numerous carved designs on the cornices with Jewish symbols enclosed within leaf medallions: five and six-pointed stars, or the Seal of Solomon commonly known as the Star of David, fruits such as pomegranates and grapes (which in the Bible are among the seven agricultural products in the Promised Land), roses and still other fruits including dates.

Block with Ark of the Alliance

One block has a carving of a small temple being transported on a cart: this is an ancient depiction of the Ark of the Alliance, containing the tablets with the laws given by God to Moses on Mount Horeb, being transported to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
The richness and elegance of the synagogue is shown by the attention to detail, such as the scale of the decoration employed on the windows on the facade at the center of the upper archway: two spiral columns with leafy capitals supporting a tympanum with a seashell at its center, a decorative motif used throughout the synagogue; two vines emerging from the sides of the tympanum served as its frame.

The corbels of the cornices were decorated with date palms symbolizing Judea. Traditional Roman and pagan symbols were also well represented, including eagles, laurel, lions and griffins.

Nearly all of the figurative motifs have been systematically chiseled out, leaving intact only the geometric and floral elements. This presumably indicates that an iconoclastic movement, in which the community of Capernaum must have participated, obtained the upper hand at some point following the construction of the synagogue.

Synagogue decorations