Sunday, June 3, 2007

Memorable façade

I return to the fascinating subject of the work of Simcha Jacobovici concerning a tomb at Talpiot, to the south of Jerusalem, that contained a bone box labeled "Jesus son of Joseph". [Click here to visit the official website of this affair.] Uncovered accidentally by an earth-moving machine on Friday, 28 March 1980, the tomb and its ossuaries did not attract much attention during the brief period of time that the façade remained visible. But photos were taken, and a detailed diagram of the tomb was drawn by a young archaeologist named Shimon Gibson, who was intrigued by the carvings on the façade.

The bulky stone chevron (inverted V), whose triangular form resembles the gable of a roof, houses—as it were—an embossed stone circle. An observer is tempted to ask whether these forms might be symbols enabling us to determine the likelihood that this was indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. In fact, this approach is not particularly rewarding, for several reasons. First, for all we know, the chevron and the circle could be purely decorative. Maybe the carving work was interrupted before its completion. Besides, we cannot know whether these forms were created prior to the burial of the individuals associated with the ossuaries, or after their inhumation. (Only in the latter case might the forms help us in identifying the deceased.) Even if we were convinced that these forms play a symbolic role of some kind, this would not enable us to prove or disprove possible links between the Talpiot tomb and Jesus of Nazareth. For example, somebody recently affirmed that "the pointed gable over the rosette is a pre-Christian Jewish symbol that referred to the Temple", and that this pattern can even be found on Hasmonean coins. Well, that doesn't affect the issue of whether or not this particular tomb did in fact house the remains of Jesus and his family.

There is, however, a subtle way in which the forms on the façade of the Talpiot tomb might have a bearing on the question of the identity of the incumbents. Imagine, for the sake of the explanations that are to follow, that the Talpiot tomb was indeed the place where the body of Jesus of Nazareth was laid to rest. In that case, we can assume that a certain number of early Christians were aware of this site, and had visited it. For such people, it seems reasonable to assume that the façade was memorable, because of its chevron and circle... regardless of whether or not these forms actually meant much to those who saw them. We might imagine that the façade served as a visual indicator for pilgrims, who probably spread the information, by word of mouth, that Jesus was buried in tomb to the south of Jerusalem adorned with a sculptured triangular form above a circle. In this way, the forms on the façade of the Talpiot tomb would have been transformed into a symbol of the tomb of Jesus, even if this had never been their initial raison d'être. Now, if this kind of reasoning is valid, there should be cases of the presence of this symbol, later on, in Christian contexts. Here is the most explicit case of such a symbol:

This celebrated Supper at Emmaus (depicting the resurrected Jesus) was painted in 1525 by Jacopo Carruci, known as Pontormo, whose work was greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Above the head of Jesus, a curious visual image is composed of an eye at the center of a triangle. Is it thinkable that this round object on a triangular background might be intended to evoke the façade of the tomb at Talpiot? If so, this would mean that the 16th-century Florentine painter was aware—in ways that are hard to fathom, but plausible—that Jesus had been buried in a tomb that bore an image of this kind.

More recently, this image of an "all-seeing eye" (as it is often termed) has been adopted as a masonic symbol, and it is construed today as a coded sign that might have come from Ancient Egypt. As I said earlier on, this discussion about possible signs and symbols cannot be used to prove anything, but it provides us with interesting guidelines.

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