Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Cherubim Gate

The famed Cherubim Gate was, supposedly, where the Colonnaded Street arrived at the the inner wall. It was in line with the Daphne Gate on the outer (Theodosian) wall. Originally the Cherubim Gate was the main gate in the southern wall until Theodosius II decided to enclose the burgeoning suburb that had sprung up outside between the wall Tiberius built and the course of the Phryminus watercourse. We have seen reference to a "Golden" Gate but its not clear if that was the alternative name for the outer or inner gate.

Downey wrote an extensive essay on the Cherubim gate in the Jewish Quarterly review. The Cherubim themselves and their transfer was the subject of a seldom quoted 1961 note by W. L. Duliere in the admittedly obscure journal, Zeitschrift fur Religions- und Geistesgeschichte. Both of these authors relied upon two historical sources. These sources were Malalas (and a mirror version in the Chronicon Paschale.. which may have just used the same source material) and the other was the biographer of Saint Symeon Stylites. The first accounts (Malalas/Chronicon) are just a relation of the history of the gate while the hagiographic version talks about visions and a demonic struggle entered into by the saint in the vicinity of the "wall" of the Cherubim.


The gate was located near the Jewish quarter (see Wilber's map above) and it was reputed that Titus had erected the Cherubim (or copies thereof) looted from the Temple in Jerusalem "before" the gate, hence its name. Its location is still undefined.


The Cherubim were angel-like figures (it is believed) that were affixed to the top of the Ark of the Covenant (see artistic rendering above) in which the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain were kept. The Book of Exodus 25:18-20 describes their creation: "And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the mercy seat. "And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat". The original Ark was lost and a new one was not created for the Herodian Third Temple. Some scholars see a connection between these figures and the enormous winged figures at decorated Assyrian palaces at Nineveh and elsewhere.

As is well-known the Jewish War ended in 70 AD with the fall of Jerusalem, the sack of the city, the dispersal of the populace and the destruction of the Third Temple built by Herod. The Roman victors carried off the spoils. The Menorah, the Table of Shewbread (both of gold) and the Temple trumpets are amongst the booty displayed in the triumphal procession shown in a relief (shown below) of the Arch of Titus in the Forum in Rome.


The Malalas version relates that "Titus, having celebrated a triumph for his victory, departed for Rome; and Vespasian from the Jewish spoils built in Antioch the Great the so-called Cherubim before the gate of the city. For there he fixed the bronze Cherubim which he found found fixed in the Temple of Solomon; and when he destroyed the Temple he took them thence and carried them to Antioch with the Seraphim, celebrating the triumph for the victory over the Jews which had taken place in his reign, setting up above a bronze statue in honour of the Moon with four bulls facing Jerusalem, for he had taken it at night when the moon was shining." Here the Cherubim are set "before the gate" not upon it. What the Seraphim are is not clear... and the Moon and bulls grouping is rather garbled.

In the Stylites tale (written after 592 AD), the biographer relates that a devil made a vistation to the city. Downey reports this as: "the Destroyer went to the gate which is at the south [of the city], which leads out toward Daphne, and there arose from the so-called Cherubim, and as far as the Rhodion, in all the quarter which is called Kerateia, a great cry, and weeping, and much lamentation...". The text elsewhere suggests that the Cherubim may have been on a section of "the old wall" (i.e. that of Tiberius). This leaves us wondering if the Cherubim was a sculpture in the round or maybe a relief. The passage is also interesting because it mentions the Kerateia quarter (supposedly the main Jewish quarter) and the Rhodion. Whether the latter was a building or the district in which the settlers from Rhodes (back at the time of the city's founding) had based themslves is not clear. The Kerateion quarter is mentioned in Malalas in relation to the burning of the city by Chosroes as one of the parts of the city that survived relatively intact.

So what were these Cherubim in Antioch?
The original ones had been olive wood covered with gold but the Antioch version were supposedly of bronze. Downey does not feel that these were in the Holy of Holies of the Temple (which was empty anyway) but in one of the courts outside the main sanctuary. Clearly if they did not have to be carried as part of the Ark then they could have expanded significantly in size. Certainly if they were too small they would scarcely have been worth naming the gate after. We know that the Beroea Gate was a sizable structure so presumably the Cherubim gate mirrored the other gate. Giving egress to the busy road to Daphne and down to the port of Seleucia it must have been equally as grand. If set atop the gate the Cherubim grouping might have been a large sculptural piece indeed.

Downey engages in some discussion as to why the Cherubim should have gone to Antioch while the other Temple accoutrements went to Rome. For a start the artifacts on the Arch of Titus were made of gold and while not pocket-sized they were relatively portable. The size of the Cherubim is not known, but they may have been too unwieldy to figure in the Triumph. They were also made only of copper or bronze if the reports can be believed so thus did not have the same "meltdown value" as the other loot. (The Menorah and Table were not melted down though but deposited in the Temple of Peace in Rome and stayed there for hundreds of years until carried off by the Vandals, and later reportedly rescued and moved to Constantinople).

Why Antioch? Both authors posit that the Cherubim were installed on the gate in the city wall less for their artistic contribution but to stand as an ongoing reminder to the large and sometimes fractious Jewish population in Antioch that Rome was in charge. They could alternatively have been sent to Alexandria to serve the same purpose but it might have been too inflammatory a gesture there where the Jewish population made up 25% or more of the population. In Antioch the Jewish population had been troublesome in the more recent past and yet only measured by most accounts around 10% of the population.

Installing the Cherubim in the Kerataion district was seen by both recent authors as an affront to the local population. This however is speaking in hindsight and without any contemporary Jewish comment on the reaction to the artefact being installed to support it. We do not know the real answer. In some ways it may have been comforting to know that the last surviving "souvenir" of the Temple was in close proximity.

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I would add a thought that has long intrigued me, even before coming to the subject of Antioch, and that is how prohibition against "graven images" (so specifically outlawed in the Commandments) meshed with the Cherubim and other representations in the Temple (like the calves that supported the Sea of Bronze, which bring uncomfortable parallels with the Golden Calf) and the images that scholars have noted on the base of Menorah (see image above on Titus's Arch). Iconoclasm in Jewish law did not obviously extend to some of the decoration of the Temple itself. Ironically, we have seen a suggestion that it was with the arrival of the Arabs in Antioch in the 600s that the Cherubim "image" may finally have been destroyed because they took the prohibition against images more seriously than those who had controlled the city beforehand.

4 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very interesting. Another parallel (I'll look for a source later) involved the "Beautiful Gate", apparently the gate leading to the innermost court of Herod's temple. The Samaritan community took the two immense bronze leaves of the gate and installed them at a synagogue in Neapolis/Nablus. From there, they were later taken by the Turks to Constantinople, where they presumably are still, though unrecognized.

It may be that architectural elements were simply up for grabs in the several centuries of the ruins of the temple. Probably in the mid-fifth century, the temenos was reconstructed and an octagonal Church of Mary Theotokos was built on the site of the Temple's Holy of Holies, where, according to Byzantine tradition, the Virgin Mary was raised as a child (also reflected in the Protevangelium Jacobi). A similar octagonal church was erected over the ruined Samaritan Temple on Mt Gerizim, and others elsewhere (Capernaum, the Kathisma, Bethlehem), apparently the common contemporary form for marking a commemorative shrine at that period when Eudocia happened to be in the area.

Libanius_Redux said...

That's very interesting. I have never heard of the fate of the doors..One story has it that the Menorah and Table went on a long circuitous route through the hands of Romans, then Vandals and finally ended up back in Constantinople...maybe the Cherubim were whisked away too to the capital to "collect the set"...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, the Menorah, Table, and the Ziz (the high priest's golden headplate) apparently made it from the Temple of Peace in Rome and eventually all the way back to Palestine, actually. They're lost to history after the Persian invasion, though some suggest they were retrieved by Heraclius along with other purloined treasures, and also returned to Jerusalem. Various monasteries and ruined churches have been suggested as their hiding place.

It's hard to say what the cherubim of the gate were, though. All the Jewish sources proclaim the second temple as aniconic. If they were in Tiberius' gate, though, I'd guess that he had them put there, long before the Temple was destroyed. The tale(s) likely just sprang up due to the proximity of the Jewish quarter. Maybe the were winged Victories or something along that line.

Conceivably, they may have been taken from Hadrian's Capitolium, built on the ruins of the Jewish Temple after 135. Once it was demolished (to make way for the octagonal memorial church), perhaps some bronze elements were sent up north. It's all guesswork now, of course. I'm extremely dubious about these bronze cherubim coming from the Jewish context, though. It just doesn't make sense.

I have yet to find/recall the reference to the bronze Nicanor gates' transference from Jerusalem to Nablus to Istanbul, however. I'll keep looking!

Giovanni Campanella said...

i found an ancient limestone artifact that has 12 cherubs engraved on the outside of it. Anyone interested in helping me figure out this peice of pottery? It is the size of a basketball. Mother nature has really worn her down, I have photos of it.