Tag Archives: israel museum

A Look into Loggia at Herodium

At the Herod exhibit at the Israel museum there is a room that is a reconstruction of the loggia, the VIP box from the Herodium theater with its colorful panels on the lower part of the wall and above on light-colored plaster, unique paintings in secco, trompe de l’oeil views through an open window. Secco is a technique that requires less artisan skill and used when time is short as in the approaching visit of Marcus Aggripa in 15 BCE. In secco paint is applied on top of dry plaster whereas in fresco the paint is added while the plaster is still wet. The fresco technique requires skilled craftsmen who have to work applying small areas of plaster, smoothing it and then adding the mineral pigments.

Loggia at museum

The loggia at Herodium is not accessible to the public, room is enclosed by a wooden structure and a team of conservators are working to protect the delicate secco painting. Last week while guiding at Herodium I found the door open and was able to look in for a moment. Hence the photos below were taken in a rush, using my iPhone – since few images of the loggia have been shared I offer them for viewing here.

Loggia at Herodium

Two things struck me: 1) Through holes in the plaster you can see that the lower panels have two layers of paint and plaster implying that the walls were redecorated, probably for Marcus Aggripa’s visit. In talking to Dudi Mevorah, curator at the Israel museum, the outer layer is not fresco but a covering done in secco.

Loggia frescoes

2) There are delicate paintings still on the upper section of the wall that are being conserved in place. The painting on display in the museum exhibit is a painstaking reconstruction of thousand of tiny pieces of paint found on the floor of the loggia by museum staff. You can view it at https://israeltours.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/secco-loggia.jpg

Secco wall painting

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Through My Lens at Israel Museum

Here is this week’s series of photos, week #3, of different views of Israel Through my Lens. These photos were taken at the Israel museum, Israel’s leading cultural institution and one of the leading encyclopedic museums of the world. The museum has nearly 500,000 objects of fine art, archaeology, Judaica and Jewish ethnography, representing the history of world culture from nearly one million years ago to the present day and should be on every visitor’s itinerary.

The museum campus underwent a major renovation in 2010 that included new entrance pavilions and an underground walkway, lit from the side by natural light with a view of streaming water that cascades down the steps above your head. This photo captures two custodians cleaning the glass side wall.

Cleaning glass

When you visit the museum plan some time to experience James Turrell’s installation in the sculpture garden, Space That Sees (1992) part of his “Skyspace” series. Observing the shifting hues and patterns of the sky from inside a pristine, rectilinear space, a shrine-like inner space evoking places of worship like pyramids, mausoleums, or temples, viewers can connect to the heavens. A square opening in the ceiling makes a frame for an ever-changing “picture” of the sky. Turrell, by confronting us with the empty space, turns our mind to our own way of seeing.

Turrell sky view

Another interesting structure is the Shrine of the Book that has been called “a milestone in the history of world architecture”. The two architects who designed it were an odd couple – the pragmatic Armand Phillip Bartos was evidently chosen based on his being married to Gottesman’s daughter (Gottesman was the philanthropist who had purchased the Scrolls as a gift to the State of Israel and donated the money to build the Shrine that houses the Scrolls); the oddball visionary Frederick John Kiesler who critics said had never built anything and was primarily an avant-garde stage designer who taught occasionally.

The exterior is dominated by two unique architectural features: a shimmering white dome reflected in a pool of water, representing the “Sons of Light” and a freestanding, polished black basalt wall, standing for the “Sons of Darkness” so vividly described in the War scroll. This photo captures the white dome under a cascade of water at night.

Shrine water light

Herod – Design and Realpolitik

The New York Times article reporting on the Herod exhibit at the Israel Museum concludes with my comments.

Shmuel Browns, a tour guide and expert on Herodium who helped Netzer excavate the site as a volunteer, said he was awed by the meticulous reconstruction, particularly of a large basin adorned with several heads that was found in pieces in two disparate places at the site, now an Israeli national park.

“They’ve built things from what was found that you could never imagine from what you saw at the site,” Mr. Browns said. “The message is very, very strong about who Herod is and what he did. He wasn’t intimidated by topography, he wasn’t intimidated by material, he wasn’t intimidated by lack of water.

“He’s a fascinating character,” Mr. Browns added. “He just got very, very bad press.”

Silenoi headsWhile excavating Lower Herodium, archaeologist Ehud Netzer found marble pieces of a wash basin in the bath-house, including a pair of Silenoi heads – the companion and tutor of the wine god, Dionysos. Conceivably, it was a gift from the Emperor Augustus that his deputy Marcus Agrippa presented to Herod, on his tour of Judea in 15 BCE and installed as a fountain. Imagine this fragile and heavy object making its journey from Greece to Rome to Judea and the bath-house at Herodium. The conservation staff of the museum painstakingly reconstructed the basin with its ornate decoration.

Greek 3-footed basin

Though it is not known to what degree Herod observed traditional Jewish practices, he appears to have respected them. Aside from this basin, no other human images, in sculptural form, have been found in any of Herod’s palaces.

Loggia trompe l'oeil painting

Boat billowed sailWhen Netzer excavated above the theater at Herodium he found the loggia, the VIP box for Herod and his guests, like Marcus Agrippa. Delicate trompe l’oeil paintings were on the walls, done in secco – painting on dry plaster, a technique unusual for this area. Scenes of nature through a painting of an open-shuttered window, itself a painting hanging on the wall. Dudi Mevorah, one of the curators of the exhibit, pointed out a painting of a boat with billowing sail on plaster from the loggia, alluding to Marcus Agrippa’s history-changing victory over Mark Anthony at the naval battle of Actium. Herod dictated the images in the paintings as a lead-in to the discussions that Herod was interested in having with his guest.

Herod the Great: The King’s Last Journey is a monumental exhibit that should not be missed. It gives us new insights into the very complex figure that is Herod, his determination not be constrained by nature, topography or materials and his consummate grasp of realpolitik.

Herodium, Netzer, King Herod and the Israel Museum

Each day we rose before dawn and the unrelenting desert heat to continue digging east of the monumental staircase. In the summer of 2007, after Professor Netzer had discovered the base of the mausoleum, I volunteered at the archaeological site at Herodium. Among seas of pottery shards, we dug up baseball-sized stones hurled by a Roman catapult (ballista). Scanning with a metal detector, we found tiny, encrusted bronze coins, from the period of the Great Revolt.

Herodium Tomb areaWe uncovered a few well-carved stones strewn about – an egg and dart pattern, two five-petaled flowers from a decorative frieze. The high-quality limestone is meleke, from the root “king”, is not local to the site; it had been brought to Herodium specially for the mausoleum. At Herodium last week, these pieces were not to be found.

Herod the Great exhibitThe first image at the entrance to the Herod exhibit at the Israel museum opening today is neither architecture or artifacts, but the Judean desert – the site where Herod built his monuments is important.

Throne Room, JerichoFollowing Herod the Builder, museum staff re-constructed three rooms from Herod’s palaces at the museum. The first room you enter is a replica of the throne room from Herod’s third palace at Jericho, excavated by Netzer for his doctorate. The original frescoes with their intense natural colors were removed from the palace and moved to the museum. So fond of Herod, Augustus had permitted him to mine cinnabar, a red mineral pigment, from his private property in Almadén, Spain.

When Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ deputy visited Judea in 15 BCE, he was so impressed by Herod’s building projects that he sent Roman builders and artists to Judea to contribute their sophisticated skills. Opus recticulatum is a technique for strengthening walls to resist earthquake damage. All three examples of this Roman technique are found in Herod’s projects, discovered by Ehud Netzer: in the palace at Jericho, at the remains of a building north of Damascus gate rumored to be Herod’s Family tomb, and in a section of temple wall at Banias.

Bathtub Opus SectileThe second room displays Herod’s private stone bathtub uncovered by Netzer at the palace in Cypros. The museum displays floors from Cypros and Herodium laid with a Roman technique, opus sectile. Natural-colored stone tiles are cut in geometric shapes and laid in repeated patterns. In other cases, the floors are mosaic – two mosaic floors from the bathhouse at Lower Herodian, one in an opus sectile pattern and the other geometric shapes with pomegranates.

Secco - loggiaThe third room is a reconstruction of the loggia, the VIP box from the Herodium theater with its unique secco wall paintings. According to this Roman technique, paint is added to dry plaster compared with the more usual fresco – fresh, wet plaster technique. These paintings are trompe de l’oeil views of an open window, with wooden shutters, that look out onto a natural scene, at the artistic standard found in the finest palaces and villas in Rome and Pompeii.

Herodium MausoleumThe exhibit is laid out faithfully to the site at Herodium where the loggia and the mausoleum flank the staircase. At the museum, we move through the viewing platform toward the full life-size reconstruction of the top-level of the mausoleum. The very decorative stones I excavated at Herodium are in their proper places in the frieze. A microchip was attached to each stone of 30 tons that were transported from Herodium to the Museum – as an aid to tracking and assembly. For the same purpose, the Hebrew letter “chet” can be seen on one stone, a sign left by the ancient Jewish stone masons. The structure is so heavy that the floor had to be specially reinforced.

In 1982, while Netzer was excavating, he came upon a water cistern in the mountain. He was puzzled that the cistern had been reinforced to support a great weight. Unbeknown to him, he had come within a meter of discovering the mausoleum. Why would Herod have insisted that the mausoleum be built on top of a cistern? According to the curator, Dudi Mevorah, Herod chose this precise location because it is best seen from Jerusalem. Once the mausoleum was complete, Herod dismantled the stage and buried his theater in order not to distract the eye.

The Israel Museum

The Israel Museum

Netzer drew on his familiarity with Herod’s oeuvre and his expertise as an architect and archaeologist to imagine the mausoleum. Netzer conceives a colossal three-story monument – 25 meters high. The first level is cube-shaped – only the base exists and can be viewed at Herodium halfway up the mountain on the north side. The second level is a tholos, a cylindrical structure with Ionic columns and crowned with a conical roof. In addition to the Roman style, there are Nabatean elements to memorialize Herod’s Nabatean mother Cypros – two stone replicas of Nabatean funerary urns are on display out of five that adorned the roof.Nabatean Funerary urn

Entering within the structure, the sarcophagus that Netzer claims was Herod’s rests. Netzer found its shards – the stone box had been smashed in antiquity and reconstructed by museum staff.

The Israel Museum/Meidad Suchowolski

The Israel Museum/Meidad Suchowolski

Made of reddish limestone, mizzi ahmar, from the Arabic, this is very hard stone and would have been difficult to carve – perhaps that made it all the more appealing. Originally, Netzer suggested that the side panels of the sarcophagus were decorated with five flower medallions. There are sarcophagi like that, one in the Louvre taken from the Tomb of the Kings, one outside the Islamic museum on the Haram el-Sharif. Based on the museum reconstruction, it seems that these panels are plain.

Two sarcophagiBeside the mausoleum, the other two sarcophagi that Netzer discovered are displayed. Netzer posits that these belonged to Herod’s family members. One is decorated with a vine pattern – very similar to the stucco decorations in Herod’s theater box. The other sarcophagus, displayed for the first time, is completely plain as if waiting for the stone-carver.

The Israel museum has built a monumental exhibit that expresses Herod’s architecture and aesthetics as discovered by archaeologist, Professor Ehud Netzer – Herod would have been pleased with the result. To understand more requires going beyond the exhibit halls, to experience the drama of Herod’s life in situ, at the sites that Herod built.


For an in-depth full-day tour of Herodium and the Israel Museum’s “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” exhibit and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites and more, contact Shmuel.

Monumental enough for Herod the Great?

My article with Bonna Devora Haberman in Jerusalem Post:

So they went eight furlongs [a mile, per day] to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life.  Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, 8.3.

Herodium

From 37 B.C.E. until his grisly demise in 4 B.C.E., Herod the Great ruled over Judea. World history has anointed few with the epithet “the Great”. He masterminded and engineered the Jerusalem Temple – among the magnificent temples in the ancient world, the fortress-complex at Masada – the most-visited site in Israel, Caesarea – in its day, the largest all-weather harbor built in the open sea, imposing cities, aqueducts, and finally, Herodium – the most spacious palace known to us in the Greco-Roman world before the common era. A giant who moved mountains, Herod was respected, feared, and despised. Reckoning with Herod is indispensable to interpreting the historical and material landscape of Israel.

Herod’s passion lives on. Herod proved to be archaeology professor Ehud Netzer’s nemesis. The Israel Museum staff have been toiling for three years to present Netzer’s discoveries in the first exhibit in the world dedicated to Herod. Commensurate with his life and work, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is unprecedented in grandeur and expense – displayed in 900 square meters, approximately 250 artifacts related to Herod are exhibited, many for the first time. To show even this tiny sampling of his massive production, Herod fittingly required the museum to reinforce its very foundations.

The Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius records extensive narrative about Herod – nearly a century after the events. Though he describes in precise detail Herod’s majestic funeral procession to Herodium – performed according to Herod’s own orders – Josephus mysteriously neglects to mention the location of Herod’s tomb. [Read more]


For an in-depth day with Herod – at Herodium and the Israel Museum and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites and more, please contact Shmuel.