Ancient Tchotchkes Deepen Our Understanding of Jewish Pilgrims

Holy Land Artisans Did a Brisk Business in Pilgrimage Jars

A Jarring Work of Art: This particular pilgrimage jar is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the exhibit “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures From the British Museum.”
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
A Jarring Work of Art: This particular pilgrimage jar is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the exhibit “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures From the British Museum.”

By Menachem Wecker

Published May 06, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Many of the tourists who trek to Israel inevitably pack for their return flight with a variety of kitschy souvenirs and gifts for friends back home: red “Kabbalah” bracelets; Israel Defense Forces T-shirts; clocks with the Hebrew alphabet; Israeli flag or hamsa key chains. Fourteen centuries ago the props were different, but the business model of selling holy tchotchkes was very similar.

One such keepsake, an ochre-colored, glass “Pilgrimage Jar With Jewish Symbols” dated 578–636 Jerusalem, is on view through August 25 at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibit “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures From the British Museum.”

“They were more or less mass produced, although it’s a bit of an anachronistic term,” said Christina Nielsen, the Art Institute’s assistant curator for late antique, early Christian and Byzantine art, of vessels like the Institute’s jar, which has menorahs depicted on two of its sides.

The jars, which are about three inches tall, can be traced to a “very savvy” workshop just outside Jerusalem that made souvenirs for both Jewish and Christian patrons, as well as jugs with nonaffiliated decorations. “They just decided, well we’ve got this thing that everybody wants, and if we tweak the imagery to different groups, we will have more customers,” Nielsen said. “It seems to have served just about anyone who traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.”

Although it’s unclear what exactly the jars were used for, they show up in burial contexts in both Israel and Syria. Some may have been filled with oil from holy sites, which perhaps were thought to hold healing powers. “It was much more than just sort of nice symbolism,” Nielsen said. “It actually became almost like a reliquary, because the holiness of the sites could be sort of rubbed off onto people and then they could take that back home with them.”

Jars similar to the one in Chicago can be found in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art. The Met’s “Hexagonal Pilgrim’s Jar With Jewish Symbol” features not only a menorah, but also a shofar and a lulav, the closed frond of the date palm tree.

“Most scholars believe that the jars were used in some way by the Jewish community,” said Helen Evans, curator for Byzantine art at the Met. She notes that Dan Barag, the late scholar and former chairman of the Israel Numismatic Society, suggested that the jars may have held the oil that fourth-century Jewish pilgrims used to anoint a rock when they ascended the Temple Mount on the Ninth of Av.

“There are many theories as to the users and the use of these glasses for all communities, but nothing is certain,” Evans said.

Writing in the catalog for the Met’s 2012 exhibit, “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition,” Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, dismisses the interpretation about the Ninth of Av. “We have no external evidence, however, for such a practice,” he writes. “Flasks depicting the image of the menorah might also have been created by Christians for Christian pilgrims.”

The reverse — jars with Christian iconography being marketed to Jewish visitors — is less likely, according to Nielsen, who notes that the sixth century was a time when Jews were being barred from offices to which they had previously had access, and when tax exemptions they’d been privy to were being closed.

“They were getting really restricted,” she said. “It would seem to me that it would be very odd, given that sort of climate, that a Jewish person in Jerusalem would pick up, say, a vessel that had a cross on it.”

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at http://menachemwecker.com or on Twitter, @mwecker.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.