Orpheus, the ancient Greek musician and poet, was the founder of the Greek Mysteries. Orpheus, it is said, traveled to Egypt, invented the alphabet, and was a priest of both Apollo and Dionysus. His music not only had the power to stay the gates of death, but the celestial harmonies which issued from his magical lyre were so beautiful as to sway the beasts of the field, to move even the trees and lifeless stones. In his essay "Pagan, Christian and Jewish Elements in the Art of Ancient Synagogues," art historian Bezalel Narkiss makes a connection between Orpheus and King David.

Orpheus, the Thracian singer who moved rocks and trees and tamed wild beasts with his music, was usually depicted as a young harp player wearing a Phrygian conical peaked cap, seated on a rock, and surrounded by animals that were charmed by his music. The numerous wall paintings, mosaic floors, and relief sculptures of Orpheus in this posture were, of course, only a symbolic allusion to his function as a savior who managed to enter the underworld and come out alive.

The Pryhic cult that was personified by this mystical image of personal salvation was widespread in the Roman Empire and included not only initiates of his cult, but Jews and Christians as well. The many depictions in fourth century Rome's early Christian catacombs (and later) of Orpheus charming the animals, do not portray the Christians' belief in their salvation through Orpheus but rather refer to Christ, who is disguised as the popular Orpheus.

The popular figure with all his attibutes was depicted in early figure with all his attributes was depicted in early Jewish art as well. Orpheus wearing a Phrygian cap and playing a harp in front of some animals appear on the second stage of the main panel above the Torah Ark in the third century synagogue of Dura Europos. Here, too, the popular image of a musician was probably taken to represent King David, the harpist, the ancestor of the future Messiah, and annointed king and savior of the Nation of Israel.

David with harp, detail from Gaza synagogue floor

Evidence for the existence of such a figure in Jewish art is found only later, in the beginning of the sixth century, in the mosaic floor of the synagogue at Gaza. There the harpiest confronted by animals is crowned rather than donned with a Phrygian cap, and above his head is the Hebrew inscription "David."

Thus , the identification of a pagan cult with a Jewish or a Christian messianic figure was very common in the syncreistic milieu of late antiquity, and serves as but one example of the adoption by one cult of the pictorial symbolic language of another. The Orphic figure symbolized for the Jews an image of salvation and eternal life; it was legitimized by identifying him with David the musician, the Messiah to come.

The Orphic salvation differed from that of the Jews mainly in assuring the initiates of Orphism a personal salvation, which, in fact, all other salvation sects, including the Pauline Christians, also claimed. Jewish redemption was a national one, and personal salvation could be found only in the salvation of the whole nation. This special national Jewish redemption served as a guideline for all Jewish literary and artistic expression during late antiquity.

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From: Bezalel Narkiss, Pagan, Christian, and Jewish Elements in the Art of Ancient Synagogues in Lee I. Levine, editor, The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, . 1987 by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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