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The Formation of Nabatean Art

Prohibition of a Graven Image among the Nabateans

Joseph Patrich

It is well known that during the Second Temple period the Jews of Judea strictly observed the injunction against graven images. Although the Jews borrowed techniques and artistic styles from the surrounding Hellenistic-Roman culture, they abstained from using images in their art. What is less well known is that, during the same period a similar phenomenon was taking place in the adjacent Arab kingdom of Nabatea, and this despite the fact that, unlike the monotheistic Jews, the Nabateans worshipped many deities. In both kingdoms political independence went hand in hand with a cultural independence that expressed itself in religion, language, script and art. Although continuity with iconoclastic Judea may have had some influence on Nabatean steadfastness to tradition under pressure from the dominant Hellenistic-Roman culture, it appears that their abstract perception of their gods and disregard for figurative art were innate, growing out of a particular theological doctrine. The principles of that doctrine have not been preserved, but we can deduce its existence - and to a lesser degree, its nature - on the basis of certain archaeological discoveries that we will discuss here subsequently. ; Unlike the common practice both in the Greco-Roman West and in the Parthian East, to accord the gods a human form, the Nabateans represented their gods in the form of a stele. The abstract manner in which they perceived the form of their deities, affected their approach towards figurative art. A systematic survey of Nabatean art indicates that negation of figurative art is evident in all domains of their creativity.
Hundreds of years before the Nabatean civilization, but in this same geographical area, there was a similar religious and artistic phenomenon of venerating stele gods and negating figurative art among another Arabian tribe, which scholars tend to identify with the biblical Midianites. The same spiritual wellsprings that nourished a nonfigurative tradition among the North Arabian tribes for hundreds of years - first the Midianites and then the Nabateans - ultimately resurfaced, nourishing the nonfigurative tendency we see in Islamic Arabian art.
This book examines the origins of prohibition of a graven image among the Nabateans, its effect on all facets of Nabatean art and its subsequent influence on Islamic art several hundred years hence. The implications for the history both of ancient religions and art lend to Nabatean

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