Thursday, May 01, 2008

Guest Bible Artist interview #4

Dr Leen Ritmeyer
Dr Leen Ritmeyer
The Forth of our 'Bible Artist' interviews is with Archaeological Architect Dr Leen Ritmeyer. Many Bible artists, including myself, struggle when it comes to illustrating truly authentic Biblical buildings. This has not been a problem to Leen Ritmeyer whose research is guaranteed to inspire Bible artists worldwide!  

Leen, you're job title is 'Archaeological Architect  specializing in Biblical Archaeology'. In layman's terms, what exactly does an archaeological architect do?
The work I have done for a long time now, is reconstructing ancient sites. I have done this with pen and ink on paper or as a painting, by designing and building models and also by actually building up ancient sites to show some of their former glory. Before making any reconstruction, one first has to make plans, elevations and sections of the site. One also needs to do a survey of all the fallen or destroyed remains which are no longer 'in situ', i.e. in their original location. It is also important to study any available ancient sources and study comparative architectural styles.

As an archaeological architect you've managed to combine two of your interests in a career, Archaeology and Art. What made you choose such an interesting career? 
I have always been interested in ancient architecture, but never knew that I could make a career out of it. When I first looked at multi-period archaeological sites in Israel I didn't understand what I was looking at. After having worked for a while on an excavation, I realized that I was not alone having this problem. I found this out when I had to give tours of the dig to visitors. I used to explain particular details with words and sometimes hands and feet, but not everybody understood what I was trying to make them see. This changed when I started using black and white reconstruction drawings with the extant remains coloured in. After that I had no more trouble explaining ancient sites to visitors.

Are there many Archaeological architects that specialize in Biblical Archaeology?  
When I worked in Israel  till 1989, I was practically the only one who specialized in making reconstruction drawings of ancient sites. Some digs had capable artists or architects working as volunteers who could make reconstruction drawings, but I was the only one, as far as I know, who did it full-time. The result was that I was asked to make reconstruction drawings of over one hundred sites. The most well-known drawing is my reconstruction of the Herodian Temple Mount:Bible Archaeology
How long have you been an archaeological architect, and where was your first site?
The first site I worked on was the Temple Mount excavations in Jerusalem. I was taken on as surveyor in 1973, making plans and sections of the site. An Irish architect showed me how to do this. After I gave my survey plans and sections to him, he completed missing lines and suddenly I saw what I was working on. His work fascinated me and he gave me a reconstruction project to do under his supervision. That apparently went well, for when he left four months later, the professor asked me to take over his job. I never looked back since.

Out of all the archaeological sites that you've worked on, which Biblical site has excited you the most?
Undoubtedly the Temple Mount. It was, as it were, love at first sight. I knew the Bible well, since I began reading it carefully in Israel in 1967 and the sacred buildings, such as the Tabernacle and the Temples built by Solomon and Herod, always intrigued me.  It was a privilege to have worked there for so many years and to get to know the building details intimately. But it took me over twenty years before I was satisfied that I had found out as much as there is to find out about that huge site. That doesn't mean to say that I concentrate on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount only. Here is an example of another site that I have reconstructed, namely the harbour and village of Capernaum in the time of Christ:Bible Archaeology
What advice would you give to anyone reading this interview, who wanted to become an archaeological architect?
I don't know of any course that teaches how to become an archaeological architect. I did an MA course at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at the University of York, but to be accepted on the course, one needs to have worked for several years in reconstruction work. To become an archaeological architect, one needs to study, or have at least a good knowledge of, archaeology, ancient architecture and ancient history. It is something which you develop in the field. I began as a surveyor and then studied these three disciplines under private tuition of the leading professor, who wanted me to become an archaeological architect. He must have noticed that I had a flair for reconstruction work and he encouraged me to develop these skills.
You mentioned to me that part of your work in Israel was to reconstruct actual Biblical buildings. Can you tell us something about the buildings that you've worked on?
Yes, I have (partially) reconstructed a Crusader church, a Byzantine colonnaded street, namely the Cardo in Jerusalem, Herodian villas, one of which may have been the palace of Annas the High Priest, who, with his son-in-law Caiphas, condemned Jesus to death, and other buildings, such as monasteries and agricultural installations. The most complete reconstruction was a section of the Cardo, where we assembled complete columns with their capitals and a wooden roof construction on top. Usually, however, the work involved building up walls and doorways a few feet to help visitors with spatial orientation and the repair of floors and approach roads. Special care needs to be taken not to reconstruct anything one is not hundred percent certain of. Here is a picture of myself checking the position of a Byzantine capital in the Cardo of Jerusalem.Bible Archaeology
I mentioned in a previous post on Herod's Temple that, based on archaeological finds, it would appear that the Herodian craftsmen were careful not to use imagery of animals or men in the ornamentation of the Temple.
It was suggested that the reason for this was that it would contravene the second commandment. If this is the case, why do we see 12 bronze oxen supporting the huge metal water basin in Solomon's Temple? (1Kings 7:23-26)
This idea is based on an incomplete reading of the Biblical text. Exodus 20.4 indeed forbids the making of graven images and the like, but the next verse explain why. They are not to make them to bow themselves down to them, in other words, to turn images to objects of idol worship. The twelve bronze oxen and other objects, such as the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, were never meant to be worshipped. 

Going a little off topic, there's a question that I wanted to ask in regard to the Temple Mount. I recently read about some concerns relating to the possible unauthorized excavations taking place on the Temple Mount. As the Temple Mount is under Muslim control, what is stopping the Muslim authorities from cordoning off part of the Temple Mount and excavating themselves without the knowledge of the Jewish authorities.
The Temple Mount is not under complete Muslim control. The site is under the legal jurisdiction of the Government of Israel, who  allow the Muslims to have control over the way they use the site for religious purposes. The whole of the Old City, including the Temple Mount, is an archaeological zone. Only archaeologists are allowed to excavate there. That is how so many sites were excavated in the Jewish Quarter. Many houses there were destroyed during the Jordanian rule from 1948 till 1967. Before any new building could be constructed, the foundations had to be excavated by archaeologists.

The QuestBible illustrators are always on the look out for good reference, particularly of authentic Biblical buildings. Can you suggest some good books or websites that would be useful?  
If one is interested in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, I suggest visiting our blog: and website:
We have produced books, posters and CD, which can be purchased from our site. I recommend subscribing to the Biblical Archaeology Review magazine:  They also sell interesting books. Other Israeli archaeological websites, which sell good archaeological books are: and
The Jerusalem publisher, Carta, who also publishes our books, the latest one of which is called "The Quest - Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem", prints interesting books on Israel. Their website is: 
You have provided illustrations for many Bible related publications over the years, and your most recent work has been for the new ESV Study Bible. Can you tell us more about that?
I was asked to be the archaeological and architectural reconstruction editor for the new ESV Study Bible, which is going to be a very useful tool for Bible Students. It will have over 200 new maps and forty new reconstruction drawings. In recent years, many new archaeological discoveries have been made in Jerusalem, so it was necessary to make completely new reconstructions of the Holy City showing its development from David to the time of Christ. My reconstruction drawings have been turned into magnificent paintings by a UK graphics firm. You can see samples and other information about the ESV Study Bible, which hopefully will be published in October this year, on this website:

When did your interest in the Bible begin?
I was brought up in the Dutch Reformed Church, but started to read the Bible seriously in 1967. In September that year, just after the Six Day War, I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. The very fact of living in and traveling through the country, meeting people with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and seeing so many Biblical sites roused my interest. I learned Hebrew, so that I can consult the original text, as I didn't want to rely on translations, however good some are. Whenever our family travelled in the Land, we always did it with the Bible in hand, so that it became a wonderful traveling companion, illuminating the physical background of the Bible.

You spent 20 years in Israel, and you've recently moved from Australia to the U.K. What are your plans now?
The last six years we spent in Adelaide, Australia, where I was teaching Hebrew, the History of Modern Israel and a bit of Biblical Archaeology as well. We are now living near Cardiff in Wales and continue our archaeological illustration work. As mentioned before, I am still working on the ESV Study Bible and have other projects in the pipeline. We also hope to have some time to further develop our own line of products, which we advertise on our website:

In closing, I'd like to ask you another 'off topic' question. Having worked so long in Israel, and especially on the Temple Mount, do you have any thoughts on where the 'Ark of the Covenant' might be? 
You can't imagine how many emails I received asking this question after the publication of my discovery of where the Ark stood in Solomon's Temple. You can still see the indentation in the Rock, inside the Dome of the Rock, that was specially made as an emplacement for the Ark. There are claims that the Ark is buried under the Temple Mount or in Mount Nebo, near the Dead Sea, in Ethiopia, France or Ireland. We do have our own ideas, but they need further investigation, before we are ready to publish anything.

Thanks so much to Dr Leen Ritmeyer for taking part in this extremely interesting interview. If anyone would like to attend one of Dr Ritmeyer's lectures on the subject of the Temple Mount, you can find details of all his up-coming lectures here.

Related posts:
Interview with Jeff Anderson
Interview with Keith Neely
Interview with Diana Shimon
No more Domes!
Being Roofless!
What did Herod's Temple look like?
Houses in Bible times
The Day of Atonement
The contents of the Ark
Covering the Ark



Paul Green said...

Thanks for the interesting interview Graham. Dr. Ritmeyer is a multi-talented guy. It must make a world of difference to work at the actual locations you are researching.

Bible artist said...

Yes indeed. I would love to visit the Temple Mount site and sit there imagining all the events that had taken place on that spot.

I've ordered a copy of Dr Ritmeyers book 'The Quest' which should arrive any day now. I'm really looking forward to reading that.

Bible artist said...

Received my copy of 'The Quest' this morning.
This is a 'must have' for Bible artists who are serious about depicting the Temple at the time of Jesus.

The Quest is packed with illustrations, photos and diagrams of every aspect of the Temple Mount site.

Leen Ritmeyer said...

Thanks Graham for putting up the interview. I have made a link on my blog.

Bible artist said...

That's great news! Thanks so much.

Bible artist said...

Dr Ritmeyer makes an interesting point which I believe has a bearing on the question "Should we draw pictures of Jesus?" Most of the arguments against pictures of Jesus are based on the fear of breaking the second commandment "You shall not make for yourself a carved image..."etc. Ex 20:4-6.

As Dr Ritmeyer points out, the second commandment, like the forth, is fairly long, (3 verses), and needs to be taken in context. Some people stop reading at verse 4 of Exodus 20 and forget that verses 5 and 6 are part of the same commandment.
Leen Ritmeyer clearly demonstrated this when he answered my question regarding the use of the 12 bronze oxen that supported the "Sea" which was the 12,000 gallon basin used by the priests to wash in just outside Solomon's Temple. See 1 kings 7:23-26.
When we compare this story with the story of the 'Golden calf' in Exodus 32 we could get a little confused, as in both cases we find the children of Israel making an image of cattle out of precious metal, yet one is right and the other very wrong. So what was the difference? The difference was that the golden calf in Ex 32 was made with the intention of worship, whereas the 12 bronze oxen were not.

If a Bible artist is producing pictures of Jesus with the only intention that they should assist the telling of Bible stories, there should be no problem. If an artist or sculptor produced an image of Jesus with the intention that people should worship it, that would be different.

Paul Green said...

Then I think it's safe to say it's okay in your case Graham. Unless some strange cult exists somewhere that is using your drawings for worship. :)) Even then, that's their problem. If you illustrate with the intention to educate and someone uses your illustration for other purposes it's out of your control. It's not something the artist should spend time worrying about. You have enough problems researching and illustrating the work.

Bible artist said...

It's funny you should say that Paul, because we had a situation not long ago when I'd sent some coloring pictures for missionaries to use in Guatemala.
One of the pictures was a fairly detailed picture of the crucifixion. One missionary made the point that some of the parents would actually worship that picture!

I sent them one of an empty cross instead! I think in situations like that it's good to be wise and not put an image into a situation where there's a good chance that it will be used for worship.

Hey! What makes you think that only a "Strange cult" would worship my pictures! lol!

Paul Green said...

Paintings and sculptures have often been used as focal points of devotion by people of most religions. It's a matter of debate if devotion to a simple cross is that much different than devotion to a statue or image. They can be seen as aids to meditation and prayer in that they focus our attention.
When statues are worshipped because they display tears or blood or appear to move in low light then superstition replaces devotion. And that is where the danger lies. It is easy to cross that line for some. And certain cultures actually encourage it.
I don't like plain church interiors. I personally prefer to see paintings, carvings and sculpture. That doesn't mean I'll worship the painting etc. But I will find it inspiring.

Paul Green said...

An example of the abuse of Bible art Graham. Today I received a letter in the post from some church in America. It included an illustration of the face of Jesus with a crown of thorns and eyes closed. The said to "look and the eyes will open". They called it a "Prayer Rug". It was just a piece of paper. Elsewhere in the mailing it had a photo of a smiling woman. "I looked at the Prayer Rug and won $46,000!"
This is a good example of abuse of Christian art. And it's sanctioned by a church!!

Bible artist said...

It is disturbing hearing about stuff like this.