Brief History of Jewish Art
Contrary to popular perception, Jewish art dates back to Biblical
By Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman
The second commandment declares: "You shall
not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of anything
that is in the heavens above or in the earth below" (Exodus
20:4). This single Biblical edict feeds the misconception that Jewish
art created by Jewish artists is a relatively new genre. Yet, contrary
to popular perception, Jewish artists date back to Biblical times,
and Jewish artists have indeed depicted anthropomorphic images.
The First Jewish Artist
The sanction that would more aptly serve as the
slogan for much of Jewish art perhaps should be, "Remember
the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt."
Paired with the repeated biblical command to remember the stranger
and the Israelites' wandering-- and the insecurity that came with
that homelessness-- stands the idea that God's presence remains
eternal and protective, ideas that infuse Jewish art.
The Biblical Bezalel--whose name literally means,
"in the shadow or protection of God"--was the Jewish artisan
appointed specifically by God to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2).
So if one defines Jewish art as the works of Jewish artists, one
of the earliest works of Jewish art lay in God's command to Bezalel
regarding the construction of the Tabernacle.
The Bible details the beautiful work of Jewish
hands in the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem under the
direction of King Solomon. It is described as overlaid with gold
and decorated with cherubim (I Kings 6). The Talmud describes the
beauty of the Herod's Second Temple, declaring, "He who has
not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious
building in his life" (Tractate Succot 51b).
In spite of the destruction of the Second Temple
in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and the beginning of a 2,000-year
Jewish exile, Jewish art flourished in the early post-exilic period,
inside and outside the land of Israel, including the Dura Europos
and Beit Alpha synagogues. The synagogue in Syria's Dura Europos,
an ancient city along the Euphrates, contains well-preserved frescoes
from the third century that portray human figures in biblical scenes.
The sixth-century mosaic of Israel's Beit Alpha
synagogue depicts human figures in a scene from the binding of Isaac
(Genesis 22), as well as signs of the Zodiac. Talmudic texts also
acknowledge the existence and tolerance of graven images. Synagogues
like those at Beit Alpha and Dura Europos show that images were
not just tolerated but utilized by the Jewish communities.
The Middle Ages &
Under Islamic rule, during the Middle Ages and
during the Renaissance, much of the evidence of Jewish art is restricted
to the construction of synagogues and the illustration of manuscripts.
This may not be as greatly influenced by the understanding of the
second commandment as by the reality of the Jewish community in
those eras. Countries with strong Muslim influences, including Spain,
featured much less physical representation of human forms in art
than the Northern European communities, because Muslims shun such
literal renderings of human forms.
Another factor that may have influenced the seemingly
smaller scope of Jewish art may lie in the nature of Jewish education.
The Jewish communities were familiar with Biblical stories that
made it unnecessary to portray them in the way that the Christian
world was doing for the illiterate masses. As the Encyclopedia Judaica
states, "For the Jews, with their high degree of literacy due
to their almost universal system of education and their familiarity
with the scripture story, this was superfluous."
Works of Jewish art from this period include illuminated
manuscripts like the 15th century Kennicott Bible, with illustrations
of King David, Jonah, and Balaam. There are also illuminated Bibles
from Yemen from the same period, but they do not contain the portrayal
of human figures. The early 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah, also
illuminated, was brought to Sarajevo from Spain after the Spanish
expulsion and Inquisition.
The same Torah that details the ornate beauty of
the Tabernacle did not inspire ornate synagogue architecture in
this period. While some synagogues in the medieval, Middle Ages,
and Renaissance contained stained glass, it was unremarkable. Reasons
for this could include the political and economic weakness of Jewish
communities tied to church controls and the Jewish communities'
own desires not to draw attention to themselves. More remarkable,
however, were the Jewish ritual objects that originated in this
time period and continue to be created to this day, all in the name
of hiddur mitzvah--the idea of adorning a commandment and the objects
used to perform it with beauty. Examples include Torah crowns and
finials, Havdalah spice boxes, and kiddush cups.
In Western Europe, with the coming of the Enlightenment,
a greater acceptance of Jews in the world at large meant that Jewish
artists could practice more freely. The late 19th and early 20th
century led rise to familiar figures of not just the Jewish art
world but the art world at large, including Camille Pissarro, Amedeo
Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, and Marc Chagall.
Camille Pissarro was a principal impressionist
painter who struggled financially to remain true to the impressionist
style. Modigliani, the Italian Jewish painter, settled in Paris
and had a painting style that included elongated faces representative
of African masks. His contemporary, Chaim Soutine, was born in Russia,
but also painted in Paris and was friends with Modigliani, who painted
his portrait in 1917.
But Marc Chagall, more than these others, incorporated
his Jewish upbringing and immigrant experience into his work. Many
of Chagall's most well known paintings are populated with figures
of his childhood in Belorussia.
In the Land of Israel
The settling and establishment of the State of
Israel in the 20th century provided another dimension to Jewish
art. Many young, often European, Jews came to the Land of Israel
in the pre-state period as pioneers (halutzim), and their connection
to the land accentuated their art. Artists like Reuben Rubin, who
made aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1912 and studied at the newly
established (1906) Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, painted in a
way that showed love for the land, with romanticized visions of
ancient and modern Israel. The work of Anna Ticho, who had studied
in Vienna, portrays finely detailed pencil and charcoal renderings
of the Judean hills, soft water colors of the flora and fauna around
her, and beautiful portraits of the patients, Arab and Jew, who
came to her husband's ophthalmology clinic in their home, where
she often worked.
The recent immigrant experience is reflected in
the works of Mikhail Gorman whose native Russian is used as text
in his paintings, while Israeli-born artist Yaakov Agam has created
recognizable three-dimensional pieces significant both for their
place in the larger Op-Art movement, as well as their interesting
usage of Kabbalah and mystical texts as inspiration.
The experience or memory of the modern Jewish artist
has included the shared reality of pogroms, wars, persecution, and
a modern-day version of Biblical wanderings. Jewish artists' work
intertwined with the reality of the time, as with Felix Nussbaum,
the Polish painter who later moved to Berlin and eventually died
in Auschwitz with his wife, also an artist. His work reflects wide-eyed
fear, as in his 1943, "Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card."
And thousands of years after the wanderings of
the Jewish people in the desert, some critics understand Mark Rothko's
large canvases with blocks of color as a modern day tabernacle.
In this way, Rothko, as with many Jewish artists, was both creating
a sanctuary serving as a place of worship and also a mobile place,
reflecting the enduring reality of wandering in the history of the
Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman is Associate
Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been active
in raising community awareness on >issues including gun violence,
battered women, and the separation of Church and State, and sits
on the Reform Movement's Commission for Social Action. She received
Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute