Traditional Jewish Art

Antiquity to 1800

by Cecil Roth, c. 1961-1969

Whether there exists a form of art that can be described as "Jewish Art" has long been a matter for discussion. What is indisputable is that at every stage of their history the Jews and their ancestors of biblical times expressed themselves in various art forms which inevitably reflect contemporary styles and fashions and the environment in which they lived. For purposes of cult and of religious observance, as well as for household and personal adornment, Jews have constantly produced or made use of objects which appealed in some fashion to their aesthetic sense. In a famous passage (Shab. 133b), the rabbis, commenting on Exodus 15:2, prescribed that God should be "adorned" by the use of beautiful implements for the performance of religious observances. A problem exists, however, regarding the Jewish attitude toward figurative and representational art. The Pentateuchal code in many places (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8 and in great detail 4:16–18) ostensibly prohibits, in the sternest terms, the making of any image or likeness of man or beast. In the context, this presumably implies a prohibition of such manufacture for the purposes of worship. But this reservation is not stated specifically in the text, and there is no doubt that at certain times the rigidity of the prohibition impeded or even completely prevented the development among the Jews of figurative art, and indeed of the visual arts generally, especially as far as representation of the human form or face was concerned. The inhibitions were stronger against the plastic arts (i.e., relief or sculpture) than against painting or drawing, because of the specific biblical reference to the "graven image." Nevertheless, at various periods and in various environments, in antiquity, as well as in modern times, these inhibitions were ignored. The meticulous obedience or relative neglect of the apparent biblical prohibition of representational art seems in fact to have been conditioned by external circumstances, and in two directions – revulsion, or attraction. In the later biblical period and throughout classical antiquity, in an environment in which the worship of images by their neighbors played a great part, the Jews reacted strongly against this practice and up to a point representational art was sternly suppressed. The same applied to a certain degree in the environment of Roman and Greek Catholicism in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, when the Jews were to some extent culturally assimilated, they began to share in the artistic outlook of their neighbors and the prejudice against representational art dwindled, and in the end almost disappeared. To this generalization, however, other factors must be added. Sometimes, the religious reaction of the Jews was influenced by political considerations. The almost frenzied Jewish opposition to images of any sort toward the close of the Second Temple period seems to have been prompted by the extreme nationalist elements, happy to find a point in which their political opposition could be based on a clear-cut religious issue. A few generations later, in an age of appeasement, their great-grandchildren could be, and were far more broadminded. But during periods of religious iconoclasm among their neighbors, the Jews – the classical iconoclasts – could not very well afford to be more compliant than others. Therefore, it seems, in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries and in the Muslim world long after this, there ensued an interlude in which representational art was rigidly shunned even though the nonrepresentational made notable progress.

In certain areas during the Middle Ages and Ghetto period representational art, both pictorial and plastic, was tolerated even in connection with religious observances and with cult objects used in the synagogue. At the same period, in other areas, the inhibitions were so strong as to exclude such objects even from secular use. In more recent times, portrait painting and photography have come to be generally – though not quite universally – tolerated even among the extreme orthodox. The emergence of artists from the Jewish community similarly presents no clear-cut picture. The names are known of men active in representational art in the classical period, and there were a few in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages carrying out even ecclesiastical commissions. In the 18th century, Jewish painters and portraitists – artists in the modern sense – began to appear in several European countries. But it is not easy to explain the sudden emergence in recent generations of a flood of artists of outstanding genius, largely of Eastern European origin, in France, the United States, and elsewhere. Until the 19th century the Jewish attitude toward art was in fact not negative, but ambivalent.


It is known that there was a relatively high development of art in Ereẓ Israel even before the coming of the Hebrews. In the Mesolithic period the inhabitants of the region that is now Wadi Natuf in Western Judea produced some carvings which, while intended for ritual purposes, show a love of full forms and beautiful shapes, a purity of line and balance of masses, which characterize naturalistic art at its best. The Jericho culture of the eighth to fifth millennia B.C.E. has a fresh aesthetic approach, and the clay masks found there, perhaps connected with ancestor worship, are among the chief works of ancient art in the Middle East. The carved bone and ivory figurines produced by the Beersheba culture of the fourth millennium are in advance both chronologically and qualitatively of the earliest productions of Egyptian art. The mysterious hoard of copper and ivory cult-objects of the Chalcolithic period found in 1961 in Naḥal Mishmar, not far from the Dead Sea, shows a sense of form and a high standard of execution. The Canaanite period which immediately preceded the Israelite conquest produced some significant religious art. Moreover, the invaders of Ereẓ Israel, whether Egyptians, Assyrians, or Hittites, all brought with them their own artistic conventions and left behind monuments or objects which inevitably affected the aesthetic conceptions of the inhabitants of the country. Hence the Hebrews arrived in a country which already had, if not an artistic tradition, at least a number of artistic expressions, most of them associated with cult purposes.


According to the Pentateuch, there were among the Hebrews who left Egypt artificers of genius, capable "in all manner of workmanship, to devise curious works, to work in gold and in silver and in brass, and in the cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of skillful work" (Ex. 35:31–35). The women were skilled in embroidery (ibid., 25–26). The sanctuary in the wilderness, whose appurtenances and decoration were traditionally associated with the names of Bezalel son of Uri and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, was presumably designed in accordance with contemporary Egyptian artistic fashion. This fashion no doubt continued to exercise considerable influence on the Hebrews even after they entered Canaan. Artistically, the most memorable detail was the pair of cherubim, apparently with human faces, whose wings extended over the Ark. The making of these has to be considered as art in the more restricted sense and not as mere skilled craftsmanship. These enigmatic figures, also a feature of the First Temple until its destruction, were the outstanding exception which proved that the ancient Hebrews did not absolutely shun figurative and plastic art.

In addition to these and similar decorative cherubim, the great laver in Solomon's Temple, called the "molten sea," was supported on the backs of twelve oxen cast in bronze, a construction to which at some later age there were objections. According to the detailed accounts in the books of Kings and Chronicles, the laver must have been both architecturally impressive and aesthetically memorable, especially in its decorative details.

It is not easy to discern the development of what may be termed native Hebrew art in the period of the Monarchy. Indeed, there is explicit information that the expert craftsmen employed in the construction of the Temple were Phoenicians from Tyre. The relatively few relics that have been preserved in Ereẓ Israel from this period, such as the not uncommon Astarte figurines, are mainly Canaanite in character. On the other hand, the plaques from the "House of Ivory" built in Samaria by King Ahab (876–853 B.C.E.), which show great taste and sensitivity, are under the influence of Phoenician art and were possibly executed by craftsmen introduced by Queen Jezebel from her native Sidon. Similarly, the admirably executed Israelite seals of the period are Egyptian or Assyrian both in character and in execution.


The situation continued into the period of the Second Temple. The handful of returned exiles lacked the conditions of political security and economic well-being that might have fostered the development of a native art. Any attempts in this direction must inevitably have been shaped at the beginning by Persian, and later by Greek, influences. With the Hellenization of the Middle East after the invasion of Alexander the Great (333 B.C.E.), Greek art began to make its appearance throughout the region. Greek cities were constructed within the area of the historic Ereẓ Israel, with temples, baths, and statuary which inevitably became familiar to the Jewish population. Antiochus IV's attempt to Hellenize Judea from 168 B.C.E. onward involved the forcible imposition of Greek standards and customs. These included the setting up throughout the land, and even in the Temple itself, not only of decorative statues, but also images for adoration. The religious reaction against this, under the Hasmoneans, inevitably fortified the Jewish opposition to any form of representational art. The latter Hasmonean rulers were nevertheless strongly affected by Hellenistic culture. Their buildings were constructed in accordance with Greek standards, with fine detail. The earliest Jewish coins, produced in this period, are sometimes beautifully designed, with Greek symbols such as the star, cornucopia, and anchor, executed with great delicacy. It is significant, however, that the effigy of the ruler never figured in these coins, as might normally have been expected.

With the Roman occupation, and in particular under the House of Herod, new attitudes began to emerge. Herod had no images in his remote, desert palace at Masada; but he had no objection to the introduction of statues and images into the non-Jewish parts of his dominions, even where there may have been a considerable Jewish population. It is known, too, that even the more resolutely Jewish members of his household did not object to having their portraits painted. On the other hand, Jewish nationalist extremists seem to have found in the biblical prohibition of images, literally and rigidly interpreted, a useful pretext for or stimulus to their anti-Roman feelings. When Roman coins bearing the emperor's effigy circulated in Judea, many persons – patriots perhaps more than pietists – objected strongly and some even refused to handle them. It was natural that there should be frenzied objections when in 37 C.E. the emperor Caligula's statue was placed in the Temple for adoration, even though there was later to be no opposition to the patriotic placing of statues of the ruler in Babylonian synagogues. There was also a loud outcry against the bearing of standards with the imperial effigy by the Roman legionaries when they marched through Jerusalem. Similarly, Herod's placing of an eagle over the Temple gate as a symbol of Rome was the occasion for an incipient revolt – ostensibly on religious grounds, but obviously with patriotic motivation as well. But a talmudic source of a later period reveals a more tolerant attitude when it states (TJ, Av. Zar. 3:1, 42c) that all likenesses were to be found in Jerusalem (before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.) except those of human beings. Although Herod's descendants would not use portraits in the coinage which they struck for Judea, they did not refrain from doing so for their possessions over the border. One of the Herodian palaces in Tiberias had figures of animals on the walls. No one appears to have objected to this until after the outbreak of the war against Rome in 66 C.E. when Josephus, as military governor of Galilee, led a campaign of competitive iconoclasm in order to demonstrate his zeal. There is some evidence that at this period patriotic religious fervor led to a decree forbidding all images. This temporarily stifled any artistic expression of the accepted type, precisely in an age of national resurgence when it might have been expected to flower. Architecture appears to have flourished in the Second Temple period around Jerusalem. Many ambitiously conceived funerary monuments are to be found, particularly in the Kidron Valley, and a number of delicately decorated sarcophagi and ossuaries have been unearthed. The Temple of Herod seems to have deserved its reputation as one of the architectural marvels of the Roman Empire.


With the fall of Bethar in 135 C.E. and the acceptance of Roman rule by the Pharisee elements, conditions changed. Theoretically, the religious inhibitions remained in force, but there was an increasing tendency to interpret the biblical prohibition as applying only to imagery intended for adoration. Hence, in practice, greater tolerance came to be shown. Rabbis of the highest piety did not object to frequenting baths where there was a statue of a heathen deity, maintaining that it was placed there for decoration only. In addition to their architectural significance, the synagogue ruins dating from this period (second–fifth centuries) embody decorative carvings and symbols – including animal forms – which combine a high standard of craftsmanship with a well-developed aesthetic sense. In due course rabbinical pronouncements reflected the changed attitude: to this period belongs the statement quoted above that all images except the human were to be found in pre-Destruction Jerusalem.

In the third century R. Johanan countenanced the painting of frescoes (TJ, Av. Zar. 3:3, 42d), while in the fifth century, according to a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Av. Zar. 4:1, 43d), R. Abun permitted – or at least tolerated – decorated mosaics and wall frescoes even in synagogues. The sixth-century mosaic of the Bet Alfa synagogue, vividly depicting the signs of the Zodiac, the Four Seasons, the Chariot of the Sun, and the sacrifice of Isaac, created a sensation when it was discovered in 1928. It is now realized, however, that there was nothing unusual about this form of decoration. Mosaics showing conventional figures and biblical scenes were a normal feature of synagogal decoration in Ereẓ Israel at the time. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that prostration in a synagogue on a figured floor would seem to be forbidden by the Bible (Lev. 26:1). Marianos and his son Ḥanina, who were responsible for the Bet Alfa mosaic, are the earliest Jewish artists in the modern sense known by name whose work has been preserved (though the epitaph of a Jewish painter named Edoxios has been found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome). More memorable from the artistic viewpoint are the magnificent third-century frescoes found in the synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria, preserved by what was no more than a lucky chance. These comprise an entire series of highly artistic wall paintings, executed in conventional Hellenistic style, which illustrate in great detail certain aspects of biblical history and prophecy. In these paintings the human face and form are lavishly represented. The lavish admission of figurative art to the synagogue, the very place of worship, is important. It is probable that this type of decoration was commonplace in synagogues of the period, even though the Dura specimen is the only one to have been preserved. It clearly represents a fairly long tradition of such art. Indeed, below the frescoes now revealed there have been discovered traces of others of a generation earlier, and these too, presumably, were no revolutionary innovation. Whether or not the Dura frescoes reflected, or were paralleled by, manuscript illuminations of Bible texts remains a problem. In view of the detailed regulations for the writing of the Sefer Torah such illuminations would of course be for domestic purposes only, and not for use in the synagogue. But it can be stated categorically that if human figures were tolerated on the walls of the synagogue before the worshiper's eyes, there is no reason why they should not have been permitted in codices or rolls studied in the home.


The analogies between the Dura frescoes and early Christian art are in some cases obvious, and have given rise to the theory that the latter continued the tradition of an earlier Jewish book-art, though this remains a matter of speculation. Indeed, it has been suggested that the earliest specimens of Christian book illumination – the Vienna Genesis of the sixth century (going back probably to a fourth-century archetype), the Joshua Roll of the tenth, the Codex Amiatinus based on a sixth-century original – may be Jewish in origin, or copied from Jewish prototypes in the Diaspora. Three-dimensional figures were more objectionable religiously than two-dimensional ones. But the inhibitions were weakening, for in the catacombs of Bet She'arim Greek coffins with crudely executed mythological figures in low relief were reused for Jewish burials. In the synagogues at Baram, Kefar Naḥum (Capernaum) and Chorazin in Ereẓ Israel there are fragmentary figures of lions in three dimensions. In Babylon, as has been mentioned, the statue of the ruler was admitted without protest, even in synagogues frequented by outstanding scholars (Av. Zar. 43b).


Clearly, the artistic traditions of the Palestinian and Near Eastern synagogues were imitated, perhaps with fewer inhibitions, in the Western Diaspora. The splendid architectural remains at Ostia in Italy and Sardis in Asia Minor show that monumental synagogues with fine attention to detail were common. Discoveries at Aegina in Greece and Hamam Lif in North Africa suggest that decorated floors were also usual. While no figurative art has yet been discovered in the Diaspora synagogues of the classical period (other than conventionally carved lions at Sardis), it is present in abundance on the wall frescoes of the Jewish catacombs in Rome. The emphasis, however, is on mythological figures, without the biblical reminiscences that might be expected. More remarkable are the lavishly decorated sarcophagi found in Rome, one at least bearing three-dimensional putti and other figures in high relief, by the side of the menorah or seven-branched candelabrum.

E.R. Goodenough endeavored to demonstrate in his monumental work, Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period (1953–65) and in a number of minor studies, that much of this representational art, in defiance of apparent rabbinic proscriptions, was the manifestation of a Jewish synthetic mystery religion. This popular religion was allied to, though not identical with, talmudic Judaism. But whether accepted or not, the theory cannot obscure the fact that within Judaism in the late classical period it was possible for figurative art in the fullest sense to develop.

The question remains, whether there was any continuity of tradition between the Jewish representational art centering in Bible illustration and the later version of the same art in Europe. There is unequivocal evidence of the former down to the sixth century at least, while the latter appeared, fully fledged but obviously of much earlier origin, from the 13th century onward.

Whatever the answer, the relative liberalism and normal development of art among the Jews in the late classical period subsequently received a check. To a certain extent this was the result of or paralleled the iconoclastic movement in the Byzantine Empire, which inevitably affected the Jews. There is evidence that at this time the figures in the Na'aran Synagogue mosaic were mutilated, and that a similar fate was suffered by some of the decorative carvings in other Galilean synagogues.


More decisive, naturally, was the spread of Islam, which became supreme for centuries in those areas where Jewish life flourished most. The new religion had, with certain exceptions, strong iconoclastic tendencies. Obviously the Jews could not afford to be more tolerant in this matter than their Muslim neighbors. Hence it appears that there was a revulsion in much of the Jewish world against the incipient representational art, and that this revulsion lingered in some vital areas even after the Islamic domination had receded.

The Spanish rabbis were outright in their opposition. The Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh, attributed to Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (39, 12), emphasized that it was forbidden to make likenesses of a human being out of any material, even for ornament. Maimonides, however, was somewhat more tolerant, forbidding (Yad. Av. Kokh. 3:10–11) only the human (not the animal) form in the round, and permitting it in painting and tapestries. Art expressed itself among the Jews, as among the Arabs, in nonrepresentational forms, making use of ornaments and arabesques, and exploiting to the full the decorative potentialities of the Hebrew alphabet and the patterning of minuscular characters. The exquisite decorations in the surviving medieval Spanish synagogues (especially at Cordova and Toledo), though somewhat later in date, are impressive examples of such work. More striking is the testimony of manuscript art. Throughout the Muslim world and the area under its influence, a new tradition established itself, highly Islamic in both feeling and conception. Illuminations in the accepted medieval sense – i.e., actual illustrations of the text – are ostentatiously absent. Instead, many pages are elaborately decorated – with carpet patterns, intricate geometrical designs, and the most skillful use of calligraphic characters both large and small, the last sometimes fashioned with consummate mastery into involved patterns of great ingenuity. Not infrequently, especially in biblical manuscripts, such decorative pages were deliberately and quite irrelevantly included at the beginning of the manuscript, and sometimes at the end as well, in great profusion, merely to enhance the beauty of the volume. The inclusion in the Bible manuscripts of highly stylized representations of the vessels of the Sanctuary seems, however, to form a link between these manuscripts and those of the now submerged tradition of the classical period. This method of Hebrew Bible illumination, divorced from the text, survived in some areas, or in some circles, as late as the second half of the 15th century. This is evidenced by the Kennicott Bible in Oxford illuminated by Joseph Ibn Ḥayyim, and by the Hebrew Bible of the University of Aberdeen, completed in 1494.


Outside the Muslim orbit these inhibitions against representational art did not apply – at least not the same degree – and with the rise of the Jewish communities in Northern Europe, representational art began to reappear. Whether or not there was any direct link with the classical period remains a matter of dispute. Once again, there is a disparity between strict religious theory as reflected in the rabbinic texts and actuality as shown in surviving relics of the period. Although in the 12th century Eliakim b. Joseph of Metz ordered the removal of the stained glass windows from the synagogue of Mainz, his younger colleague *Ephraim b. Isaac of Regensburg permitted the painting of animals and birds on the walls. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna recalled seeing similar embellishments in the place of worship he frequented at Meissen as a boy. The author of the Sefer Ḥasidim expressed his categoric disapproval of representations of animate beings in the synagogue. On the other hand, Rashi knew of, and apparently did not object to, wall frescoes – presumably in the home – illustrating biblical scenes, such as the fight between David and Goliath, with descriptive wording (in Hebrew?) below (Shab. 149a). On the surface, it seems that Rashi is referring to a practice current among the well-to-do Jews of his own circle in northern France and the Rhineland in the 11th century. In the 12th century, the French tosafists discussed and permitted even the three-dimensional representation of the human form, provided that it was incomplete. At the very same time, Jews living in England are known to have used signet rings that bore a human likeness on them.

The emergence at this period of Jewish mint-masters (cf. Minting) presupposes some involvement in the production of coins bearing the ruler's head, a tradition which goes back to the activity of Priscus, who was the court jeweler at the Frankish court during approximately the middle of the sixth century C.E.


Hebrew manuscripts illuminated in the conventional sense, in accordance with European styles and techniques, began to emerge in Northern Europe not later than the 13th century. Certain inhibitions lingered as regards the human form, which in some manuscripts was quaintly provided with bird or animal heads (see color plate Laud Maḥzor vol. 11 between columns 812 and 813), thus observing at least marginally the biblical prohibition against representational art. Whether this indicates a stage in the decline of traditional inhibitions, or a momentary pietistic recession, is a matter for speculation. But toward the close of the Middle Ages the art of the illuminated manuscript – illuminated in the fullest sense – flourished in Northern Europe and spread to Italy. By the 14th century at the latest, the tradition had extended to Spain, where Christian rule was now in the ascendant. It is perhaps best exemplified in a fine series of illuminated Haggadah manuscripts, of which the Sarajevo Haggadah is the best known.

In some cases the artists were probably Jews (Nathan b. Simeon, Joel b. Simeon, Meir Jaffe), while in others they were presumably Christians. But there is no need to assume that the work of the Jewish manuscript artists was necessarily restricted to Hebrew manuscripts and to a Jewish clientele. The work on mixing colors for manuscript illumination compiled in Judeo-Portuguese by Abraham ibn Ḥayyim suggests a degree of involvement in the illuminating craft in its wider sense, even though none of his own productions is known. His was certainly not an isolated case. The Catalan Atlas, executed in 1376/7 by Abraham Cresques and his son Judah, is noteworthy artistically besides being an important monument to cartography and geographical science. Jewish professional painters who are mentioned in contemporary documents include Abraham b. Yom Tov de Salinas with his son Bonastruc (1406), and Moses ibn Forma of Saragossa (1438), as well as Vidal Abraham who, in 1330, was engaged to illuminate the Book of Privileges of Majorca.


That Jews engaged in artistic craftsmanship even for Christian religious purposes is demonstrated by the bull of the anti-Pope Benedict XIII of 1415, forbidding Jews to be employed in the making of ceremonial objects for Christian use such as chalices and crucifixes. In 1480, Isabella of Castile enjoined her court painter to ensure that no Jew be permitted to paint the figure of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Official documents refer to Spanish Jews engaged in the manufacture of reliquaries and crucifixes and assisting sculptors of sacred images. It must be borne in mind that for the Middle Ages it is impossible to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the arts and the crafts because the craftsman in many branches was inevitably at the same time an artist in the modern sense. Bookbinding, for example, engaged Jewish craftsmen, even at the highly discriminating Papal court of Avignon; and, in Germany, Jewish experts such as the scribe-bookbinder, Meir Jaffe, mentioned above, were described as supreme artists in the execution of the difficult type of leather work known as cuir cisélé.

It must be emphasized that among the Jews pictorial art lacked one impetus which was potent in the outside world. The art of painting, especially frescoes, among Christians was stimulated by the fact that the Bible story was communicated to the almost illiterate common people by means of pictures on the walls of the churches. These served literally as the Biblia pauperum, the Bible of the Poor. 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. Similarly, the cult of the saints rendered pictorial and plastic art essential in the church, whereas in the synagogue it was not needed. This is probably the reason for the late emergence of Jewish sculptors. It was not so much that Jews were opposed to art as that certain categories of art, essential in the world outside, were for them unnecessary.


In Italy, in the Renaissance period, Jews participated in every branch of activity, including the arts. Some of the most memorable illuminated Hebrew manuscripts belong to this epoch and there is good ground for believing that many of them came from unknown Jewish hands. Cases are recorded of Jews being admitted to the painters' guild, though none of their work can be identified. There were, however, some distinguished metal workers, such as Salomone da Sessa (subsequently converted to Catholicism as Ercole de' Fedeli), who was in the service of Cesare Borgia. Da Sessa's swords and scabbards were among the finest of the period. His contemporary, Moses da *Castelazzo (d. 1527), was an engraver and medalist of some note. In the next century, Salvatore Rosa's assistant, Jonah Ostiglia of Florence (d. 1675), was proficient enough to be mentioned with deference by contemporary art chroniclers. A number of converted Italian artists of Jewish birth also achieved a reputation. Among them were Francesco Ruschi (c. 1640), a forerunner of the 18th century Venetian Renaissance, and Pietro Liberi (1614–1687), founder of the College of Artists in Venice. While names cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of origin, it must be noted that both in Spain and in Italy men named (de') Levi achieved artistic prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries.


It has already been mentioned that the Talmud has a general injunction that the glorification of God implies the use of the finest appurtenances in divine worship. There are ample descriptions both in the Bible and in Josephus of those used in the Temple. There are visual examples in the representations on the Arch of Titus in Rome and in the synagogal and funerary art of the classical period. But there is no proof of a specifically Jewish ritual art for home and synagogue until a relatively late period. It is perhaps significant that among the many evidences of Jewish religious life around the beginning of the Christian era discovered in recent archaeological investigations, there is nothing with any specific bearing on the emergence of ritual art, even as regards manuscript decoration. Generally in ritual observances objects were used which were not specially manufactured for the purpose. The only exception was the Ḥanukkah lamp which, because it had to have a definite number of burners – eight or sometimes nine – was from an early date specially manufactured, first in clay and later in stone. During the Middle Ages, however, it became established practice to create objects specifically for every form of ritual use, thus emphasizing the "glorification of the mitzvah" ("hiddur mitzvah"). The manufacturers were not always Jews. It is paradoxical that while in some areas Jewish craftsmen are to be found executing objects of the most sacred nature, such as crucifixes, for church use – which must, from certain points of view, have been highly objectionable on both sides – in others there is evidence of Christian craftsmen producing some of the commonplace ritual objects required by the Jewish community. Contracts survive relating to such work for Jews in Provence in the 15th century and Frankfurt on the Main in the 16th. It must be noted, however, that with the exception of Hanukkah lamps, virtually no specimens of Jewish ritual art of a date earlier than the end of the Middle Ages have been traced. The earliest positively identifiable is a pair of rimmonim (Torah finials) from Sicily, preserved in the Cathedral of Palma, Majorca. The favorite objects of Jewish ritual art were the Torah ornaments, Kiddush cups, Seder plates, Sabbath lamps, and spice boxes for the Havdalah ceremony on the conclusion of the Sabbath. It is possible that majolica seder plates originated in Spain before the Expulsion of 1492. An entire series was manufactured by several generations of two or three families of Italian-Jewish ceramists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Heavily embroidered brocades, with elaborate decorative inscriptions in gold and sometimes with human figures in stump-work, were used both in the synagogues, for the Ark curtains, or for the wrappings of the Torah Scroll, and in the home, for Sabbath appurtenances and the like. Often these were made by the women of the community as a pious duty, but in due course a school of Jewish art embroiderers emerged. Certain branches of embroidery were indeed regarded as a Jewish specialty during the period of the Middle Ages.


Surviving Jewish funerary art begins with the sepulchers and sarcophagi of the classical period in Palestine and the decorations in the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere. In the Middle Ages, Jewish tombstones in Europe were for the most part severely simple, owing whatever artistic quality they had to their shape and their impressive Hebrew lettering. After the Renaissance, funerary art began to take on some importance. Symbols indicating the name or profession of the person commemorated were carved above what were now highly ornamental inscriptions. In Italy, family badges – all but coats of arms – were added. In Central Europe, carvings denoting the calling or profession of the dead person were often incorporated. The most remarkable development was in some of the Sephardi communities of the Atlantic seaboard; such as Amsterdam and Curaçao, where the tombstone was enhanced by delicately executed carvings in relief. These generally depicted scenes in the life of the biblical personage whose name was borne by the dead person – for example, the call of Samuel, or the encounter between David and Abigail, or the death of Rachel. In some cases even the deathbed scene of the departed is shown, including, most amazingly, his actual likeness. The derivation of these artistic manifestations still needs investigation, but it seems at present that they were a purely spontaneous, native development in individual communities.

What is most significant is that here there are not flat surfaces but plastic art – precisely that which was most objectionable in talmudic law in its strict interpretation.


With the invention and spread of printing in the 15th and 16th centuries, a new area of artistic expression opened. The earliest printed books tried to imitate manuscript codices, and left space for illumination. This was the case with Hebrew works also, and there are some early examples which were embellished later by hand by skilled book-artists. In due course a genuine Jewish book art developed.

Early productions of the Hebrew printing press, especially of the Soncino family, were decorated with elaborate borders on the opening pages. Sometimes these were borrowed or copied from non-Jewish productions; sometimes they were presumably original, perhaps in their turn to be copied by Christian printers. The early editions (Brescia, 1491, etc.) of the Meshal ha-Kadmoni by Isaac ibn *Sahula, following the example set by the 13th-century author, were accompanied by illustrations. Later on the practice was transmitted to other books of fables and similar literature. But as in the previous epoch, special care was lavished on the Passover Haggadah. At the beginning of the 16th century at the latest a fine series of illustrated editions, probably the work of Jewish hands, began to appear. These reached their apogee in the superb editions of Prague of 1526, Mantua of 1560 and 1568, Venice from 1609 onward, and finally the Amsterdam edition of 1695. When the first title pages appeared in printed books, early in the 16th century, these too received special attention.

It will by now have become apparent that it is no longer possible to maintain the commonly accepted generalization that Judaism was fundamentally opposed to representational art, or to give this as the reason for the late emergence of Jews as artists. The utmost that can be said is that in certain environments and at certain periods Jews either imitated the iconoclastic tendencies of their neighbors, as sometimes in Muslim countries, or, in revulsion against their iconolatry, as in some Catholic areas, developed a strong antipathy to such art. It is also true that Jews lacked the initial stimulus to artistic involvement which came to the Christian world from the lavish use of representational art for liturgical purposes in Roman Catholic churches. With these reservations, however, it can be said that Jews accepted representational art as a normal phenomenon of their lives, even in a religious context. They used it not only in the decoration of their homes (though curiously enough the evidence for this is somewhat thin), but in their liturgical manuscripts and printed books, especially the Passover Haggadah, and on cult objects such as Passover plates, Ḥanukkah lamps, spice boxes, and brocades. In some areas these representations were even introduced into the synagogue. Nor were representations of the human form restricted to plane surfaces: in metal work they were often three-dimensional. In some places in the Ashkenazi world, figures of Moses and Aaron were incorporated almost as a matter of convention in the appurtenances of the Torah – which was the central object of veneration in the synagogue – both in the brocade wrappings and in relief in the silver breastplate which hung before the Scroll. Instances are known of such figures being included in the decoration of the Ark toward which the worshiper directed his devotions. Contrary to the universal belief, even the representation of the Deity was not entirely unknown. (See *Anthropomorphism in Jewish Art).


The art of illumination which had developed so promisingly in Spain, Italy, and Germany at the close of the Middle Ages did not die out. In the Italian Jewish upper classes and in the affluent circle of Court Jews which emerged in Germany in the 17th century, there was to be a notable renewal – it may be more correct to say perpetuation of the former tradition. There is some evidence that in the Middle Ages it was customary for Jews to insert illuminations in the megillah from which they followed the reading of the story of Esther in the synagogue on the uninhibited feast of Purim. It may also be significant that the scenes connected with this same story received disproportionate attention in the third-century frescoes of Dura-Europos. Every well-to-do householder now wished to have an illuminated megillah. Normally, though not invariably, these seem to have been executed by Jewish artists and some were of really high artistic merit. From the 17th century onward, elaborately engraved borders were provided by competent artists, such as Shalom *Italia, inside which the text would be written by hand. The case was similar with the marriage contract or ketubbah, expressing the joy implicit in the formation of a new family in the Jewish community. An isolated specimen has been preserved from the late 14th century, but from the 16th century these illuminated ketubbot became common especially in Italy, where some examples were veritable works of art. Some of the artists were probably Gentiles. Most were probably – and in a few cases provably – Jews. While in some countries and in some areas of ritual art the inhibition against the representation of the human figure was still rigorously applied, this was normally overlooked as far as the megillah and the ketubbah were concerned.

Apart from these and allied productions of illustrators and illuminators within the context of Jewish life, the art of Hebrew book-illumination was continued and in some cases revived in a remarkable fashion. Memorable Italian specimens of the 16th and 17th centuries have recently been brought to light, though in certain cases, the artists were almost certainly non-Jews. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, there grew up in Central and Northern Europe, especially in Moravia, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, an entire school of gifted Hebrew book-illuminators, who concentrated their attention on books of occasional prayers and benedictions (Me'ah Berakhot), circumcision rituals and similar works. The favorite was the Passover Haggadah. As in the Middle Ages, wealthy householders vied with one another in having these executed, sometimes as gifts for brides or newly married couples. They were often based on the older printed prototypes, especially of the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, but were sometimes rendered with a remarkable inventive power of reinterpretation and a fine sense of color. Outstanding among these manuscript artists were Samuel Dresnitz (1720), Aaron Wolf Herlingen of Gewitsch (c. 1700–c. 1768), and Moses Leib Trebitsch (1723). In certain cases, as for example the Pinḥas family, this involvement in manuscript illumination led to a general training in art and the consequent emergence of artists in the conventional sense.

Meanwhile, in the Sephardi community of Amsterdam, a school of gifted calligraphers was beginning to appear. The title pages executed for their finely written Spanish or Portuguese manuscripts, sometimes embodying charming vignettes, were works of art, and a few were in due course engraved.

by Shalom Sabar

From the 1970s there have been significant new developments in the field of Jewish art. Side by side with increased awareness of the role which the visual arts played in Jewish life, new discoveries have been made and a considerable number of previously little or unknown objects, images, and monuments have come to the fore. The major political events which took place during this period had their impact as well, adding new information and materials. Collections that had been unavailable for decades are now open to the public and accessible to scholars. Paralleling and supporting this growth is the increase in the scholarly publications in Jewish art, including the foundation of an important periodical (Journal of Jewish Art) by Bezalel Narkiss in 1974; as well as growing public awareness in the field, expressed in interests in Judaic exhibitions, lectures, travels to Jewish monuments, and even the production and acquisition of contemporary Jewish art.

In the public arena, the most visible phenomenon concerns the growth of Jewish museums from the last quarter of the 20th century. New museums were established in many towns throughout the Jewish world – from Casablanca to Melbourne, and from Casale Monferrato, Italy, to Raleigh, North Carolina. The recent proliferation of Jewish museums is particularly noticeable in Germany, where many new museums opened towards the close of the 20th century, ranging from small display rooms (e.g., Bissingen, Creglingen) to impressive and sizeable buildings (Berlin, Frankfurt). Many of the small German museums are housed in former synagogues – nearly a hundred of them have been restored to date, especially after the reunification of Germany. In Israel the fashionable search for tangible personal and communal roots has led to the establishment of small "ethnic" museums – notably, Nahon Museum of Italian-Jewish Art in Jerusalem, Museum and Heritage Center of Babylonian Jewry in Or Yehudah, and the museum commemorating the heritage of the Jews from Cochin (Kochi), India, in Moshav Nevatim in the Negev. Along with the established institutions, the new museums play a vital role in increasing the awareness and knowledge of Jewish visual culture and encourage the collection and preservation of Judaic objects, whether from the remote past or the last generations. The stream of large and impressive catalogs that accompanied many of the exhibitions organized by the leading museums constitutes important sources for documentation and scholarly research in the field of Jewish art.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union treasures hidden behind the Iron Curtain were displayed in the West. It took 15 years of private and public efforts on the highest levels before the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic allowed the landmark exhibition, "The Precious Legacy" – based on the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague – to tour the United States in 1983. However, the Perestroika brought about many more opportunities for international partnerships and for presentations of significant collections of ceremonial, folk, and ethnographic Jewish art. Some of these collections, for example the collection of more than 400 silver ritual objects at the Museum of Historical Treasures of the Ukraine, Kiev – comprised largely of objects confiscated by the Soviets from many synagogues in the Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s with the idea of melting them down for the silver – has been fully restored, displayed for the first time to the general public, traveled to capitals abroad, and been the subject of several catalogs. The opening of the borders has allowed, in addition, first hand documentation projects, chiefly conducted by the Center for Jewish Art, Jerusalem, which was founded in 1979 by Bezalel Narkiss with the purpose of documenting and publishing Jewish art treasures. The CJA's researchers have been documenting ceremonial objects, illuminated manuscripts, works by Jewish artists, and the architecture and interior decoration of synagogues, in Israel and abroad, often in locales that could not be visited earlier.

The hopes of scholars to unearth another ancient synagogue with painted walls have not materialized in the decades that have passed since the amazing discovery of the Dura Europos synagogue in 1932. On the other hand, an exciting and unexpected discovery was made in the summer of 1993, when a well-preserved early fifth century synagogue was uncovered in the talmudic town of Sepphoris (Zippori). The synagogue nave's splendid floor mosaic, comprised of 14 richly decorated panels, has enriched Jewish iconography of the period and provided some new insights into the familiar motifs. Thus, for example, the ubiquitous zodiac cycle significantly deviates from its familiar depictions in the other five ancient synagogues, and exceptionally replaces the pagan sun god, Helios, with a non-figurative image of sun rays. Likewise, the popular Binding of Isaac scene, known from two other synagogues, presents some motifs and episodes in the story that are new to Jewish iconography of this period, though familiar from Christian art. The overall iconographic scheme of the floor has been interpreted as expressing the hope for redemption and the rebuilding of the Temple.

Another major development in the past decades concerns the growing attention to Jewish art and material culture emanating from Islamic lands. Prior to 1970, hardly any attention had been paid to this field of Jewish creativity, whether in the public at large, the world of Jewish museums, or even the scholarly community. Viewed as inferior to European Jewish art, little was done to either conduct fieldwork or save the art treasures from Arab lands before the mass immigration to Israel, and serious negligence followed the resettlement. This situation has changed from the last quarter of the 20th century, and especially in Israel considerable efforts have been made by museums and scholars to display and study the visual heritage of these communities. The Israel Museum in particular has been active in this field and its department of Jewish ethnography has mounted from the mid-1960s on major exhibits accompanied by large catalogs, each dedicated to a selected community. Starting in 1967, with a modest exhibition and catalog on the costumes and some artifacts of the Jews of Bukhara, there followed more comprehensive presentations on the communities of Morocco (1973), Kurdistan (1981), the Ottoman Empire (1990), India (1995), Afghanistan (1998), Yemen (2000), and the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan (2001). Parallel to these exhibits, studies by local scholars as well as some Americans and Europeans, deal with the art and cultural context of the jewelry, costumes, domestic wares, ceremonial art, and manuscript illumination, in particular the figurative Judeo-Persian miniatures. A monograph by Bracha Yaniv was dedicated to the Torah case (tik) in Islamic lands (1997), while in Shalom Sabar's studies on the illustrated ketubbah the examples from Islamic lands are examined side by side with those from other parts of the Jewish world.

The monographs mentioned illustrate another recent trend. While most of the monographs in Jewish art in the past were dedicated to the study of selected Hebrew manuscripts, scholars have been focusing in addition on particular categories of Jewish art. In addition to the Torah case and ketubbah, mention should be made of Torah crowns (Grafman), Hanukkah lamps (Braunstein), Shivviti tablets (Juhasz), papercuts (Shadur), the Wimpel (various authors), synagogues in general and individual buildings in particular (Krinsky, Hubka). There are still, however, many categories missing from this list. Another direction of research, which more closely follows recent trends in the general scholarship of cultural studies, emerged in the 1990s, dealing with the visual experience in Jewish life and culture. Scholars like Richard Cohen, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Margaret Olin, and Kalman Bland, expanded the traditional methodological tools in which Jewish art has been examined, exploring issues such as Jewish art and social studies, historiography of Jewish art, collecting and exhibiting Jewish culture, Jewish attitudes to the visual, etc. Other studies explore the Jewish experience via folk art and daily artifacts, such as New Year cards or cans of Jewish food, as well as the interaction between sacred objects and the people who use them (Joselit, Sabar). The new studies have demonstrated the importance and relevance of the visual to the other, largely text-based, disciplines of Jewish studies, which would open the field to new stimulating cultural discourses.


D. Altshuler (ed.), The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections (1983); K.P. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (2000); S. Braunstein, Five Centuries of Hanukkah Lamps from the Jewish Museum (2004); G. Cohen Grossman, Jewish Museums of the World (2003); R.I. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (1998); T. Hubka, Resplendent Synagogues: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community (2003). J.W. Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880–1950 (1995); E. Juhasz, "The "Shiviti-Menorah": A Representation of the Sacred – Between Spirit and Matter" (Ph.D. thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004); R. Grafman, Crowning Glory: Silver Ornaments of the Jewish Museum (1996); B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (1998); C.H Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning, Cambridge (1985); M. Olin, The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (2001); Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience in Early 20th Century Postcards, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York (1998); S. Sabar, Ketubbah: Jewish Marriage Contracts of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum and Klau Library (1990); W. Seipel (ed.), Thora und Krone: Kultgeraete der juedischen Diaspora in der Ukraine (1993); Y. and J. Shadur, Traditional Jewish Papercuts (2002); A. Weber et al. (eds.), Mappot …blessed be who comes: The Band of Jewish Tradition (1997); Z. Weiss, The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (2005); B. Yaniv, The Torah Case: Its History and Design (Heb., 1997).

Resources. Modern Art ; Art in Israel ; Art in the USA ; Art and the Holocaust (Art, Jewish Virtual Library, 2008-2013).