Biblical Art

A history of visual depictions of the Hebrew Bible

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Bibles were not the only manuscripts that were illuminated--siddurim (prayerbooks), mahzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks), and other Jewish books were also laid out with visual illustrations. The most common illuminated books that remain are the Passover Haggadot, featuring different artists' depictions of the Jewish people as slaves moving toward freedom. These books also frequently included illustrations of the Jewish people engaged in the many rituals and prayers that made up their daily life. This art conveys displays the artists'--and their communities'--emphasis on living a pious life whose focus was Torah, prayer, and mitzvot (commandments).

"Moses and the Law" (1818), by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, considered the "first Jewish painter."

The Fine Arts

Jewish artists did not become part of the fine-arts tradition until the period of the Enlightenment, when they were permitted to leave the ghettos and enroll in secular universities and academies. In the 19th century, Jewish artists begin to emerge and receive attention from the larger communities around them.

Nineteenth-century artist Daniel Moritz Oppenheim is often thought of as the "first Jewish painter" because of his frequent depictions of the domestic life of the Jewish people around him. Many of his paintings focus on Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, and he earned his greatest recognition for painting portraits of prominent Jews and non-Jews of his time. Oppenheim's art occasionally deals with biblical subjects. These include romantic paintings of Moses and the tablets and Moses passing his leadership to Joshua.

Many of the Jewish painters who came to prominence after Oppenheim did not explore Jewish themes or subjects in their art at all. The great exception is the painter Marc Chagall, whose work fused a folk style with a very modern sensibility. Imagery of Chagall's youth in Russia--Jews in traditional clothing, farm animals, books and Judaic items--appear throughout his work.

Though he came from a traditional Jewish upbringing, Chagall's paintings seldom explore biblical themes as subjects. The major exception occurred late in his career, when Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem commissioned Chagall to create 12 stained glass windows representing the 12 tribes of Israel. In them, he fully explores a different biblical theme in each window. Here, his work is much more interpretive and symbolic than any of the artistic Jewish Bible imagery that had come before him. Chagall uses color, animals, and even symbols from the zodiac to depict the emotional and spiritual quality of each tribe of Israel.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.