Jewish Art: A Brief History

Contrary to popular perception, Jewish art dates back to Biblical times.

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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. 

amedeo modigliani portrait of maude abrantes

Amedeo Modigliani's
Portrait of Maude Abrantes, 1907

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 & the Renaissance

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.

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Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

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.