Jewish Art: A Brief History

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

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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.

Western Europe

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.

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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.