Jewish Art in the Ancient World

As far back as the biblical period, art has been created and valued in Jewish communities.

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The following article assumes a certain amount of knowledge of contemporary scholarship concerning the origins and development of Judaism in the ancient world. Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelites were disparate tribes in the land of Canaan that came together to form a new people, and that  polytheism and adherence to the cultic practices of the Canaanites around them was retained by some Israelites even after monotheism became the norm. Indeed, the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible repeatedly exhort the Children of Israel to abandon their idols and alternate deities. These idols and practices are seen theologically by Jews today as examples of sins committed by their ancestors. To the author of this piece, however, they are among the examples of the prominence of art in ancient Israel. (To learn more about this time period, visit the Ancient Jewish History section.) 

Excerpted with permission from "The Arts in Judaism: The First 3,000 Years," published in Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.

A "Jewish work of art" is either a work by an artist whose Jewishness clearly influenced his or her art, or a work by a Jewish artist that has had a significant place in Jewish culture.

ancient jewish artThe Bible provides detailed descriptions of works of art that played an important role in Israelite religio-cultural life. We can still see works that have survived from the Hellensitic, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods. Jews, influenced by their surroundings, have been involved in all the artistic genres--painting, sculpture, mosaic, fresco, architecture, the design of religious and household implements, manuscript implementation.

Sculpture in Ancient Israel

The Bible, as the foundation and repository of Jewry's collective memory, features many descriptions of work of sculptures and figurative art.

At the entrance to Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem stood 12 cast oxen, bearing on their back the great bronze "sea," a huge open water tank described in I Kings 7:25. The walls of Solomon's Temple were also hung with embroidered tapestries of cherubim. A bronze serpent, held to be the work of Moses himself, is referred to twice in the Bible (Numbers 21:82, I Kings 7:29).

Prophets and biblical historians inform us that throughout the Biblical period, sculpture and carving were necessary crafts, practiced in every Israelite settlement. Figures of Baal, Ashtoreth, and Asherah [local deities, among those worshipped by Israelites in the nation's infancy] were erected alongside the altar on rural high places and on sacred hills and under sacred trees. Homes had their teraphim, figurines of household gods of healing and welfare, which their owners would take with them on long journeys.

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Felice Pazner Malkin is co-editor of Lexicon of the Arts. She established the art studios of the
Rothschild Center in Haifa, 1958-1970, the Arab-Jewish art Center at the Hebrew University's Buber Institute, 1971-1973, and has taught as the Usdan Art Center, New York and at the State University of New York. A book of reproductions of her work appeared in 2000.