Modern Judaica - a Brief History of Jewish Art

Jewish art work by tzukiart

The very idea of the concept "Jewish art" is something we should dwell on. How does one define it? Is it any medium of art depicting Jewish imagery or themes? Is it art presented on objects which are used for Jewish ceremonies? It is quite complex to have a firm grasp on the concept. After all, there is a myriad of artworks depicting biblical scenes and presenting Jewish symbols that were made by non-Jewish artists. However, the complexity of the subject is not only due to problems of conceptualization, but to the very essence of Jewish culture since time immemorial. This integral part of the Jewish way of life and circumstances may be divided into two major subjects.

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The Jewish perspective on graven images

The Mitzvah prohibiting the creation of graven images, is perhaps the bedrock of the entire Jewish thought. We all remember the story of the golden calf. This elevation of essence over presentation, as prescribed in the second commandment, is engraved deeply in the Jewish way of life and philosophy, rendering art as a sensitive and frowned-upon practice. 

However, art was not eliminated all-together from the Jewish faith. Like many other Jewish ideas, it was adjusted and integrated into its practices, thus accepted, and even revered, only as an instrument to serve god. Bezalel, the first Jewish artist and architect, is the living incarnation of this idea. It was god that "filled him with skill" to build the Tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and all the ceremonial tools required for the sacrifice and worship work by the priests. It is in this junction between the practical necessity for ceremonial artifacts, and the desire to bestow upon them the splendor and respect they deserve as instruments of faith, that Judaica took root. 

This idea of the "Hiddur", namely, the obligation to beautify items and instruments required for the "Mitzvah", thus granting them a status of respect, was the main drive behind Jewish art, and is responsible for some beautiful and unique pieces that were held by families and passed down for generations.



The variety of Jewish communities

The second subject contributing to the Jewish art's complexity as a concept, is the very fact that one cannot talk about a single, uniform "Jewish culture". For 2,000 years, the vast majority of Jewish communities lived in the diaspora, scattered upon almost every point across the world. This interaction with a plethora of foreign ideas, themes, and cultures, created a rich tapestry of art media and styles across the ages.

Art in the biblical era

The prohibition to create graven images is probably presented in its most strict instance in the biblical narrative, and the Midrash literature which followed it. From Abraham, shattering the false idols to the golden calf, the very act of incarnation was perceived as a mortal sin. In biblical times, therefore, Jewish art was strictly limited to the creation of ceremonial items.

This was the starting point for some of the most characteristic forms of the Jewish art. Candlesticks, Adornments for the Torah scrolls, Tallit and tasseled shawls, wine cups, Mezuzah and Tefillin holders, Shofars, and many other items, were carefully crafted with meticulous and unique artistic touches, setting them apart from everyday accessories. Intricate ornaments of gold and silver were inlayed into the items. In order to emphasize the importance of the essence and the holy text above the aesthetics of the adornments, many of these items had short Jewish passages engraved on them. This created some exceptional calligraphy pieces and outstanding techniques on a variety of items throughout the ages.



The integration of Hellenic ideas in Jewish art

The classical age may be characterized, as far as Jewish society in Judea is concerned, as an era of contradictions. On one hand, the Halachic (Jewish law) literature, stressed again and again the importance of differentiation, and even seclusion, from the surrounding cultures. The Hellenic and roman idealization of the image, and of the human body in particular, stood in complete contrast to the very essence of the Jewish faith. On the second hand, however, the interaction of ideas was inevitable. Slowly but surely, art started to penetrate into the walls and floors of the synagogue. Many extraordinary mosaic scenes are still visible on many 1st century AD synagogue ruins all over Israel. Some of them depict Stars of David and other Jewish symbols, others present famous scenes from the bible, angels or characters, but perhaps the most puzzling piece, was found in an ancient synagogue in Beit Alpha – A floor mosaic depicting the signs of the zodiac, and in the middle, what seems to be Helios – the Greek sun god.  

It seems that alongside the seclusion, and the constant motivation to differentiate the Jewish way of life from the surrounding cultures – the urge to explore, exchange thoughts and create, has prevailed and created new forms of Jewish art in houses and synagogues. 

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The Golden Age

It was only in medieval times, after the main center of the Jewish faith was destroyed and the communities were scattered across the world, when Judaica started to acquire its unique characterizations on various communities. Rabbinic leaders formed radically different perspectives when it came to the permitted forms of Jewish art and created different norms for their community. These perspectives varied from the strict and absolute prohibition of any form of imagery as prescribed by the Ashkenazi rabbis of Safed, to the rich and gorgeous golden age of Jewish artworks made by Jewish communities for centuries in the Iberian Peninsula. This polarization was not formed in a vacuum. The Jewish communities in the Christian nations of Europe were surrounded by a culture they perceived as idol worshipping and suffered persecution. Christian painted scenes and sculptured characters were perceived as downright idols. In order to seclude the Jewish way of life from this surrounding, the Jewish authorities took a very conservative approach when it came to form of art. 

The Sephardic communities, on the other hand, lived under the reign of Islam. Although having their own share of persecutions, the Islamic regime in medieval Spain was one of the most progressive forms of governance in this era. It was then that the peculiar dialogue between Judaism and Islam had commenced and created new ideas, philosophies and forms of art. Islam has an extremely strict approach towards graven images, and in some instances, it is even stricter than in Judaism. It is in this atmosphere that the Sephardic art had flourished. With these sources of inspiration, combined with the shared ideas with Muslim scholars, a softer and more liberal approach toward art was formed. 

The Sephardic artworks were deeply influenced by Islamic art. The intricate, breath-taking micrography, created by passages from the Quran, was implemented in many Judaica items and was adjusted into Hebrew characters. These art techniques, found in the Islamic holy books, opened the door for a new medium for Judaica – Art has penetrated into the Torah books. 

Slow adjustments

These developments in Sephardic Judaica were slow and gradual. In a 13th century Torah book, for instance, we found many adornments, deeply inspired by Islamic art, with colorful arabesques and geometrical shapes. Human forms, however, were still absent. Although quite common on mosaic works and paintings on the walls of the synagogue, the depiction of human images inside the holy book was still unthinkable. 

It was only a century later, that we start to find figures painted in the Haggadah and on the Torah.

But perhaps the most unique Jewish art was performed by the "Al-Mudachar", "The Remaining". After the Christian Reconquista of Spain from the Muslims, most Jews were expelled from Spain and many communities were destroyed. Those who were allowed to remain in Spain, however, has left outstanding and one-of-a-kind artworks, deeply influenced by Islamic, Christian-Gothic and Jewish themes. These themes were then spread with the expelled communities to other nations of Islam, creating many unique features in each nation and culture.

Jewish renaissance

This new era of resurrection in science, culture, and the arts, and the new-found Humanistic approach after years of oppression by the church, has its own share of influence on Judaica. This new perception of the human essence and body has placed the idea that man was created in god's image at the very heart of artistic creation.

These motifs of pure aesthetic and the use of these images of beauty in order to inspire the spirit and glorify god, was implemented into the Italian Judaica. Breath-taking embroideries and patchworks were found on Torah books covers. Inspired with Michelangelo's timeless piece on the cysteine chapel, synagogues were covered with colorful and lively biblical scenes. 

A new and radical invention, has paved the way for a new form of art. The printing press was adopted in the Jewish communities almost immediately and new, printed versions of the Torah and the Talmud were created. Each publisher had its own unique cover page artwork. These art works are the heart's desire of Jewish books collectors to this day. 

For the first time in history, images were evident on every medium of art in the Jewish culture. Detailed silver and golden ornaments were created on the Torah books' finials, forming some exemplary items of the Jewish renaissance. From candlesticks to synagogue art, this era took the Jewish art to a whole new level.

Contemporary Judaica is alive and kicking

We have seen how historical circumstances and the surrounding cultures have changed the Jewish perspective towards art and in turn has changed the techniques and media in which it was implemented. This rich and diverse tapestry of pieces and styles were finally interacted in the Israeli melting pot. It was the founding of the new Jewish state that gathered Jewish cultures, separated for 2 millennia, and with them diverse languages, customs, ideas, and of course – art forms.

However, the new Jewish state did not cause the dialogue around Judaica to seclude itself among Jewish artists alone. The 20th century was characterized by new and radical art movements, and these discourses seeped into Judaica by young and curious Jewish artists. Today one can find many pop-art, Avant Garde, and many other various modern art Judaica pieces. 

Our world is becoming more and more secular, but still, in most Jewish houses in Israel, we can still find Mezuzahs on the lintels. People are still seeking for their own way to express their particular identity and art pieces may be a powerful medium to achieve it. They want to feel closer to their roots, but still maintain their individuality. The variety of styles, themes, and connection to popular culture that one can find today on Judaica pieces, may be an important instrument to unify different Jewish sectors, and allow anyone to find the items that can express their own identity.


Atonetto Gallery - Modern Judaica Artworks

Zoom galleries are the home of many young Jewish artists, presenting a vast range of inspiring and thought-provoking contemporary art pieces. Atonetto, our online shop, offers you a wide variety of unique modern Judaica pieces. From pop-art candlesticks, to intriguing 3D wall sculptures and mezuzah holders, many Jewish themes are coming to life in colorful and lively imagery. Click here to shop 

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