Jewish Art 101

Jewish visual arts date back to the biblical Betzalel, commissioned by God to create the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Since then, Jewish visual arts have flourished, bearing the imprint of Jewish wanderings around the globe. Jewish art divides into categories of: folk art, such as  paper-cuts; ritual art–artistic renditions of ritual objects; and art by Jews, which encompasses a broad range of visual expression by Jewish artists, from painting to sculpture to avant-garde art.

What Is Jewish Art?

Words and ideas have always been a focal point in Jewish life, but fine arts and handicrafts have played a prominent role as well. The Jewish attitude toward art has been influenced by two contradictory factors: The value of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of the commandments) encourages the creation of beautiful ritual items and sacred spaces, while some interpret the Second Commandment (forbidding “graven images”) as a prohibition against artistic creations, lest they be used for idolatry. 

With the age of Enlightenment in Europe, Jewish artists left the ghetto to become prominent artists worldwide. In their visual arts, Jewish artists displayed varied relationships with their Jewish identities, and some Jewish artists did not incorporate their Jewishness into their artistic work at all. With the rise of such artists came the question of what constitutes “Jewish art,” a question still debated today. Some artists, such as Marc Chagall, clearly draw upon their Jewish heritage for their work. For others, such as Camille Pissaro, Judaism is tangential or even irrelevant to their work. Regardless of how one might define “Jewish art,” Jewish artists–painters, sculptors, and others–have flourished in North America, Europe, and Israel.

jewish art quizJewish folk art has pervaded Jewish homes and synagogues for centuries. This has included the mizrach, an emblem placed on the eastern wall of the home to remind family members which way to direct their prayers; the shivitti, an adornment in the synagogue intended to focus attention; and the art of micrography, which uses sacred words and texts to create drawings. Artistic ritual art has included kiddush cups, mezuzot, candlesticks, and more. These art forms were once an expression of folk-piety by Jews who worked without the benefit of artistic training. Today Jewish folk art has grown in sophistication as trained artists focus their skills and sensibilities on these traditional crafts.

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