Jewish Art in Medieval & Modern Times

Jewish artists have tended to take on elements of the societies in which the artists lived.

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

In the History of Jewish Art, Cecil Roth summarizes the research into the influence of synagogue art on Christian Church art and then on European art in general. Frescos such as those found in Dura Europos are seems to have exerted an influence on early church art, whose effect in turn is evident in most medieval art and thence in Renaissance art. Roth sees a parallel between the development of church music from synagogue music and the development of the figurative arts in the two religions.

maurycy gottlieb

Jews Praying in Synagogue
on Yom Kippur, 1877.
By Maurycy Gottlieb

Betzalel Narkiss, who wrote and edited an expanded edition of the Roth History, perceived clear continuity in Jewish art from the Hellenistic-Byzantine period through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a continuity in style, thematic motif (the Hand of God for instance) and in the treatment of the motifs. The same thematic and formal motifs from synagogues built around the middle of the first millennium C.E. reoccur in mahzorim (High Holiday prayer books), haggadot (Passover seder books), and ketubuot (Jewish wedding contracts) of the first centuries of the second millennium–i.e. 500 to 700 and more years later.
Borrowing from the Host Society

From the beginning of the second millennium C.E., Jewish art in its Diasporas takes on ever more strongly the color of its host society’s art, both Muslim and Christian. Throughout the Islamic world, from Iraq and Yemen to Spain, Jews worked in the fields of letters, literature, and philosophy and, like their Muslim rulers (Iran excepted) almost totally shunned figurative arts. In Christian lands, Jews spoke and wrote in the local vernacular and their art–in illuminating mahzorim, haggadot, and ketubot, and other types of manuscripts–shows clearly the influence of their surrounding.

Jews in the Islamic world almost totally shunned the figurative arts, drawing their authority from a strict reading of the Second Commandment [prohibiting “graven images”]. Those sections of Jewry that came under the sway of Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism], as it spread eastward from Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, did not make forms and images in the spirit of Kabbalah, apart from the magical amulets of practical Kabbalah. These sometimes bore an eye or hand composed of letters, biblical verses, or magical formulae.

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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.

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