The second commandment declares: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or in the earth below” (Exodus 20:4). This single Biblical edict feeds the misconception that Jewish art created by Jewish artists is a relatively new genre. Yet, contrary to popular perception, Jewish artists date back to Biblical times, and Jewish artists have indeed depicted anthropomorphic images.
The First Jewish Artist
The sanction that would more aptly serve as the slogan for much of Jewish art perhaps should be, “Remember the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Paired with the repeated biblical command to remember the stranger and the Israelites’ wandering– and the insecurity that came with that homelessness– stands the idea that God’s presence remains eternal and protective, ideas that infuse Jewish art.
Portrait of Maude Abrantes, 1907
The Biblical Bezalel–whose name literally means, “in the shadow or protection of God”–was the Jewish artisan appointed specifically by God to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2). So if one defines Jewish art as the works of Jewish artists, one of the earliest works of Jewish art lay in God’s command to Bezalel regarding the construction of the Tabernacle.
The Bible details the beautiful work of Jewish hands in the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem under the direction of King Solomon. It is described as overlaid with gold and decorated with cherubim (I Kings 6). The Talmud describes the beauty of the Herod’s Second Temple, declaring, “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life” (Tractate Succot 51b).
In spite of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and the beginning of a 2,000-year Jewish exile, Jewish art flourished in the early post-exilic period, inside and outside the land of Israel, including the Dura Europos and Beit Alpha synagogues. The synagogue in Syria’s Dura Europos, an ancient city along the Euphrates, contains well-preserved frescoes from the third century that portray human figures in biblical scenes.