Author Archives: Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

About Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman

Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman is Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been active in raising community awareness on issues including gun violence, battered women, and the separation of Church and State, and sits on the Reform Movement's Commission for Social Action. She received Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College.

Jewish Art: A Brief History

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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. 

amedeo modigliani portrait of maude abrantes

Amedeo Modigliani’s
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.

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Marc Chagall

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Images of flight pervade much of the painter Marc Chagall’s work. Some of Chagall’s works depict people and objects defying the earth’s gravity, hovering over a scene below. These images reflect the earthly and heavenly figures of Chagall’s real and idealized life and world, and they offer a window of understanding into the artist’s mind and work. 

Humble Beginnings

Chagall, born in 1887, found inspiration for much of his work in his upbringing in Vitebsk, Belorussia. There, a folktale is told of an artist named Chaim, the son of Isaac Segal (Chagall’s family name was Segal before it was changed by Chagall). According to legend, Chaim Segal painted in three synagogues in three different towns, and when he completed painting, he fell off his ladder and died, with each of the three different synagogues claiming he had died in their synagogue. Chagall adopted this man as his fictitious grandfather in his autobiography. In reality, his mother was supportive of the artistic talent Chagall had discovered in himself, though his father was less so.

portrait of chagall

Portrait of Chagall

Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg on scholarship and counted among his most influential teachers the Jewish artist and magazine illustrator Leon Bakst. Chagall’s works from this time, like In Front of Father’s House (1908) and The Violinist (1910), show the familiar setting of his homeland.

 

In St. Petersburg, Chagall met Max Vinaver, who became his patron, sending Chagall to Paris and offering a monthly allowance. According to Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator of the 2001 Jewish Museum of New York exhibition “Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections,” Chagall developed his unique style in these years prior to World War I.

Chagall took his homeland with him to Paris and created works that solidified the Russian identity found in his paintings, including Mother Russia (1912-1913) and I and My Village (1911). H. W. Janson notes, “Chagall here relives the experiences of his childhood, experiences so important to him that his imagination shaped and reshaped them without ever getting rid of their memories.”

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