Biblical Art

A history of visual depictions of the Hebrew Bible

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Each year during the festival of Simchat Torah, Jews celebrate the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings by rolling the scroll back to its beginning and starting to read again. The message is clear: Each year, we can grow to understand the words of the Torah in new, and often deeper, ways. We are guided not only to listen to Torah, but to respond to it, to discuss it, and to wrestle with its images and stories.

jewish art quizThough the written word has been the primary vehicle for reacting to Hebrew scripture, Jewish culture offers another important--and frequently overlooked--modality for commenting on the Bible: visual art. Though many Jews and non-Jews alike mistakenly believe that visual images are prohibited by Jewish law, art has played a prominent part in transmitting biblical stories and making them meaningful for each new generation. By examining biblical images in Jewish art, we can grow to understand how generations past may have interpreted characters and stories that we still wrestle with today.

The Art in Dura-Europos

In 1932, American archeologist Clark Hopkins unearthed one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century: a synagogue located in what was the desert city of Dura-Europos (now part of present-day Syria). This remarkably well-preserved synagogue contains walls painted with images of people and animals from the Hebrew Bible.

An Aramaic inscription helps to date the synagogue to 244 C.E., when a group of exiled Jews would have formed a community of worshippers in what was then a Roman trade city, settling there with a melting pot of Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, and Christians.

The large-scale art in the synagogue helps to dispel the myth that Judaism historically prohibited visual images. Indeed, the often-misunderstood second commandment--which prohibits "graven images"--refers specifically to the creation of idols, not to artistic pursuits in general. This commandment was interpreted differently in different times and circumstances--sometimes more literally and sometimes more loosely. The murals in the Dura-Europos synagogue lead us to believe that early rabbinic Judaism may have acknowledged and even celebrated visual art as a vehicle for honoring and transmitting sacred texts.

The 28 paintings in the synagogue include depictions from the five Books of Moses, such as a painting of the akedah (binding of Isaac); a vine resembling the Tree of Life described in Genesis; the patriarch Jacob blessing his sons; and scenes from the Exodus. In addition, murals depict a lyre player, whom many scholars interpret to be King David, a portrait of the prophet Elijah, and scenes from the Book of Esther.

In examining the paintings, scholars have tried to deduce how the people who created them saw their connection to the text and its application to their lives as Jews. For example, four panels containing portraits of Moses show the Jewish leader in white robes with his palms open. Around the time these were created, Christian artists were painting portraits of Jesus in their churches, and so the Jewish artists may have been attempting to create a Jewish hero or leader of the same scale.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.

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