Biblical Art

A history of visual depictions of the Hebrew Bible

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One of the Dura-Europas paintings. At the right, the Binding of Isaac is shown.

Sometimes the placement of the art also gives us clues about the practice of Judaism at that time. The portraits of the Book of Esther, for example, are on the wall where the women's benches were located. The Babylonia Talmud records that it is compulsory for women to attend the reading of the Book of Esther each year--possibly explaining those paintings' placement.

Scholars believe that the art of the Dura-Europas synagogue may have been used to connect a community living away from the center of Babylonian Jewish life to its sacred stories. Or, scholars theorize, the art may have even been used to compete with the other religious traditions found in this rather cosmopolitan city, whose emphasis on visual symbols may have attracted some of the Jews living there. We may never know conclusively why this representational art was created, but through the fortune of its preservation we can still experience its visual impact. (To see the images for yourself, look at Joseph Gutman's The Dura-Europos Synagogue, published by Rowman & Littlefield.)

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

The scribal arts have long played a vital role in transmitting Torah. Fragments of manuscripts from as early as the ninth century show a distinct style of Hebrew script used to write holy books. But in the medieval period, the scribe was not the only person who worked on creating sacred Jewish texts; when his job was finished, the scribe would often pass off the manuscript to an illuminator, who painted detailed artwork around the text on each page. The illuminator would first draw the image on the page, and then, in many cases, would apply gold leaf to the text, making it even more ornamental.

When illustrating Hebrew Bibles, the artists might depict images and icons from the stories. In examining some manuscripts, we discover that many artists dealt with the prohibition against creating graven images by illustrating human bodies with animal heads. The preserved Bird's Head Haggadah from Germany, dated to 1300, is a prime example of how the Jewish community struggled with the question of how to interpret the second commandment while recognizing the importance of illustrations.

The sheer number of illuminated manuscripts from this period shows how important the visual element was in conveying the biblical stories. Each manuscript reveals different interpretations of the stories by the artist, and some include depictions of midrashic stories--those created by the rabbis to explain or interpret a Biblical story.

Some of the art is very literal and true to the stories, while other artists render biblical subjects with romantic longings. Paintings of King David playing his lyre, for example, are often set in a very bucolic setting, with David depicted as both a shepherd and musician, blessed with an almost God-like aura. Moses also is sometimes painted as an almost-divine leader. In all likelihood, the artists' interpretations of biblical characters mirrored the prevailing beliefs and understandings of Jews of the time.

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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.