Art and Architecture: Judaism

Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Editor: Leslie Ross. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Origins and Development

Judaism is the oldest of the three major monotheistic religions of the world. Both Christianity and Islam later evolved from the foundations of Judaism. Although Judaism today is one of “the smallest of the world religions … it has had an influence and a geographical distribution inversely proportional to its size.” With a lengthy, often unsettled, and dramatic history of dispersal, assimilation, and persecution, Judaism’s survival and tenacity are remarkable evidence of the strength of this ancient faith.

The origins of the Jewish faith are traditionally traced back to the second millennium BCE as recounted in the Hebrew scriptural accounts of the lives and deeds of the great patriarch and prophet Abraham and the eminent prophet Moses. Both of their lives are set in the mid-second millennium BCE. Abraham, who lived in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), is considered to be the first to receive direct revelations from the one true God, the creator of the universe. The belief in the primacy of this one God posed a contrast to the contemporary polytheistic practices of the other ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and established Judaism as the world’s oldest monotheistic belief system. According to tradition, God entered into a covenant (pact, agreement) with Abraham, whose absolute trust in and loyalty to God would be rewarded by prosperity and a homeland for his descendants. Abraham was originally named Abram, and the covenant with God was symbolized by his taking on the new name, Abraham (“Father of Many Nations”). The peregrinations of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through the eastern Mediterranean regions, the births of his children and grandchildren, and their eventual move to and enslavement in Egypt form the major narratives of early Jewish history as recorded in the biblical book of Genesis.

Of singular importance for the greater formation and development of the Jewish religion is the figure of the prophet Moses, who was chosen by God to free the Israelites and lead them out of captivity in Egypt during the 13th century (ca. 1240) BCE. This event, known as the Exodus (and described in the biblical book of Exodus), involved many years of traveling in the wildernesses of the Sinai peninsula en route to the promised land of Canaan/Israel. During these years, guided by a series of revelations from God, Moses established the fundamentals of the Jewish faith in the form of laws and commandments regarding ritual practice and ethical conduct. The receipt by Moses, on Mount Sinai, of the Tablets of the Law (including the Ten Commandments) is often seen as the single most important event in the formation and codification of the Jewish faith. These God-given commandments ultimately confirmed the covenant between God and the Israelites and established Judaism as the faith of this distinct community of God’s chosen people.

The Israelites ultimately reached the promised land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and established a kingdom, ca. 1000 BCE, under a series of important monarchs: Saul, David, and David’s son Solomon. The first temple in Jerusalem was constructed under the direction of Solomon in the mid-10th century BCE. This period suggests “a golden age that has remained the focus of Jewish aspirations ever since.”

Subsequent tumultuous centuries, however, involved periods of territorial loss and Jewish exile (notably as a result of the Babylonian invasion in the early sixth century BCE), the return of many Jews to Israel, first the Greek and then the Roman occupation of the territory in the first century BCE, the Jewish revolt against the Romans, the final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century CE, and the eventual diaspora or dispersal of Jews around the world.

With the evolution and eventual dominance of Christianity in the Mediterranean (and ultimately European) world and the later growth and spread of Islam, Jews came to regarded by many as an inferior, heretical, and dangerous group, especially in Christian-dominated western Europe. Jewish history “in Christendom is one of nearly constant persecution. Massacres, expulsions, and forced conversions were common…. [Jews were] excluded from most professions … restricted in their choice of domicile … [and] sequestered in special town quarters.”

Anti-Jewish attitudes, or “anti-Semitism” (a term that properly refers to the racial/ethnic/language group of ancient Semitic peoples, including Arabs, but in standard usage refers only to Jews), has a lengthy history. Jews, like Christians in the Roman world, were persecuted for their refusal to worship the Roman gods and emperors and for their perceived subversive activities. Both Jews and Muslims were persecuted under Christian dominance in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

A notable period of exception to the social and religious antagonism between the three related faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is represented by Muslim-dominated Spain in the 10th through 12th centuries. Often referred to as a medieval “Golden Age” for Jews, or a period of “convivencia” (coexistence, toleration), the Muslim dynasties of medieval Spain, with some exceptions, allowed Jews to flourish “in a manner unthinkable under Christian rule.” Although recent critical scholarship has questioned this “myth of an interfaith utopia” in medieval Islamic Spain, this period is traditionally regarded as a time during which the virulent anti-Jewish attitudes of earlier and later periods were held, to some extent, in check.

Sephardic Jews (from the term Sephardim, “Spaniards”) trace their heritage primarily to medieval Spain, whereas Ashkenazi Jews (from the term Ashkenazim, “Germans”) trace their heritage primarily to medieval German lands. All Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, and pressures in Christian-dominated northwestern Europe led to the departure of many Jews to eastern Europe. Jewish communities also developed among those who remained in the Middle East as well as in many other world regions: China, India, Ethiopia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Americas.

“The situation of Jews as the outcasts of Christian European society seemed to take a turn for the better” during the 18th century “with the gradual emancipation of the Jews in western Europe and the Americas from their second-class status, as a result of Enlightenment ideals.” However, in the late 19th century, anti-Jewish movements again arose, based on racial supremacist concepts. According to these theories, Jews were racially inferior, and they were again subjected to persecution and revilement. The ultimate outcome of this modern anti-Semitism took place in the mid-20th century under the auspices of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), whose attempt to rid the world of the “racially inferior” resulted in the massacre of approximately two-thirds of the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust (1941-45). This unspeakable tragedy for the Jewish people also resulted in further mass migrations of Jews (especially to North America) and, ultimately, the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948, designed to bring “an end to nearly 1900 years of Jewish disenfranchisement.”

Principal Beliefs and Key Practices

“As a religion, Judaism has three essential elements: God, Torah, and Israel.” For Judaism, there is only one God, the creator of the universe, the transcendent ultimate reality “who is inherently beyond the capacity of words to describe.” The God of Judaism is, however, considered to be present and active in the world, and biblical narratives especially detail God’s communications in various forms to humans. Judaism can be described as ethical monotheism, in that the belief in one God requires adherence to a set of codes of moral conduct—especially as contained in the Torah.

The Torah (“law,” “teaching,” “instruction”) is the fundamental religious material for Judaism. Although the term can refer to the entire Hebrew Bible, in the strictest sense the Torah consists of the first five books of the Bible (also known as the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses,” that is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). These books contain the narratives of the creation of the world, stories of the early patriarchs and prophets, the enslavement and liberation (exodus) of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses receiving God’s commandments on Mount Sinai, and the journeys of the Israelites to the promised land of Israel.

“The term ‘Israel’ denotes a historic political entity, a people, a nation, a belief system, a social group, a culture.” The original covenant, described in the book of Genesis, between God and the patriarch Abraham, involved God’s promise of prosperity and territory, a homeland, for his faithful followers—the chosen people of Israel. This specific region, previously ruled over by Levantine powers and peopled by the Canaanites, was captured by the Israelites, according to the biblical narratives, after the death of Moses under the direction of the leader Joshua (approximately 1200 BCE). The kingdom, established shortly thereafter, eventually split into two territories after the death of King Solomon in the late 10th century BCE: the southern kingdom of Judah (from which the terms Judaism and Jew derive) and the northern kingdom of Israel (the name given by God to the patriarch Jacob). Ultimately, both territories were controlled by a series of invading empires (Assyrian, Babylonian), displacing substantial population to other parts of the general area and “setting a precedent for Judaism as an exilic faith during centuries of dispersal.” Although many Jews returned to Israel in the late sixth century BCE and lived under Persian, Greek, and ultimately Roman rule, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans and the dispersal of Jews worldwide resulted in the fact that “Jewish national aspirations were effectively shattered until the twentieth century.” Nevertheless, the land of Israel (in both actual and symbolic fashion) remained a source of hope and longing for Jews throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Salvation from oppression, linked with hopes of a messiah (“anointed one”) who would lead the Jews to freedom, also coincided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the movement of Zionism, which sought a return of the Jews to their homeland (Zion is another name for Jerusalem). In 1917 the Balfour Declaration recognized the Jewish homeland in Palestine, and many Jews resettled there under British governance. In 1948 the modern State of Israel was declared, “conceived as a haven for all Jews.”

Judaism’s ethical monotheism, the importance of the Torah, and the significance of the land and people of Israel provide the primary foundations of the Jewish belief system. Through its lengthy history, Judaism has also grown and developed in culturally diverse contexts and has responded to the challenges posed for an ancient faith in historical evolution. In the modern period, Judaism exists in a number of different branches, primarily the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox variations. These defined movements arose largely in the 19th century and represent different interpretations of traditions, customs, and obligations. The “key practices” of Judaism vary widely in time and space, from strictly traditional to more liberal ways of practicing.

The interpretation of Judaism’s traditions and customs has an extremely lengthy history. Although the Torah remains the fundamental set of scriptures for Judaism, several other texts (originally compilations of oral traditions) are also of signal importance. The Misnah (first compiled in the third century CE) as well as the Talmuds (sixth century CE) represent detailed studies of legal matters and ritual obligations ultimately based on the 613 commandments (including the Ten Commandments) revealed to Moses and contained in the written Torah. Ultra Orthodox Jews may perceive all of these obligations as inviolable, whereas others find them to be historically based and less applicable to modern life. How Jews observe the Torah will thus vary widely. For example, the system of dietary laws (kashrut), as noted in the Torah and detailed in rabbinic literature, involves highly specific instructions on foods that are permitted and foods that are forbidden, as well as details on the proper means of slaughtering animals and preparing food. Strict observers of these rules—in other words, those who keep “kosher” in their consumption of only ritually pure food (kasher)—will maintain different kitchen tools and implements for the separate preparation of meat and dairy products. Other Jews, who are less actively involved with religious traditions and customs, do not observe all or even any of these dietary restrictions.

Similarly, the observance of religious holidays, whether in synagogue or home contexts, varies widely. Strictly observant Jews attend synagogue for communal prayers and readings from the Torah several times per week and perform daily prayers at home as well. Others observe the weekly holy day or Sabbath (Shabbat—Friday evening through Saturday) in home rituals and/or by attending synagogue services. The Jewish religious calendar has a yearly cycle of major and minor festivals including the High Holy Days in the autumn, which celebrate the Beginning of the Year (Rosh Hashanah), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot—the tabernacles or booths refer to the temporary structures used by the Israelites in their journeys to the promised land); the late fall/winter celebration of Lights (Hanukkah) commemorating the rededication of the Temple in the second century BCE; the spring festival of Lots (Purim), commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from destruction in Persia; and the spring festival of Passover (Pesach), which celebrates God’s delivery of the Israelites from Egypt.

Special meals, prayers, symbols, ritual objects, and scriptural readings are associated with all of these holidays, although, again, practices vary somewhat according to the historical context and views of the congregation. The maintenance, evolution, and reinterpretation of Jewish customs and traditions through the centuries—in a variety of geographic locations and cultural contexts—provides witness to the living faith of Judaism, ultimately based on God, Torah, and Israel.

Traditional Art and Architectural Forms

The tribulations and tragedies of Jewish history from ancient times to the modern period have resulted in the destruction and dispersal of innumerable structures and objects of art. Literary references and some archaeological evidence, however, make it clear that from the very earliest periods of Jewish history, the production of liturgical art and the creation of an appropriate architectural structure to serve as a focal point for worship were paramount concerns. Indeed, as recorded in the book of Exodus (chapters 25-31), God gave Moses highly detailed instructions about the construction of the Ark of the Covenant—a portable carrying case for the Tablets of the Law upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. This gilded chest of acacia wood, with rings in the ends into which poles could be inserted for transportation purposes, was also eventually enriched with a pair of carved and gilded angels (or cherubim) on top. This precious object was carried by the Israelites through their decades of travels from Egypt until they reached their promised homeland of Israel.

The book of Exodus also contains highly detailed directions, from God, about the construction of a portable sanctuary (or “tabernacle”—from the later Latin translation of tabernaculum—or “tent”) to serve as a moveable and temporary resting place for the Ark. Constructed partially of cloth and partially of wood, the tabernacle was divided into two sections: the “Holy of Holies”—a smaller interior space where the Ark was placed—and a larger “holy place” containing an altar, and area for bread offerings and incense, and a seven-branched candlestick, or lamp stand, made of gold. Further textual details specify the other objects for use in ritual offerings and sacrifices that took place in the exterior enclosed courtyard of the tabernacle. It should be noted, however, that “the costly materials, not to mention the skills in weaving, embossing, and the like, which were necessary to produce the appurtenances described in Exodus are, of course, completely out of keeping with a semi-nomadic existence.” Thus, “many Bible scholars have concluded … that these appurtenances to the Tent did not exist in the desert, but were inserted into the account at a later time by the final redactors,” possibly based on later worship arrangements.

Nevertheless, whatever its original form or degree of decoration, the Ark of the Covenant contained the Tablets of the Law, and among the Ten Commandments, the Second Commandment speaks specifically against idol worship in the form of “graven” or “sculptured” images. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5). Although it has sometimes been assumed that this commandment (and its many later reiterations in the Hebrew biblical chronicles and prophetic writings) represents an anti-art or iconoclastic prohibition on the creation of images of any sort, it is also clear that “there has been no opposition in Judaism to art per se—only opposition to art which could be used for idolatrous purposes.” The following should also be noted:

A religious text like the Second Commandment must be viewed against the historical backdrop or context which gave rise to its distinctive expression … Much confusion has been engendered by writers on the subject of the Second Commandment since—assuming it to be unchanging phenomenon, a monolithic concept—they usually discuss it outside its historical context. Such literal interpretations are based on an assumption which entirely overlooks the fact that within the Bible itself, different and varying attitudes are expressed toward images.

This is a complex issue that has had a significant impact on Christianity and Islam as well—similarly, “religions of the book”—which stem from Jewish heritage. The acknowledgment or worship of any deities other than the one true God of these monotheistic belief systems is forbidden because “idols are useless in a universe controlled by a single omnipotent god of all creation.” Hence, for Judaism and Islam especially, any representation of the supreme being is impossible. “God is beyond sexuality, bodily forms and the visible world; he is creator of all things and therefore not to be identified with any one of them…. God (Yahweh, Allah) may not be represented in visual images.” At the same time, it is clear from the biblical narratives concerning the Ark of the Covenant, the ancient tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem that the creation of “functional ritual objects which also served as visible religious symbols for inspiration and spiritual elevation” was sanctioned and permitted from the earliest periods of Jewish history.

The Temple and the Synagogue

After years of traveling, and after the capture of the city of Jerusalem by King David in the 10th century BCE, the Ark of the Covenant was ultimately enshrined in what was intended to be a permanent location: the Temple in Jerusalem. This impressive structure was created in the mid-10th century BCE under the direction of David’s son, King Solomon, and is also described in great detail in the Hebrew scriptures (1 Kings, chapters 6-8.) The basic form and layout of the Temple followed the model of the earlier portable tabernacle, but in much more magnificent and durable form. Solomon’s Temple was constructed of stone covered with aromatic boards of cedar wood. There were two tall bronze columns set at the entrance. With a longitudinal plan oriented on an east-west axis (the entrance was at the east end), the interior was divided into the two sanctuaries, with access to these areas restricted to priests. The Ark (perhaps raised up on a platform) was kept in the inner room (the Holy of Holies), and the outer sanctum contained an incense altar, a table for bread offerings, 10 lamp stands, and other objects. The outer courtyard contained a large altar for sacrificial offerings (of animals and birds), 10 bronze basins on wheeled stands, and a larger bronze sea, or basin, supported by sculptures of 12 oxen. The Temple was referred to as the House of God—or the place where God’s name was found—and the Ark and its contents represented and symbolized the special covenant between God and his chosen people, the Israelites.

Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE when the Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded and sacked the city. The Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon, and at some point during this traumatic process, the Ark of the Covenant and its contents were lost, destroyed, or removed. The Israelites were later allowed to return to their homeland under the Persian king Cyrus, and the Temple was rebuilt on a smaller scale in the late sixth century BCE. Centuries later, this temple was refurbished and enlarged under the direction of the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea, King Herod the Great (37-4 BCE), but the structure was again completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, during the Jewish uprising against Roman rule. Nothing remains of this temple apart from sections of the great masonry platform upon which it stood, notably the western wall (also known as the “Wailing Wall”), which is considered to be the holiest site in Judaism and a major goal of Jewish pilgrimage to the present day. The structures on the Temple Mount today are later Islamic buildings: the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

Although the Temple in Jerusalem was the major focal point for Jewish worship for many centuries, due to its destruction, loss of ritual objects, and ultimate obliteration, “it can be argued that the Temple became superfluous to the continuing existence of Judaism.” Indeed, it seems clear that alternative forms of Jewish worship, in addition to those rituals purely associated with the Temple, evolved as early as the sixth century BCE during the time of the Babylonian exile (following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple). In exile, and deprived of their Temple, the Israelites gathered in small community groups or assemblies, known as synagogues. The word “synagogue” is a Greek term meaning “assembly” and is derived from the Hebrew bet keneset or “gathering place.” Although there is little archaeological evidence of the construction of specific buildings to serve as synagogues until close to the end of the Second Temple period, it is clear that even “while the Second Temple was still standing, the synagogue already existed as an identifiable and separate institution.” Ultimately, the synagogue replaced the Temple as the primary worship venue for Judaism. “After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the synagogue shifted from being the secondary congregational space in Judaism to the central religious institution in the life of the people of Israel.”

Considerable scholarship has been devoted to the origins, early forms, and functions of the synagogue. The term itself did not, at first, refer to a specific building or a particular type of building, but rather to a gathering of people for prayer and study. A quorum (or minyan) of 10 men was the minimal requirement, and communal prayer led by laymen (assembly members and educated experts in Jewish scripture and law—rabbis—or “teachers”) replaced the priest-led sacrificial rituals associated with the Temple. The earliest datable synagogue structures, in the sense of single-purpose buildings specifically constructed for Jewish worship, show a variety of plans and regional variations based on the materials and building styles of the late Roman world. Some are of a “basilican” plan with a longitudinal axis; some have an “apsidal” format with a semicircular niche or apse at one end; others, of a “broadhouse” plan, have a squarer format or a horizontal axis.

Fragments of sculptural decoration and mosaic floor pavements from early synagogues often depict important symbols, ritual objects, and some narrative scenes as well. For example, the mosaic floor of the early sixth-century synagogue at Maon in southwest Israel features a menorah flanked by lions (symbols of the kingdom of Judah), a shofar (or horn, sounded on holy days), lulav (palm fronds), and ethrog (citron, involved with festal celebrations), plus grapes, birds, and—rather unexpectedly—a pair of elephants. These animals and objects are enclosed in a composition of 55 medallions created by tendrils issuing from a vase. The overall style of this mosaic pavement is similar to contemporary examples of Christian Byzantine mosaics. A sculptural relief fragment from the early synagogue at Gadara in Israel (first or second century CE) also shows a menorah, shofar, and palm fronds.

Through the lengthy history of synagogue construction from ancient times to the present, the buildings show a great diversity of architectural styles and decoration depending on their geographic location, the historical period, and the architectural vocabulary of different eras. Certainly, this “reflects the circumstance that Jewish history … developed and evolved primarily within multiple societies, cultures, and civilizations.”

For example, the 13th-century synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca (so named after it was converted into a Christian church in the early 15th century) in Toledo, Spain, shows Islamic-style, horseshoe-shaped arches in its five-aisled interior. The deeply carved capitals and sculptural decoration on the spandrels and upper levels of the inner aisles show complex foliage, scrolls, and geometric interlacing patterns. The architectural and decorative vocabulary used here might be described as fundamentally Islamic, reflective of the fact that the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim rule for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages. Although the synagogue was constructed after the Christian conquest of the city in the late 11th century, it is an excellent example of the “complex interrelationships between cultures that resulted when Christian rulers presided over an artistic tradition that had been developed under Islamic rule.” The mid-13th century Altneuschul “Old New” synagogue in Prague (Czech Republic), often described as the oldest synagogue in Europe, shows Gothicstyle pointed arches and rib vaulting, whereas the late 18th-century synagogue at Cavaillon in southern France is a small gem of the decorative Rococo style, complete with silver and gold leaf details of shells, fruit baskets, and graceful foliage festoons in a wood-paneled pink and white interior.

Regardless of this stylistic diversity, there are, however, some specific architectural and liturgical features generally found in all synagogues, the chief of which is the container for the Torah scroll or scrolls. Reading from the Torah is an integral aspect of synagogue services, and the scrolls are the most precious possession of the community. A cabinet, box, or niche with doors, known as the “Ark” (recalling the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple), is provided for the safe storage of the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. Generally this is located on the wall faced by the congregation, so that the Ark forms the visual as well as the liturgical focus in synagogues. Customarily, a hanging lamp with a perpetual light burning in it (the ner tamid—or eternal light) will be found near or in front of the Ark. This symbolizes the light of God and is also a reminder of the oil lamp that burned perpetually in the ancient Temple. The doors of the Ark are often concealed behind curtains, again reminiscent of the hangings in the inner sanctuaries of the ancient Temple.

The Torah scrolls often have special textile coverings or mantles, metal shields or “breastplates,” and metal or wooden finials (rimmonim). The care in handling these precious objects also may require use of a yad or pointer that allows readers to follow the text without actually touching it with hands or fingers. The term yad literally means “a hand.” A raised platform or podium (known as a bema or bimah), from which scriptural readings are done, is also a common feature in synagogues.

Depending on the historical or geographic context and the specific observances of the community, separate seating areas for men and women may be denoted; for example, an upper gallery area may be set aside for women. A number of other liturgical objects are associated with the daily and weekly activities traditional in synagogues, as well as specific articles used in annual festivals or days of special observance. These may include textiles, metal work objects, and manuscripts.

Traditionally, the scrolls of the Torah are never illustrated with narrative imagery or decorated with images of any sort. However, illuminated manuscripts of other formats were widely produced, especially during the medieval and Renaissance periods, and represent one of the most significant forms of Jewish art. The earliest surviving examples come from Egypt and Palestine and date to the 9th and 10th century. Hebrew manuscripts were produced in great numbers during the 13th through 15th centuries in western Europe, in 15th-century Yemen, and in 17th-century Persia. As is the case with synagogue architecture, the styles and forms of these manuscripts “reveal the stylistic trends prevailing in such Muslim countries as Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, and Persia under such rulers as the Fatimids, Mamluks, and Safavids. Similarly, in Christian Europe, the Hebrew miniatures from Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, and Italy evince the Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar, International, and Renaissance styles.” Among the religious manuscripts most often illuminated are Bibles, Psalters, legal works pertaining to Jewish law and custom, liturgical manuals, and especially manuscripts of the Haggadah (or “narration”—the text used for the celebration of Passover). These manuscripts, as a whole, also represent a lively tradition of figural narrative imagery in Jewish art, which, in spite of destruction and dispersal, can be traced back for centuries to some of the earliest surviving synagogues with mosaic floors and wall paintings and extends further to the modern period where Jewish art and architecture continue to flourish.


Dura Europos Synagogue, Interior, Fresco Paintings, ca. 250 CE

Dating to the middle of the third century CE, the synagogue at Dura Europos (present-day Syria) represents one of the most renowned and well-studied examples of early Jewish art. Of special note are the extensive fresco paintings with biblical narrative scenes located on the interior walls of the main assembly hall. This rectangular-shaped hall/sanctuary was equipped with benches lining all four walls, and a niche (or aedicula) in the western wall served as a Torah shrine. The frescoes (done in the secco, or dry, fresco technique) are arranged in horizontal registers and represent an extensive array of narrative scenes.

When the synagogue was first excavated in the late 1920s and 1930s, scholars were absolutely astounded by the extent of the paintings and the many scenes and symbols represented.

If there were any doubts beforehand as to whether or not such an art once existed in antiquity, then Dura put them to rest. To date, however, nothing even remotely comparable has been recovered elsewhere. Thus, while the euphoria over the first revelations of Dura has dimmed somewhat in the … years that have passed since the original discovery, these finds clearly indicate that a wider Jewish artistic tradition must have existed, one which will come to light sooner or later.

The synagogue at Dura was one of several religious structures in the city. In addition to the synagogue, the city also contained a number of temples dedicated to Greco-Roman and Near Eastern deities, as well as an early Christian structure. These buildings are of various dates and reflect the history and political-cultural transformation of the city beginning from its Hellenistic foundation in the late fourth century BCE by a successor of Alexander the Great. The city was under the control of the Parthian Empire from the second century BCE to the second century CE, when it was captured by the Romans in 165 CE. The synagogue dates to the period of Roman occupation of the city, which came to an end following attack by the Sasanians in 256-57 CE, after which the city was ultimately abandoned. During the siege of the city, a number of residential buildings and other structures close to the western surrounding walls, including the Christian building and the synagogue, were filled in to expand the defensive walls. Thus, although many structures were demolished, the series of archeological excavations of the early 20th century uncovered relatively undisturbed, buried evidence of well-preserved religious and domestic buildings.

“No single site provides more material evidence about the diversity of religious expression in late Antiquity than does Dura Europos.” It might also be said that no single site from late Antiquity has provided more fodder for scholarly dispute and criticism of archeological and interpretive methods than has Dura. The fresco paintings of the synagogue have been extensively studied since they were first uncovered, and the bibliography on these materials is vast. Even so, there is a great deal of scholarly disagreement about the identification of some of the individual subjects depicted, as well as the relationship of the individual scenes to any overall, unifying narrative program (if one presumes such to have been intended).

Most of the copious scholarly literature on this synagogue has been devoted to the meaning of these scenes. All agree that they represent, in one form or another, high points in biblical history, when the hand of God was evident in guiding the destiny of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the question arises as to the basis of the selection of these particular events, and the extent to which there is a central idea pervading all the scenes. Were these scenes selected at random, or is there a fundamental organizing principle underlying the choice?

About 40 percent of the paintings on the wall surfaces are destroyed; only fragments remain on the east wall, and significant portions of the upper and middle registers on the south and north walls are also missing. The best preserved is the western wall, in which the Torah shrine is located. This wall was oriented in the direction of Jerusalem, and the paintings on this wall include several depictions of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant, the ancient tabernacle, and ritual objects associated with the Temple. These visual references to Jerusalem and the Temple may be seen as creating a sense of “memorialized Temple space” within the architectural form of the synagogue structure, with its focus on the Torah shrine. Other scenes on the western wall include episodes from the lives of Moses, Solomon, and David, whereas scenes on the north and south walls feature episodes from the lives of the prophets Ezechiel and Elijah.

The synagogue at Dura was an enlargement of a smaller building on the site that dated to the mid-second century CE. The assembly hall in the first synagogue held about 60 to 65 participants, whereas more than 120 people could gather in the expanded assembly hall of the enlarged synagogue. This interior space may have been the largest public room at Dura, which perhaps indicates significant growth of the Jewish community during this era. Indeed, it appears that the city of Dura, generally, was a venue in which practitioners of a variety of different religions coexisted in some form during the late Antique period. All of the religious structures at Dura were designed for specific groups (a growing Christian community, a flourishing Jewish community, the Roman military and administrative community with temples dedicated to traditional Roman deities as well as a Mithraeum—for worship of the god Mithras—popular with the Roman military). These structures were generally all enriched with either sculptural or painted decoration with appropriate imagery or narratives. The pictorial program within the synagogue was among the most extensive and continues to provide a focus for scholarly discussion of the possible sources, style, and meaning of this unique cycle of early Jewish narrative art.

Two Hebrew Manuscripts from the 14th Century

Hebrew manuscripts were produced in great numbers in Europe during the Middle Ages. The surviving examples exhibit a diverse range of formats and styles depending on where and when they were created. Some of these manuscripts are richly decorated with figural narrative imagery in styles similar to contemporary Christian illuminated manuscripts, while also demonstrating specific Jewish iconography and pictorial interpretations. Other manuscripts, especially those produced in some areas of Spain, tend to use a purely decorative vocabulary akin to Islamic art forms. Yet other examples show the distinctive use of miniature (micrographic) writing for texts and pictures. The 14th-century Bible from Germany is a fine example of Hebrew micrography, and the 14th-century “Golden Haggadah,” produced in northern Spain, is an excellent example of a Hebrew manuscript with an extensive cycle of illustrations in an essentially European Gothic style.

Although the practice of micrographic writing can be found in non-Jewish cultures also, some scholars have argued that micrography is an essentially and distinctively Jewish art form.

Other scribal traditions also use writing in order to form pictures, but their method usually is to adjust the length of lines in order to create an object which can then, if required, be indicated additionally in outline. Jewish scribes did this too, but their unique contribution was to make designs by writing continuously in tiny script, often weaving the most intricate patterns. This can be seen very well in German Bibles.

The German Bible, produced ca. 1343, shows the opening page of the Book of Genesis with the enlarged Hebrew letters spelling Bereshit (“In the beginning”). The text continues in columns below, and the page is otherwise elaborated with micrographic writing forming geometric designs, an arch, medallions, and panels containing animals and other motifs. These micrographic texts are sections of commentary or “notes called the masorah, which surrounds the Biblical texts and contains guidance as to the writing of specific words and their pronunciation, notes on the frequency of rarer words, remarks on different scribal traditions and so on.” These scholarly notes were originally composed during the sixth through ninth centuries CE, and “it is the masorah which is frequently used in Hebrew manuscripts for micrographic designs.”

Generally speaking, the patterns and animal forms in such examples bear no actual or obvious relationship to either the biblical or the masoretic texts, although certain forms, such as the prominent lions of Judah in this case, may function in a symbolic fashion as well. The architectural niche-like form surmounting the main letters on this page may also have symbolic meaning, for example indicating that the Bible is the “holy sanctuary” for Judaism. Other manuscripts show examples of micrography in the shape of menorah or candelabra forms, but in general, no direct relationship can be seen between the texts and the designs created with them. This fact has long puzzled and intrigued scholarly specialists who are generally rather reluctant to ascribe the popularity of this form (which is, after all, found in the sacred context of Judaism’s holy scriptures) purely to expressions of scribal whimsy or flights of creative fantasy to relieve the tedium involved with this painstaking and “not particularly exciting occupation” of detailed text copying. Because “particular love and care were lavished on the copying of manuscripts of the Bible, the most sacred possession of the Jewish people,” several scholars believe that the decorative and figural designs of the micrographic masorah texts are a reflection, ultimately, of the long reverence for the written word in Judaism generally as well as the growth, in medieval Europe, of mystical schools of thought that endowed letters and words with highly complex spiritual meanings. Hence, far from being a purely decorative form of art, micrography may be seen as “a means of suggesting all the potentialities of creation inherent in the letter. Inasmuch as all of creation preexisted in the letter and its combinations in the Torah, the word and the letter became the only and natural form for expressing all of the creative possibilities of the Word.”

This may also explain why narrative illustrations are relatively uncommon in Hebrew Bibles per se, whereas biblical narrative scenes are frequently found in other types of medieval manuscripts, most especially those of the Haggadah. “Although the text of the Haggadah was already fixed in its essentials during the second century [CE] … other passages were added later up to the 13th century,” and it was during the medieval period that “the illustrated Passover Haggadah emerged in Europe as a new type of book around 1300.” Some of the most richly illustrated medieval Hebrew manuscripts are examples of this text, which is customarily read in traditional Jewish homes during Passover (seder) celebrations in the spring. The Haggadah texts include “a collection of biblical and homiletical verses, poems, and religious customs and songs, focusing essentially on the Exodus of the ancient Hebrews, their attainment of freedom from Egyptian bondage, and their ultimate hope of redemption with the coming of Elijah, the messianic herald.” The lavish “Golden Haggadah,” produced in northern Spain ca. 1320, is among the most noted and well-studied examples of medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.

In addition to in-text decorations and illustrations, the “Golden Haggadah” includes a notable cycle of 14 prefatory full-page illustrations, each divided into four framed scenes. The name of the manuscript reflects the extensive use of gold leaf backgrounds enriched with stamped diamond patterns in these scenes. The illustrations primarily cover selected sequential narrative episodes in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus; the scenes are visually read from left to right and from top to bottom of each page. Scholars have identified the hands of two different (anonymous) artists responsible for the narrative illustrations in the manuscript, both of whom were clearly conversant with the figure style, iconography, and page layout formats of contemporary French and Italian luxury manuscript production. It is unknown for whom the manuscript was originally created, although “in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries noble Jewish patrons at the European royal courts were keen to have the Haggadah illuminated in the book painting style of the time.” It was probably produced in a Catalan workshop in Barcelona during the early 14th century, during which period “the Jewish community of Barcelona was … one of the most prominent and affluent in Spain.” It is one of the earliest surviving Spanish illustrated manuscripts of the Haggadah.

The two facing pages shown here include scenes from the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and are based on biblical passages as well as rabbinic commentaries. The scenes include the following: Lot’s wide turned into a pillar of salt, the sacrifice (or “binding”) of Isaac, Isaac blessing Jacob, Jacob’s dream of the heavenly ladder, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Joseph’s dream, Joseph relating his dreams, and the appearance of an angel to Joseph. The figural style, facial types, drapery patterns, gestures, color schemes, landscape features, and architectural elements all reveal an expressiveness and elegance typical of High Gothic illumination of the time and compare well with contemporary French and Italian examples especially.

The patrons who commissioned the sumptuous Spanish illuminated Haggadoth [plural of Haggadah] must have been Jews with not only the financial resources to pay for such luxurious manuscripts, but also the taste, discernment and interest in the visual arts necessary to enjoy them. It is profoundly unfortunate that, following the ravages of time and of deliberate destruction, so few glorious illuminated Sephardi Haggadoth have survived to bear witness to the refined taste of their patrons.

Marc Chagall, Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law, 1960-1966

What is “Jewish art”? Similar questions arise in defining the arts of other world religions. Is a work of art “Christian” or “Islamic” because it was produced by or for adherents to those faiths? Must a work of art contain spiritual content or have been designed for pious purposes in order to be classified as “religious”? “The question of what is Jewish art and who is a Jewish artist is nowhere more problematic than in the fine arts … perhaps the most justifiable criterion for considering a work to be Jewish art is the issue of identity, perceived or real.” The renowned modern artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) has been quoted as saying, “If I were not a Jew (with the content that I put into that word), I would not have been an artist, or I would be a different artist altogether.”

Chagall’s lengthy and extremely prolific career spans the most tumultuous and disastrous decades for Jews in the 20th century. Born in Vitebsk (Belarus/Russia), Chagall’s Jewish roots and experiences provided a consistent current throughout his career, both in his choice of subject matter and in his overall approach to his art. Although his subject matter ranged widely throughout his career, biblical subjects and images of Jewish life and spirituality were themes to which he consistently returned. The “Jewish world permeated the consciousness, the painterly and fictional worlds of Chagall” in an intensely mystical and deeply spiritual manner, from his earliest images of his Russian homeland to his later stained glass window designs, such as for the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center near Jerusalem.

Chagall said that he had always been captivated by the Bible, ever since his early childhood, and that the Bible always seemed to him to be “the greatest source of poetry of all time.” Apart from single works illustrating or including biblical subjects, at several points in his career Chagall was inspired to create larger series of biblical illustrations, interpreting the sacred texts in his own unique style. Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law is one in a series of large-scale oil paintings of biblical subjects that Chagall began in the 1950s. The composition is dominated by the figure of Moses, who, in a dramatic diagonal movement, reaches upwards to reverentially receive the tablets proffered by the hands of the otherwise unseen God, whose presence is indicated in a gleaming cloudlike form at the upper right. The majesty and significance of the moment is shown by the overall radiance of the scene and the rays of light gleaming through the composition and glowing from the prophet’s head. A complementary diagonal indicates the landscape setting of Mount Sinai where crowds of small figures gather in awe. The idol of the Golden Calf that the Israelites worshiped in Moses’s absence can be glimpsed in the distance. Additional small figures appear elsewhere in the composition; these include an angel bearing Torah scrolls and a priest holding a menorah. Sketchily rendered architectural elements can be seen as well. Altogether, this work typifies Chagall’s uniquely poetic and lyrical style as well as his ability to render extremely powerful messages from his beloved biblical sources. Chagall gave his Biblical Message series (an extensive group of large oil paintings, prints, watercolors, and sculptures) as a gift to the people of France in the late 1960s, and these works are housed in a museum which was especially constructed for them in Nice: the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall.