Jews have always expressed themselves in various art forms that reflected the vernacular culture of the time and place where they lived. While a passage in the Torah (Ex. 15:2) prescribes that beautiful implements be made to adorn the Torah, another rule located in various places (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8) prohibits the making of any image or likeness of man or beast. It is presumed that this prohibition refers to objects made for use in worship. Undoubtedly, it also restricted the development of visual arts among the Jews.
The Second Commandment, prohibiting the making of graven images, reads:
“Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow thyself down to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me, and keep my commandments.”
(Ex. 20:3-6; Dt. 5:7-10).
Most scholars agree that this commandment does not prohibit painting or sculpture except for purposes of idolatry. The magnificent frescoes of the Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria (3rd century C.E.) depict biblical scenes; the famous mosaic in the Beth Alpha Synagogue in the Jesreel Valley (6th century C.E.) represents the sacrifice of Isaac and the hand of God reaching down from heaven; mazalots (the Zodiac signs) adorned the walls of Eastern European synagogues. Many illuminated Haggadot, such as the famous examples from Amsterdam and Prague, depict human beings in period dress as well as animals and birds.
There were, of course, periods in Jewish history when art was discouraged for fear of offending religious zealots, particularly in the time of Herod when human figures were avoided in the mosaics and frescoes on the outer walls of the Northern Palace. This could be seen as contrary to the spirit of the Bible, since even the Temple in Jerusalem was decorated with cherubim.
Attitudes to these proscriptions against visual arts have changed over the centuries. Often the interpretation of the Second Commandment reflected political, nationalistic trends, such as the Jewish opposition to graven images during the Second Temple period, spurred by the resistance to Roman rule. In more recent times, portrait painting and photography have been tolerated even by the most orthodox.
During the 18th Century, Jewish painters appeared in several European countries. Itinerant German-Jewish craftsmen made seals and engravings, then graduated to other conventional artistic methods. English-Jewish silversmiths also came to the fine arts along the same route. It is believed that the secularization of European art allowed for Jewish participation. Assimilated Jewish families wanted portraits in their homes such as their Christian neighbors had. Thus, Jewish professional artists emerged, serving both Jewish and non-Jewish patrons, although there are none of distinction known to us prior to the mid 19th century.
One of the first Jewish painters to attain fame was a German, Moritz Oppenheim (1799-1882) best known for his views of Jewish domestic life. Although relatively few Jewish artists reached prominence in the 19th century, Jews have left a permanent mark on art since then. Many early 20th century Jewish artists studied and worked in Paris and there have been similar developments in the United States and, later, Israel.
The Sherwin Miller Museum Collection includes numerous examples of fine art with strong Jewish content. Among these are the tapestry pictured here. Portraying the Prophet Elijah ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire, it is the work of Israeli artist Rueven Rubin.