One must begin this discussion with a series of questions. What defines “Jewish”—conceptually and historically? Is Judaism a religion, a nation, an ethnic group, a people, a culture, a civilization? Abraham was a Hebrew, Moses an Israelite, and Queen Esther a Judean. Should art associated with the periods in which they lived be called “Jewish”—or “Hebrew,” “Israelite,” and “Judean”?

How does “Jewish art” manage to be art without portraying God, negotiating between the aniconic demands of the Second Commandment (besides recognizing that the commandment is not opposed to images, but to images mistaken for gods) and the notion of hiddur mitzvah, the commandment to beautify? Is the definition based on the artwork—its content? subject? symbols? style? purpose?—or on the artist? In the latter case: on the artist’s birth? convictions? intentions? What of an artist who converts into or out of Judaism? Does his or her work suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

The answers to these questions have varied over time and across space, and the pace of variation has increased in the last several centuries. Definition narrows to subject and symbol with regard to the Bible. Moreover, subjects drawn from the New Testament or what Jews and Protestants call the Apocrypha but Catholic and Orthodox Christians call the deuterocanon fall mostly outside this discussion. Even Hebrew biblical material will not necessarily fall automatically within our purview; we will limit consideration—or nearly—to work by Jews. There are also elements of “Jewish art” that one might connect to the Bible but only obliquely.

Ancient Jewish Art.

If under other circumstances one might ask where Solomon’s Temple fits into the discussion of Jewish art—given that Judaism as we would recognize it takes definitive shape a millennium after he built his edifice—in focusing on biblical subject matter we need not turn further back than the time of the Hebrew canon nineteen centuries ago.

“Jewish art” has its arguable starting point with symbols that emerge in both sacred and secular contexts. The most ubiquitous of these is the seven-branched candelabrum. By synecdoche, it connotes the destroyed Temple in which it once stood and the hope for its reconstruction in the messianic future. Ironically, its most reliable early representation is found on the Arch of Titus, with a procession of captives and Temple accoutrements into Rome, commemorating the Roman victory over the Judean rebels in 70 C.E. Thereafter, depictions of a seven-branched menorah that vary in style and scale may be found across the ancient Jewish world, on bronze and clay oil lamps, the bottoms of gold-leaf-embellished glasses from the Roman catacombs, and on relief-carved column capitals, painted walls, and mosaic-embellished floors of synagogues.

Jewish Visual Art

The most reliable early representation of the seven-branched menorah is found on the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman Emperor Titus’s victories, including that over Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Photo courtesy Julie C. Smith

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This ubiquity is partially due to symbolic implications that carry beyond the Temple and that offer a biblical reference by way of the menorah’s sevenness. In Exodus 20:8–11 (and Deuteronomy 5:12–15) the Israelites are commanded to keep the seventh day holy, emulating the God of Creation as an essential part of the covenant forged at Sinai—shifting from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land—and so sevenness has a range of implications regarding covenantal promise and responsibility. The menorah concretizes this abstract matrix, while alluding both to Solomon’s Temple and to the temporary Tabernacle that led the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai in which it had originally been placed (Exod 37:17–23).

Most early synagogues, from Capernaum (ca. 200–400 C.E.) to Beth Alpha (ca. 525 C.E.), speak a symbolic language with elements of their very architecture. On the interior was a niche in the wall facing Jerusalem, where the Torah was placed during the service. It might, as at Dura Europas (ca. 245 C.E.), be elaborately decorated with not only abstract geometric and vegetal symbols but also human figures. In fact, figurative representation often suffuses early synagogues, while style and medium change.

The interior walls of Dura are overrun with biblical images—this is the first continuous cycle of biblical imagery anywhere—that offer redemptive connotations, from the akedah (Gen 22) to Moses leading the Israelites across the Sea of Reeds; Samuel anointing David; the “hand of God” pulling up the fully clothed, righteous dead from their graves as anticipated in Ezekiel 37; and Mordecai on a white steed being led through the city by his would-be destroyer, Haman. The image of Moses is gigantic, in significant perspective, and shows him twice in the same register (raising his staff to cause the sea to part and raising it again to cause it to go back and swallow up the Egyptians), underscoring the timeless, sacred context in which the drama of redemption takes place.

Later ancient synagogues, such as that at Bet Alpha, offer their interior décor by means of mosaic floors. The images that embellish the area near Bet Alpha’s threefold doorway comprise a rendering of the akedah with schematic figures and a compressed landscape, together with brief inscriptions in Hebrew identifying key elements of the narrative. The two young men waiting at the foot of Mount Moriah are shown, together with the mule, in the same register as are Abraham and Isaac (both identified, in Hebrew, by name). At the same time a vertically rendered ram is identified with the words “behold a ram,” and even God is represented, as at Dura, as a hand reaching out of a sunburst, together with the words “send forth not [thy hand against the lad].” Thus the question of how to depict an imageless God is answered by literalizing the oft-used biblical phrase “the hand of God.”

Medieval and Modern Ceremonial Objects.

By late antiquity and the beginning of the medieval period, as the position of Judaism weakened vis-à-vis its hegemonic sibling, Christianity—and eventually vis-à-vis Islam—figurative representation dwindled. For several centuries we have no record of synagogue construction, repair, or décor.

The primary mode of visual expression within the Jewish tradition throughout the medieval period pertained to ritual, within both synagogue and home. Illuminated manuscripts appear with some regularity—although it is not always clear that the illuminator was Jewish—in particular Megillot Esther and Passover Haggadot. The Golden Haggadah (ca. 1320) and the Sarajevo Haggadah (ca. 1400), both made in or around Barcelona, Spain, contain extensive and exquisite figurative biblical narratives as part of the lead-in to their texts, offering attenuated, Gothic-style figures within a nondimensional space that nonetheless offers landscape elements.

Paradoxically, what is typically called “Judaica,” because of guild restrictions and inhibitions, was rarely made by Jews themselves within the Christian world, particularly if the objects were made of precious metals (as many were). Conversely, in the Muslim world, mainly Jews devised all artifacts made of metals. Both style and symbolic language were largely consonant with that of the surrounding world.

Thus what defines Judaica as “Jewish” is neither the identity of the artist nor the materials, styles, or symbols that shape it, but its purpose: to serve Jews in visually articulating the connection between themselves and God. As the range of types of ceremonial objects expanded, so did the vocabulary of symbols that demonstrate the malleability of visual language across religious boundaries.

Imagery was rarely figurative and even more rarely biblical. The haddas l’vsamim (spice box), developing sometime after the thirteenth century (the earliest surviving haddas dates to ca. 1550) to serve as part of the ceremony of havdalah (separation) marking the end of the sabbath, most often takes the form of a miniature tower—sometimes with a series of “guards” represented at the four corners of the structures. There is a logic to this, since spices were often both difficult to come by and essential to preserving food and/or to disguising its often rotting taste in a pre-refrigerator world; communal spices were kept safe within fortified, guarded towers. On the other hand, particularly for spice boxes where the body is elevated onto a stem and base, there is a strong possibility that their forms were inspired by the Christian monstrances and reliquaries that they often resemble.

Specific decorative elements can have significance. An eighteenth-century eastern European haddas offers the image of a unicorn on one of its four sides. This is indirectly biblical, as it alludes to an aggada (legend) regarding the first sabbath (Gen 2:1). According to this legend, Adam, created on the sixth day, was terrified, when night fell, that he would perish. He was so happy to awaken on the following, sabbath morning, that he sacrificed a one-horned animal to God.

The aggada further suggests that the site of Adam’s altar eventuated as the site of Solomon’s Temple. The unicorn on the haddas is framed by a pair of columns connected by an arch. Among the important Temple symbols that developed in the medieval period beyond the menorah is a pair of columns that represent the columns referred to in 1 Kings 7:21Yakhin and Boaz—that stood before the Temple. So the Temple is connoted as the frame for Adam’s sacrificial altar. Again and again—particularly on Torah breastplates and hanukkiyyot and parokhot—the Temple is recalled through the synecdoche of a pair of columns.

Complexities into the Modern Era.

The hanukiyyah rises to prominence with the growing popularity of Hanukkah in the last few centuries. There are occasional representations of Judah Maccabee, the Hasmonean hero of the holiday commemorating the religious war of the Judeans against the Seleucids and the dedication (“hanukkah”) of the Temple in 168–165 B.C.E. While the books of Maccabees form part of the Catholic and Orthodox Bible, they fall outside the Jewish and Protestant canons. The same is true of the book of Judith, yet, interestingly, occasional twentieth-century hanukkiyyot are decorated with her image, punning on the similarity between the names “Judith” and “Judah”—just as images of lions pun on the Hasmonean’s name and the Davidic Lion of Judah.

Biblical imagery proliferates in the modern era, as the question of defining “Jewish art” re-angles itself several times in moving toward the present. Several important nineteenth-century artists help articulate this re-angling process. Philipp Veit (1793–1877), the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, converted to Protestantism as a teenager and a few years later became a Catholic. He was a central figure in a group of painters in Rome, the Nazarenes, who sought to revive the aesthetic principles of the High Renaissance and devoted themselves to religious, particularly biblical, subject matter. Aside from the obvious definitional question—born Jewish, subsequently Christian, is his art “Jewish,” or only up to the point of his conversion?—there is the interesting fact that, particularly in his Rome years, when he was reviving fresco technique, he painted mostly Hebrew biblical subjects—material definable as Judeo-Christian, rather than as specifically Jewish or Christian—notably the story of Joseph in Egypt. His oils included images from the Gospels, however.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, but in different ways, the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856–1879) and the German Jewish painter Moritz Oppenheim (1800–1882) produced genre paintings exploring contemporary Jewish life, but very few exploring Hebrew biblical scenes. However, Gottlieb painted a renowned and controversial image of a tallit- and kippah-wearing Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum (1878–1879), drawing from Christian biblical material but not from a specific text; and Oppenheim painted a fierce image of Moses, rays of light emanating from his forehead, holding the Decalogue and pointing to the Second Commandment, written in Hebrew. Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), a founding father of French impressionism, was a secular Jewish artist focused as much on light and its effects on landscapes as on the landscapes themselves; none of his works could be construed as “Jewish,” much less biblical.

On the other hand, one of the most important sculptors of the nineteenth century, the American Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844–1917), produced a handful of charming Hebrew biblical subjects—such as “Eve Hearing the Voice” (1876), where, small, afraid and alone she cringes, her arms held up to protect herself from the words she hears, presumably those of God condemning her for her disobedience (Gen 3:16)—and also two renditions of Christ. One of these is a bust, “Ecce Homo” (1884), a gently tilted, thorn-crowned head on uplifted shoulders; the second presents “Christ in the Tomb” (1889) as if he is sleeping peacefully, a shawl that resembles a tallit across his head. This work astonished Christian contemporaries—that a Jew had produced such an effective representation of Jesus. Ezekiel recast Christ as a symbol of humanism rather than of Christianity.

The interest in Jesus by Jewish artists spills into the twentieth century—often as a symbol of suffering. This is expressed by Marc Chagall (1889–1985) in his White Crucifixion (1938). Christ is wrapped in a loincloth that distinctly resembles a tallit. Hovering over him are Jewish elders, rather than angels. Diverse scenes of destruction populate the canvas. The menorah hovers at Jesus’s feet—a six-branch menorah, missing its seventh, sabbath/salvational candle—and a white fire rises from, but does not burn, a Torah scroll in the lower right corner. The flames lick at the feet of a ladder that is empty—there is no Nicodemus or St. Joseph of Arimathea to remove the body lovingly from the cross: there is no redeemer for the Redeemer, who has been re-visioned as a suffering Jew.

Chagall directed himself frequently toward the Hebrew Bible in the various media in which he worked. His bold colors and preoccupation with light are richly evidenced in a series of windows (1960–1962) representing the twelve Israelite tribes, created for the chapel at the Hadassah Medical Center, in Jerusalem, Israel. Ultimately he created an entire museum devoted to the biblical message, in Nice, France (1973). Large-scale paintings focus on diverse Hebrew biblical scenes—with images of the crucified Christ forming part of the background on more than one occasion—and an entire room devoted to passages from the Song of Songs. The personal meets the universal in this series, dedicated to his second wife, Vava, and with repeated visual references to his first wife, Bella, as the eternal bride.

The Israel of Chagall’s windows was taking shape half a century before the state, and a preoccupation of early Zionists was to provide it with visual arts. Among the foci in the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, from its founding in 1906, were biblical subjects. Abel Pann (1883–1963) applied a soft-hued post-impressionist palette to images of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, for instance, and Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874–1925) adapted his art nouveau approach to black-and-white images of Moses holding the Tablets of the Law, his thickly bearded face modeled on that of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

Meanwhile, the center of the visual art world began a gradual shift from Paris to New York between the 1920s and early 1950s. Jewish painters like Ben Shahn (1898–1969), Raphael Soyer (1899–1987), and Jack Levine (1915–2010) largely focused on contemporary social and political issues in a distinctive range of figurative styles. Shahn sometimes connected contemporary events to biblical ones, as in his Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1932), which was intended to suggest the unjust demise of the two Italian immigrants as analogous to the Crucifixion—down to the ironic symbolic detail of a lily in the hand of one of the bluebloods who condemned them to death. Levine’s Adam and Eve (1959) starts with a biblical moment; emulating a Hugo van der Goes depiction but eliminating the serpent and giving to Adam and Eve flipper-like feet, he uses the biblical story to point forward to ourselves, according to humans full responsibility for evil in the world.

By the time of this painting, figurative art had begun to be overtaken by abstract expressionism, which had also stylistically bifurcated in two directions. The chromaticist style was dominated by Jews. While their work was not usually recognized as having subject concerns, the names of many of Barnett Newman’s (1905–1970) canvases make it clear that they did. In Covenant 6 (1953), a white color strip—he called this a “zip”—separates two halves of lush blue, as if either obliquely emulating the divine ordering process of “separating the waters” (Gen 1:7) with white light or, in drawing the viewer’s eye toward the “zip,” reordering the world of the canvas by pulling its coloristic halves together, in the covenantal aftermath of the chaos of the flood (Gen 8:139:17)—or the Holocaust.

Newman’s series Stations of the Cross (1958–1964) translates a powerful moment in Christian biblical thought into nonfigurative, Jewish terms. The grouping of the irregularly dimensioned and patterned series of “zip” paintings suggests the painful, irregular, stumble-continue progress of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha. Later, the Pop artist Larry Rivers’s (1923–2002) A History of Matzah (1984) translated the Christian triptych form into a monumental story of the Jews, the first part of which includes biblical figures articulated by way of direct references to famous paintings by artists like Leonardo and Rembrandt, but with his uncle Aaron as a stand-in for figures like Moses and Jesus.

Contemporary Questions.

By the 1970s Jewish artists who were Holocaust survivors had begun to exhume their painful memories and wrestle them onto the canvas. Alice Lok Cahana (b. 1929), in a series Ashes from the Rainbow, did that, combining blacks and whites and sometimes burned paper and sand with bright pigments. One of these, Jacob’s Ladder (1981–1982), puns between the ladder in Jacob’s dream (Gen 28:12) and train tracks; the semi-abstract forms hovering along the ladder are both angels and souls of the dead, rising as colorful flecks of ash from the tracks leading to the crematoria.

During this period Jewish artists began to further blur the line between ritual objects and “fine art.” Tobi Kahn (b. 1956) began producing ceremonial objects in the 1980s, with “names” (often of Hebrew elements) that evoke but do not quite settle on recognizable subjects and meanings. Most of these objects could easily be mistaken for abstract sculptures by the untutored eye. On the other hand, many of his sculptures—“shrines”—suggest liturgical art without being liturgical and simultaneously evoke Greco-Roman aedicula, Christian reliquaries, and the mishkan (tabernacle) in the wilderness (Exod 36).

In the 1990s, not only did the shaping of ritual objects by Jewish artists continue the proliferation that began in the early part of the century, but new categories were created. The Miriam’s Cup appeared on the Passover Seder table in many households. Filled with water, it “balances” the messianic Elijah’s goblet of wine and brings the sister of Moses back into the narrative, alluding to the water found in the wilderness “for the merits of the prophetess Miriam,” based on a Midrash to Numbers 20:1–2 (Num. Rab. 1:2). An ever-expanding array of artists has shaped these, often as virtual sculptures.

The interest in addressing biblical texts expanded exponentially, centering on varied issues. Because an obvious question for Jewish artists of the past two centuries is “where do I fit into Western art, which has been largely Christian for the past seventeen centuries?” then addressing shared biblical subjects offers one way of answering that question while provoking others. Archie Rand (b. 1949) has produced massive series of brash, coloristically bold, intensely emotive figurative images. In 1989 he did a series called The Chapter Paintings—a large visual Midrash for every single Torah parashah. His 2008 The 613 offered one painting for each of the mitzvot delineated in the Torah. Less systematically, Phillip Ratner has created hundreds of watercolors and sculptures on biblical themes.

In the 2010 Dura Europos Project two artists, Joel Silverstein (b. 1957) and Richard McBee (b. 1947), principals in New York’s Jewish Art Salon, asked four dozen artists to respond, each in a 12-inch by 12-inch work, to any scene they chose from the Dura synagogue painting cycle. The result was a startling diversity of reexamined biblical subjects, articulated in an expansive engagement of style, symbol, color, texture, and medium.

Jewish artists have been drawn to particular biblical subjects. The Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak (b. 1933) focuses an extended series on Adam and Eve, interweaving it with implied questions of theodicy shaped by the Holocaust. Catherine Kahn’s Cain and Abel: The Assassination of Yizhak Rabin (1996) connects the first biblical murder to a religiously impelled murder that transformed the new millennium with regard to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Richard McBee has painted dozens of midrashic explorations of the Akedah—often depicting Abraham and Isaac afterward, in contemporary garb, trying to talk, father and son, about what just happened: Where can their conversation go now?

Howard Lerner’s (b. 1953) Binding of Isaac (1998) was in part inspired by an early sixteenth-century French relief sculpture from Perigord, in which the ram stands quietly, as if grazing, by the altar. There is an opening in the wall of the towering structure. A tree and its roots are discernible through that opening, which tree, in turn, grows through and up and out of Isaac’s belly. Thus the “Tree of Jesse”—which, in Christian art, offers Jesus’s genealogy as a tree growing from the belly of King David’s father—has been refocused. The Jewish understanding of Isaac as the first in an ongoing process of covenantal transmission has been connected to the Christian understanding, which makes Isaac’s self-sacrifice the forerunner of the Crucifixion—with some irony. For the opening through which we see the base of the tree is recognizable as the familiar Auschwitz oven opening.

Jewish Visual Art

The artist Archie Rand stands in front of his 2008 painting The 613. The work features one painting for each of the mitzvot delineated in the Torah.

Courtesy Archie Rand

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Carol Barsha’s (b. 1952) triptych The Love That Binds (1997) presents Isaac floating in “a limbo of love and oblivion” (her words). He is caught between realms: tied by this event to his father’s God—next in line as prophetic intermediary between humanity and divinity—he hovers between earth and heaven. His hovering is born of the oblivion of meaninglessness (again her words; faith as complete unreason—expressed by his father’s irrational faith-prompted act, who awakens him before dawn and leads him on a nightmare journey that culminates with being bound by that father who then stands over him with a knife). It is also born of love in the most ambiguous way: his father’s love of God, his own love of his father—and in the end, with his redemption and initiation into the Covenant, his father’s love for him.

Judy Fox (b. 1957) sculpted a very young David (1992) looking up through one open and one closed eye to assess Goliath. Her pioneering realist terra cotta and casein works of gods and prophets in diverse traditions are all based on photographs of babies and children that she poses in accordance with their religious narrative. Altogether different is the application of elaborate accompanying illustrations for a biblical text to shape a graphic novel, as in J. T. Waldman’s (b. 1977) Megillat Esther (2006). This work is a visually dynamic, Midrash-laden retelling of that problematic tale that, never mentioning God, barely made it into the biblical canon.

The Bible has provoked many Jewish women artists to ask: “Where do I fit in a dual tradition (art and Judaism) that for so long virtually excluded or liturgically limited women?” Helène Aylon’s (b. 1931) array of mixed-media commentaries began with her 1996 The Liberation of G-d, which highlighted passages (in pink) in each book of the Torah where women were rejected, excluded, or hidden; she suggests that men, rather than God, must have devised such words.

Diversity and Tikkun Olam.

Born into the Bene Israel community of Mumbai, surrounded by Hindus and Muslims, sent to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, Siona Benjamin (b. 1960) immigrated to an America characterized by unresolved issues of gender, religion, and race. In works like her Fereshteh (“angels” in Urdu) series, from the late 1990s to today, female figures are blue-skinned, like the Hindu god Krishna (and others) and like the sky shared by all peoples. She has applied this pigmentation to a range of biblical characters like Abraham, Joseph, and Miriam as well as to Lilith, who is biblical by way of Midrash. Benjamin’s images, often with embedded words and texts in Hebrew, Urdu, and English, synthesize biblical with other ideas in order to promote tikkun olam.

Jewish Visual Art

Finding Home #46: (“Tikkun Ha-Olam”) (2000) by Siona Benjamin.

© Siona Benjamin

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This last theme dominates contemporary art by Jews, whether through biblical or other subjects. Jewish art is not only about aesthetics but also about improving the world by commenting on it and causing the viewer to share in an ongoing and thoughtful conversation about it. While there are few works that focus on the Bible in Jewish art, each of the bibliographic entries that follow explores aspects of this subject.

[See also JEWISH LITERATURE and MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY VISUAL ART.]

Bibliography

  • Baigel, Matthew. Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006. This is a brief introduction, with good information and occasional insights, into the issues that have pushed Jewish American visual artists for the past two centuries.
  • Baigel, Matthew, and Milly Heyd, eds. Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. This series of essays by Israeli and American scholars reflects a broad range of contemporary art criticism drawn from varied disciplines. Essays analyze how Jewish experiences have shaped works by Jewish artists and how, in turn, art itself has helped shape Jewish experience in the modern world.
  • Baskind, Samantha. Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. This work considers the proliferation of biblical themes by Jewish painters, printmakers, sculptors, and book illustrators in the America of the past century. It is most obviously directed to the theme of this article of all the works in this bibliography.
  • Baskind, Samantha, and Larry Silver. Jewish Art: A Modern History. London: Reaktion, 2011. A very thoughtful and often insightful exploration of work by Jewish artists in the past two centuries within a briefly but solidly presented historical context.
  • Bleiberg, Edward. Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 2005. The catalog of an exhibition with a clear and well-articulated focus on relevant works (primarily synagogue floors) within the later Roman period.
  • Epstein, Marc Michael. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. An excellent exploration of four magnificent illuminated haggadot, including the Golden Haggadah from Barcelona.
  • Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010. A broad and very useful exploration of the Jewish experience in art from the Hellenistic period through the rise of Islam. Its take-off point is the premise that Jewish art in antiquity was a “minority” or “ethnic” art and follows Jewish participation in, transformation of, and at times rejection of the art of the general environment in shaping a politics of identity.
  • Fine, Steven, ed. Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A classic series of essays on the architectural, decorative, and conceptual shaping of the synagogue just before and after the destruction of the Second Temple.
  • Goodenough, Erwin R. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Vols. 9–11. New York: Pantheon, 1953. Part of a pathbreaking 13-volume study of Jewish thought and expression within the Greco-Roman world and the ways in which Jews, Christians, and pagans influenced and were influenced by each other. I do not always agree with his interpretations of symbols but find his overall discussion compelling.
  • Leon, Harry J. The Jews of Ancient Rome. Rev. ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005. The standard reference work in English on Roman Jewish catacomb inscriptions and images, which reveal a wealth of significant information: the language of the people, their work, their religion, and their manner of life. The updated edition includes new inscriptions with comments by Carolyn Osiek, line art and photos, an updated bibliography, as well as addenda to the first edition.
  • Levine, Lee I. Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013. An excellent discussion of the emergence in late antiquity (third to seventh centuries) of figurative images (including pagan motifs), biblical scenes, and religious symbols by Jewish artists. The work offers useful insights into the role of visual culture in Jewish society, in which particular communities determined what forms of artistic expression should be displayed in their synagogues.
  • Rostovtzeff, Michael I. Dura Europos and Its Art. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938. A classic and concise discussion of the extraordinary wall-painting series at Dura and its implications for Jewish life in Mesopotamia in the mid-third century C.E.
  • Roth, Cecil, ed. Jewish Art: An Illustrated History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. A comprehensive exploration of Jewish art from antiquity to the twentieth century. The quality of the essays varies in terms of insights, but all offer interesting information.
  • Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle. Ancient Jewish Art: East and West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. The early development of Jewish art within the context of the larger cultures around it.
  • Shilo-Cohen, Nurit, ed. Bezalel 1906–1929. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1983. Extensive well-written and well-documented catalog of an exhibition considering the diverse aspects of the Bezalel Academy of Art in its first historical phase.
  • Soltes, Ori Z. Fixing the World: American Jewish Painters in the Twentieth Century. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2003. Concise, lavishly illustrated discussion of work by Jewish American artists most of whom, the author asserts, share an interest in using art as an instrument for improving the world.
  • Soltes, Ori Z. Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source. New York: Basic Books, 2005. A concise but wide-ranging discussion of the sources for, similarities and differences between, and ongoing development of visual symbols in the three Abrahamic faiths.
  • Strosberg, Eliane. The Human Figure and Jewish Culture. New York: Abbeville, 2011. A lushly illustrated study that considers why so many modern Jewish artists continued to paint the human form even as the avant-garde movement vigorously promoted abstraction, concluding that they were drawn to the human figure because it offered a means of communicating aspects of their Jewish intellectual heritage, such as humanistic values and a passion for social justice, in secular terms.

Ori Z. Soltes