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While Jews are considered primarily the “People of the Book,” Jewish artists, craftsmen, and architects abound throughout history. While the Second Commandment forbids the creation of graven images which can be worshiped in the pagan manner, its ban does not apply to architec­ture and so-called “applied arts.” The Book of Exodus describes in glowing terms the beauty of the Tabernacle, fashioned by Bezalel and Oholiab, but no part of it has survived. Excavations in Israel have, however, unearthed the remains of lavishly decorated palaces and other buildings dating back to the time of the Kings. Nothing remains of the magnificent temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Of the imposing temple erected by King Herod only a few fragments have been found. We can, however, see beautiful mosaic floors in ancient synagogues built after the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and the superb frescoes in the ruins of a small synagogue at Dura Europos on the Euphrates river in Syria.
Jews were famous in antiquity for gold­smithery. In the Middle Ages, however, arts and crafts flourished among Jews who were free from oppression for long periods in Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland, and some Moslem countries in Asia and Africa. Jews were highly esteemed as dyers, lacemakers, bookbinders, and cartographers. They minted coins for Christian and Muslim rulers. Toward the end of the Middle Ages a pope for­bade Jewish smiths to manufacture Christian ceremonial objects, such as goblets and crucifixes, and barred them from binding Christian religious books.

From the Middle Ages to the Emancipa­tion, Jewish art was mainly ritual art for synagogues and home. The Torah Scroll was written—and sometimes illuminated, or ornamented—by special sofrim, or scribes. Some Hebrew Bibles had beautifully ornamented pages; others were provid­ed with initials illuminated in gold and with full-page miniatures showing biblical figures such as Adam, David, and other heroes. The Passover Hag­gadah lent itself to illustration more than any other book, as it was used not in the synagogue but at home, and religious restrictions imposed on the artist were not so severe.
The Torah mantle, generally of silk or velvet, was skillfully embroidered by pious women. Little religious art older than 400 years has come down to us. Among the exceptions are some Hanukkah lamps of brass from North Africa and Italy, probably the work of Jews. As a rule, the Christian guilds of Europe had a monopoly only over the works in the precious metals, gold and silver. The superb ritual silver objects of the 17th and 18th centuries are the works of Gentiles. While the Jewish patron gave a general description to the Christian craftsman on the construction of a par­ticular object, he did not mind if it was executed in the style of the period, whether Renaissance, Baroque, or Rococo.
Before the Emancipation, few Jews, mainly those converted to Christiani­ty, became painters and sculptors. Things changed in the 19th century, when western European art schools and academies opened their doors to all willing students. Some Jewish artists gave up their ties to Judaism, making art their religion. Jews took the lead in the fight against the old romantic and historical schools, introducing realism, open-air painting, and an appreciation of art’s social role.
These artists produced mainly portraits and land­scapes, or worked in wood, metal, or stone like their Gentile colleagues. Until about 1900, it was rare to see Jewish artists occupied with themes related to Judaism. The Russian Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolski and the Dutch Jew Joseph Israels represent the dichotomy of pursuing Jewish and universal themes. The Sephardic Jewish artist Camille Pissarro greatly influenced impressionist and post-impressionist art. There were some, though, who tried to translate the messages of the Jewish faith, the spirit of the holidays, and the great historical tradi­tions into pictorial terms. Maurycy Gottlieb became famous for his Yom Kippur painting.

Everything changed in the 20th century. Jewish art, as well as art created by Jewish artists, proliferated around the world. In Paris, the so-called  École Juive, or Jewish School, of painters and sculptors produced world renowned artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Jules Pascin. Of the great sculptors of the century, Sir Jacob Epstein of England, and Jacques Lipschitz of Europe, later the U.S., are among the best known.

Jewish artists in the U.S. have had a major influence on nearly all aspects of 20th century American art. Some, like Ben Shahn, pursued both Jewish and universal themes, particularly those related to social justice. Another example is Raphael Soyer, who depicted the downtrodden. Other leaders in innovative art were Mark Rothko, post modern abstract painter; Alexander Calder, famous for mobile sculpture; original pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine; Malcah Zeldis and Morris Hirshfield, two uniquely styled painters; and Art Spiegelman, comic artist, famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning comic memoir Maus.

In Israel, art officially begins at the start of the 20th century with sculptor Boris Schatz, who founded the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem. In the pre-state era, artists such as Reuven Rubin and Nahum Gutman sought to create styles that reflected renewed Jewish life in the Middle East, laying the groundwork for Israeli art. Today, artistic activity in Israel, in nearly all forms, is vigorous and widespread. It encompasses not only painting and sculpture, but also ritual objects, original jewelry, posters, stamps, and other objects in fabric, metal, and stone. Artist colonies thrive in Safed, Ein Hod, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, to mention a few. Among world renowned Israeli artists are Yaakov Agam, known for his kinetic and optic art; Israeli-born Moshe Safdie, a world-class architect famous for his habitat; and Shalom of Safed (Moskovitz), whose biblical and Jewish tradition themed  paintings are a leading example of Israeli art.


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