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ICONOGRAPHY, art of pictorial representation, specifically, that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with subject matter rather than form.

Before c. 1600

Jewish art and iconography may be said to have come into being with the birth of Judaic culture in the Second Temple period (6thcentury B.C.E.), developing in the Hellenistic period in Judea and the Jewish communities in Galilee. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jewish migration helped to spread this art throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Because of this dispersion, no unified Jewish style developed, and Jewish artists adopted the style of their host countries. Nevertheless, it was possible for a specifically Jewish iconography to develop, since Jews throughout the Diaspora maintained close relations with other communities and shared common beliefs, literature, rites, customs, symbols, and institutions.


Any depiction of biblical subject matter from the period of early Judaism should be considered as illustrative of Jewish iconography, although the gestures and images would have been drawn from Classical art. A coin from Apamea (now Dinar) in Turkey (late 2nd–early 3rdcentury C.E.; priv. col.,) depicts Noah and his wife inside and outside the ark with the raven and the dove (Gen. 6:13–8:15); it was probably modeled after wall paintings in the synagogue at Apamea, which claimed to possess parts of Noah's Ark and was therefore named Kibotos, i.e., "Ark." Only the Jews were interested in the complete pictorial cycle of the story of Jonah, since for them he was a symbol of repentance (the book of Jonah is read in the synagogue on the *Day of Atonement) and he was regarded as the man who would bring Leviathan to the Feast of the Righteous.

The scene of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) appears on mosaic pavement synagogue floors in *Bet Alfa and *Sepphoris, as well as in the synagogue at *Dura Europos (244 C.E.; Damascus, National. Mus.), alluding to the covenant between God and the People of Israel, guaranteeing their eternal existence. The choice of this scene with its strong national connotations is clearly Jewish.

Non-biblical visual elements are sometimes depicted within biblical scenes. These derive from homiletic rabbinical oral traditions, later compiled as the *Midrash. Several clear examples of scenes based on oral traditions appear in the synagogue of Dura Europos, such as Elijah and the Prophets of Ba'al. This depiction actually predates the written compilation of the text.


Many elements in early Jewish art are not narrative, but symbolic. Symbolic representations of the Temple of

Joseph interpreting Pharaohs dream. Detail from miniature in a 14th-century Haggadah from Spain. Sarajevo National Museum, Sarajevo Haggadah, fol. 14. Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream. Detail from miniature in a 14th-century Haggadah from Spain. Sarajevo National Museum, Sarajevo Haggadah, fol. 14.

Moses standing on a mountain, with the Tablets of the Law in his hands. The cave in the mountain alludes to the legend that God covered Israel with the mountain, with the threat that it would collapse and bury them if they did not accept the To Moses standing on a mountain, with the Tablets of the Law in his hands. The cave in the mountain alludes to the legend that God covered Israel with the mountain, with the threat that it would collapse and bury them if they did not accept the Torah. Detail from the Leipzig Maḥzor, southern Germany. c. 1320. Leipzig University Library, Ms. V. 1102, Vol. I, fol. 130.

Jerusalem combined with other elements appear many times in early Jewish art. They occur on funerary monuments such as the Jewish catacombs in Rome, *Bet She'arim, and elsewhere, on tombstones, sarcophagi, ossuaries, gold glass plates, clay and bronze oil lamps, Torah plaques, and coins. Even before the destruction of the Temple, its implements were used as symbols of Jewish statehood in a first century B.C.E. graffito found in a priest's house in Jerusalem and on many coins of the Hasmonaean dynasty, the earliest of which is a coin of Mattathias Antigonos (40–37 B.C.E.) with a seven-branched menorah. These symbols include a typical Greco-Roman temple façade, interpreted either as the *Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness or the Torah ark of the synagogue. Other symbols included such sanctuary implements as the *menorah with its shovel, the altars, and the *shewbread table, as well as the two pillars of Solomon's Temple (I Kings 7:15–22), the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron fruit), two of the four species used during the Festival of Tabernacles (*Sukkot). Similar symbolic sanctuary implements appear in Hebrew illuminated Bibles of the 10th century in the Middle East, of the 13th–15th centuries in Spain and of c. 1300 in the Regensburg Pentateuch; indeed, in the Middle East and in Spain the Bible was sometimes referred to as the Temple of God (Heb. mikdashyah).

Sometimes the juxtaposition of scenic and symbolic elements within one composition determines its Jewish character. For example, the signs of the zodiac, not exclusively Jewish, appear with a Temple façade, sanctuary implements, and the scene of the Binding of Isaac in the mosaic floor of the Bet Alfa synagogue. Its recurrence in the synagogue floors of *Hammath (Tiberias) and *Sepphoris (among others), implies a Jewish significance as well.


Most customs depicted before c. 1600 occur in illuminated manuscripts: there are colorful representations in Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Italian prayer books of such rituals, with subject matter varying from illustrations of cooking customs and utensils, the serving of food, and clothes, to rituals in the synagogue or at home. One of the most unique is the initiation of children into the study of the Torah, as represented in the Leipzig Machzor of c. 1320 from southern Germany (Leipzig, U. Bib., MS.V. 1102, I, fol. 131).


Jewish iconography was initially borrowed from Classical Greek and Roman art. In the scene of the Binding of Isaac at Dura Europos, all of the elements – the altar, the knife, and certainly the protagonists Abraham and Isaac, as well as the ram and the tree – are based on Roman models. Visual iconography may sometimes be similar in early Jewish and Christian art; thus the context relates it to the Jewish sphere when it appears in a synagogue or a Hebrew illuminated manuscript or to the Christian when it adorns a Christian funerary chapel.

Indeed, one of the main problems in the study of early Jewish iconography is the fact that many biblical and midrashic episodes that may have existed in late antiquity have survived in Jewish art only from the later Middle Ages. This gap in Jewish art from the 7th to the 13th century can perhaps be filled in part with the appearance of biblical or midrashic themes in Christian art. Jewish art from this period may have been destroyed during the rise of Islam in the 7th century and the period of Byzantine iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, or as a result of the Crusaders' pillaging and massacre of entire Jewish communities in the 12th century. However, use may have been made of Jewish models, a theory that helps to explain the appearance of Jewish midrashic interpretations in Byzantine and West European art in this period, as well as their reappearance in later Jewish art. For example, a panel from the synagogue at Dura Europos shows the Crossing of the Red Sea, wherein the Israelites are crossing by 12 paths rather than one. The miracle is explained by a midrash that states that each of the tribes wanted to be the first to cross the sea, and so Moses divided it into 12 paths so they could all cross simultaneously. This story later was also used by Christian artists, for example in texts of the 6th-century Byzantine Itinerary of Cosmas Indicopleustes (e.g., Florence, 1000 C.E., Bib. Medicea-Laurenziana, MS. Plus. 9, 28, fol 104; Monastery of St. Catherine, 12th c. C.E., Cod. 1186, fol. 73); and in the Spanish Pamplona Picture Bibles (Harburg, Schloss, 12thcentury MS. 1, 2, lat. 4° 15, fol. 57v). It also appears in the Castilian Duke of Alba Bible (Toledo; Madrid, 1422–33, Duke of Alba priv. col), which was translated from the Hebrew with the help of Rabbi Moses Aragel. The continued use of Jewish iconographic elements in Christian art, probably without conscious understanding, may prove the continuous existence of Jewish art during these obscure centuries and may bridge the gap between early and later Jewish art.

Jewish artists also borrowed iconographical formulae from Christian art, sometimes without knowing the Christian interpretation. The scene of Moses taking his wife Zipporah and their two sons from Midian to Egypt, which is depicted in the 14th-century Spanish Golden Haggadah (London, BL, Add. MS. 27201, fol. 10v) resembles representations of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus on a donkey on the Flight into Egypt. The Jewish artist must have seen French or Spanish illuminated Psalters with Old and New Testament illustrations and adapted them to the Jewish context.

After 1600

The conservative attitude of Jews towards visual art and its role in daily and religious life continued to prevail after 1600, both in Christian Europe and the Islamic world. At the same time, this period witnessed an unprecedented flourishing in the production of costly Jewish art objects, decorated with traditional designs and motifs, side by side with new iconography influenced by Baroque decorative arts. While representational art was extremely popular among the Jews of Italy and Germany, other communities, especially in Islamic lands, imitated the iconoclastic tendencies of the host society.

Artistic activity in this period was concentrated around building and decorating new synagogues and furnishing them with silver and textile ritual objects and with creating attractive decorations and objects for the home and life cycle rituals. The largest selection of visual motifs and iconographic representations, however, is to be found in the book arts. As the written word continued to be central in Judaism, particular attention was paid to producing attractive books and manuscripts long after the tradition of the illuminated, handwritten book declined in Western society. Wealthy Jewish families commissioned myriad parchment manuscripts, in particular Passover haggadot (see *Haggadah), megillot (see *Megillah) and large, single-page manuscripts such as marriage contracts (see *Ketubbah), and various ornamental certificates issued for different occasions.

The single most important object in disseminating Jewish imagery in this period was undoubtedly the illustrated printed book. The easily accessible, inexpensive printed book provided the illuminators of manuscripts and other craftsmen with a wealth of Baroque decorative designs, biblical and ritual episodes, and imaginary architectural motifs. The architectural title page, often incorporating the figures of Moses and Aaron, inspired the decoration of manuscripts and such diverse objects as Torah breastplates, Holy Ark curtains, ketubbot, and even tombstones. The title page of the Amsterdam Passover Haggadah of 1695, illustrated with etchings by the proselyte Abraham bar Jacob, is a good example of a source of popular Jewish imagery, which was profusely imitated throughout the Diaspora from Poland to India.

Not all biblical stories enjoyed equal popularity. The *Akedah or Binding of Isaac, for example, was by far the favorite topic in both manuscripts and three-dimensional objects. In keeping with contemporary ideals in neighboring cultures, biblical heroines, in particular the apocryphal figure of Judith, were often depicted as well. In Italy, Jews incorporated into their art Christian allegorical representations, mythological scenes, and at times even nude female figures. While portraiture had been frowned on in previous generations, from about the mid-17th century more and more rabbis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, allowed their portraits to be engraved.

Side by side with the new iconography, old themes and traditional symbols were staunchly preserved. Subjects such as Temple implements, especially the menorah, and conventional images of the Solomonic Temple and Messianic Jerusalem were common in many communities. In general, the Hebrew text continued to be a major, if not central, component of Jewish works of art, whether two- or three-dimensional. Traditional motifs constituted the main theme of Jewish art, especially in Eastern Europe. In Poland, for example, representations of the human figure were usually not permitted. Instead, animal motifs, in particular the four "holy animals" mentioned in Pirkei Avot (5:23) – leopard, eagle, deer, and lion – were extremely popular. In Muslim lands geometric and floral decorations and in some cases animal forms were the accepted norm, in both manuscript illumination and ritual objects. Perhaps the sole exception to this rule was Iran, where, under the influence of Safavid art, literary Jewish works written in Judeo-Persian were illuminated in the 17th century on with biblical and other figural representations. Improved techniques in the 19th and early 20th centuries promoted the introduction and dissemination of new biblical scenes and figures, Zionist symbols, and traditional designs on objects such as Mizraḥ tablets, New Year cards, Simhat Torah flags, etc. Other popular new designs in this period included conventional images of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the other holy towns and sites in Erez Israel, which spread from the Holy Land to the lands of the Diaspora and influenced local imagery.


BEFORE 1600: F. Bucher, The Pamplona Bibles (1970); I. Fishof, Written in the Stars: Art and Symbolism of the Zodiac, exhibition catalogue (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2001); R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York, 1953–68), esp. vols. ix–xi; J. Gutmann, "Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz; Jewish Messianic Symbols in Art," in: Hebrew College Annual, 39 (1968), 219–30; H. Kraeling, The Synagogue (1956, rev. 1979), viii/l of The Excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report (1943– ); B. Narkiss, "The Leipzig Maḥzor," in: Machsor Lipsiae (1964), 85–110 [facs. and intra.]; idem, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts (1969); idem, The Golden Haggadah (London, 1970) [facs. and intro.]; idem, "A Scheme of the Sanctuary from the Time of Herod the Great," in: Journal of Jewish Art, 1 (1974), 6–14; idem, "The Jewish Realm," in: K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (1979), 366–94; idem, "The Sign of Jonah," in: Gesta, xviii/l (1979), 63–76; C.O. Nordstrom, The Duke of Alba's Castilian Bible (1967); idem, "Some Miniatures in Hebrew Bibles," Synthronon, ii (1968), 89–105; E. Revel-Neher, L'Arche d'Alliance dans l'art juif et chretien du second au dixieme siecles: le signe de la rencontre (1984); idem, Le témoignage de l'absence: les objets du sanctuaire à Byzance et dans l'art juif du XIe au XVe siècle (1998); E.L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (1932); idem, The Synagogue of Dura-Europos and Its Paintings (Heb., 1948); K. Schubert, "Jewish Pictorial Traditions in Early Christian Art," in: Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity (1952), 139–260; S. Sabar, "Midrashei Aggadah in Jewish Art," in: Mahanaim, 7 (1993), 186–95 (Heb.); G. Sed-Rajna, The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (1987); K. Weitzmann, "The Illustration of the Septuagint," in: H.L. Kessler (ed.), Studies in Classical and Byzantine Manuscript Illumination (1971), 45–74; Z. Weiss et al., "The Synagogue Mosaics," in: The Sepphoris Synagogue; Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (2005), 55–197; K. Weitzmann and H.L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (1990). AFTER 1600: R.I. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (1998); A.M. Habermann, "The Jewish Art of the Printed Book," in: C. Roth (ed.), Jewish Art: An Illustrated History (1961, rev. 1971), 163–74; idem, Sha'arei Sefarim Ivriyyim [Title-pages of Hebrew books; in Heb. with Eng. summary] (1969); M. Metzger, "Style in Jewish Art of the 17th and 18thCenturies in Relation to the Baroque and the Rococo," in: Gaz. B-A., lxxxviii (1976), 181–93; V.B. Moreen, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (1985); E. Namenyi, "La miniature juive au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siecle," in: REJ, 116 (1957), 27–71; C. Roth, "The Illustrated Haggadah," in: Stud. Bibliog. & Booklore, 7 (1965), 37–56; A. Rubens, Anglo Jewish Portraits (1935); idem, A Jewish Iconography (1954, rev. 1981); Illustrated Haggadot of the Eighteenth Century (exh. cat. by H. Peled-Carmeli, Jersualem, Israel Mus., 1983) [in Heb. and Eng]; S. Sabar, "Manuscript and Book Illustration among the Sephardim before and after the Expulsion," The Sephardic Journey, 1492–1992 (exh. cat., New York, Yeshiva U. Mus., 1992), 54–93; idem, Mazal Tov The Illuminated Wedding Contracts from the Israel Museum (1993); A. Yaari, Diglei ha-Madpisim ha-Ivriyyim me-Reshit ha-Defuls ve-ad Sof ha-Me'ah ha-Tesha-Esreh (1943) [in Heb. with Eng. summary]; Y.H. Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah (1975).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.