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Portraits of Jews

Portraits were known among the Jews in the classical period: Josephus (Ant., 17:6) records that *Alexandra sent portraits of her sons to Mark Antony in order to rouse his sympathy. The Jewish "zoographos" Eudoxios who lived in Rome was presumably a portrait painter. No such portraits have survived, though an extant statue of the classical period has been said to represent *Josephus . In the Middle Ages there are numerous representations of Jews in biblical (especially New Testament) scenes, but none that can be identified with any specific living person. What has been described as the earliest Jewish portrait is the Scharfzandt window of the Church of Our Lady in Munich but it is no more than a vivid representation of a Jewish type. The earliest actual representations of identifiable Jews are presumably the medieval Anglo-Jewish caricatures of Isaac of Norwich (1233) and of Aaron 'fiz Diaboli' of Colchester (1277). In a late 14th-century Spanish prayer book in the Vatican library (Ms. Vat. ebr. 324) there are a number of crude sketches of various members of the community, similarly caricatures rather than portraits.

The earliest identifiable portraits of Jews in the full sense are those of Daniel da Norsa and his family at the foot of the painting of the Madonna made for the Basilica di Sant' Andrea in Mantua in 1495, built on land confiscated from him. Somewhat later is the portrait of *Joseph of Rosheim in a contemporary German document. It is somewhat curious that the earliest known specially commissioned portraits of Jews are three medals of the Renaissance period, for the religious prohibition was considered to apply more strictly to plastic art than to a plane surface. Leone *Modena stated that in his day Jews had portraits in their homes, but his own portrait, prefixed to his Riti Ebraici, was made as an exercise by a gentile acquaintance.

From about this time portraits of prominent Jews, including rabbis, became commonplace in the northern European Sephardi communities, where presumably the former traditions to which they had become accustomed as *Marranos had become deeply engrained. On occasion the Jews went to the most eminent artists of their time for the purpose: while *Rembrandt 's portraits of *Manasseh Ben Israel may have been executed as an act of friendship, there is every reason to believe that his Dr. Ephraim Bueno was commissioned. In 18th-century England, artists of the caliber of Reynolds and Gainsborough carried out portrait commissions for wealthy Anglo-Jewish families. Sculptured portraits begin to emerge in the Jewish communities only in the late 18th century. To this day some of the extreme Orthodox object to having their portraits taken even by photography, because of their stern interpretation of the biblical prohibition. On the other hand, portraits of the dead persons in high relief are to be found in the Jewish cemetery of Curaçao, and in some parts of the U.S. photographs are incorporated into tombstones. In recent times, eminent Jewish portraitists include P. de *Laszlo and S.J. *Solomon , and the sculptor Jacob *Epstein .


A. Rubens, A Jewish Iconography (1954); Anglo-Jewish Portraits (1935); Frankel, in: HJ, 5 (1943), 155–64; Friedman, in: HUCA, 23 pt 2 (1950–51), 433–48; Mayer, Art, index, S.V. Medals, Portraits.

[Cecil Roth]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.