Commentary Magazine

Jewish Ceremonial Art, edited by Stephen S. Kayser

Jewish Art
by Alfred Werner

Jewish Ceremonial Art. Edited by Stephen S. Kayser. Foreword by Louis Finkelstein. The Jewish Publication Society of America. 168 pp. $3.00.

There has never been an intrinsically Jewish art—not even in antiquity, when the Jewish “style” was actually a combination of Middle Eastern, Greek, Roman, and other elements haphazardly blended to produce what individual kings, priests, and elders considered the most practical and most pleasing articles to be used in religious services. And in modern times the vast majority of Jewish ceremonial art objects executed in Western and Central Europe were not even the work of Jewish craftsmen. Whereas the church often forbade the practice of commissioning ecclesiastical art from talented non-Christians, the pre-emancipation Jew, lacking an aesthetic tradition of his own, necessarily relied on Gentile artists.

Stephen S. Kayser, the editor of Jewish Ceremonial Art (which was originally published as a soft-cover catalogue for the Tercentenary exhibition held last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and his collaborator, Professor Guido Schoenberger (who compiled the ample notes for the two hundred items in the catalogue), are aware of the difficulties created by these historical circumstances. Their principle of classification is to consider Jewish anything made for a Jewish purpose, whoever the maker may have been (often he did not sign his work, though we know with certainty from the hallmarks, and with reasonable assurance from stylistic analysis, that he usually was a Gentile). It is a good principle, and along with the excellent photographs, it makes this book a useful introduction to the subject.



The collaboration of Jewish patron, who specified in great detail what he wanted, and Gentile craftsman, who executed the work, resulted in some curious productions. Looking through the plates in this book, one can see how Jewish motifs, some perhaps traceable to ancient Palestine, are blended with decorative features from Christian ecclesiastic art innocently thrown in by the silversmith and as innocently accepted by his Jewish patron. The latter might specify the shape of an object and, if inclined toward ostentation, permit his own horror vacui to mar a piece by his insistence on flourishes; he might even (as was surely done) forbid the craftsman to work on an object on the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday. But since he had no artistic training or traditional standards, he would accept a vessel distinguishable from church silver only by its Jewish uses.

Dr. Kayser points out that very few extant Jewish religious articles are older than four hundred and fifty years (apart from illuminated manuscripts, we might add). Virtually, every object pictured in this book is either Baroque, or was fashioned under the influence of the Baroque spirit long after that had given way in Christian Europe to later trends.

Why did Baroque, long after its decline, never really lose its attraction for the Jewish people? It lingers on, at a low level, to this very day. Dr. Kayser does not explore this interesting question, but it may have something to do with the fact that Gothic had unfortunate associations for the Jewish mind. The Jew must have felt an aversion to images of an age that spelled the intensity of the faith by which he was persecuted. And there is a possible theological reason as well. The medieval Christian sought the infinite, wanted his house of worship to point to heaven; hence the preponderance of vertical features: tall, narrow windows, high vaults, and awe-inspiring towers. The Baroque church, however, discarded height and—like the synagogue—extended horizontally, clinging to the physical rather than the metaphysical, concentrating man’s thoughts on life rather than death.



While Jewish ceremonial art is even less “original” than one would like to believe, it does exhibit features, some of them mentioned in this book, that cannot be found in Christian art. Among others, there are: the Sabbath lamp formed, under the influence of Roman oil lamps, in the shape of a star; the seven-branched candlestick; the Chanukah lamp; the container for the ethrog; and the Seder plate with three tiers. The book makes clear that figural representations of animals, and even of humans, were not eschewed, though in most cases the nose was chipped to make the figure incomplete and hence permissible.

Similarly, we learn from Professor Schoen-berger’s notes that the pre-emancipation Jew was not altogether artistically barren. We know definitely that certain of the ritual objects were made by Jews, as, for example, a Torah Ark curtain of 1772, a superb piece in red brocade embroidered in silver and showing a seven-branched candelabrum flanked by columns reminiscent of the two sacred columns of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem; above the candelabrum two rampant lions of Judah hold a crown, and below it stands a double eagle. The curtain is inscribed with the following words in Hebrew: “Work of my hands, in which I take pride, with the help of God, Jacob Koppel Gans, son of Judah Leb, goldsticker [embroiderer], Hochstadt, Bavaria.” We know also of at least one East European Jewish silversmith who signed his work “Ze’eb, son of Abraham,” from Pietrokov. In 1766 Ze’eb made one of the Torah breastplates mentioned and illustrated in the book; it shows two gryphons on columns holding a crown placed over the Tablets of the Law. Several of the brass Chanukah menorahs are also by Jews. Two lavishly illustrated Scrolls of Esther are referred to, and the illuminator of one is known to us by name—Salomone d’Italia. Professor Schoenberger points out that “in the Book of Esther the word for God does not occur. The artists could therefore feel at greater liberty to illustrate and decorate it, thereby making it the only biblical book in Judaism in which the text is traditionally accompanied by pictures but, curiously enough, only when it has the form of a scroll.”

In several cases, we might be inclined to attribute a work to a naive Jewish folk artist, but on close examination we reverse our judgment. For instance, in a 17th-century burial society cup the procession of the chevrah kaddisha was painted on glass by a Gentile-no Jew would have put the inscription upside down. In other cases, one is startled by the introduction of Hebrew script and a Jewish motif in an object otherwise entirely lacking connection with Judaism—as in an old English three-piece coffee set of salt-glaze Staffordshire china decorated with Hebrew sayings and a scene from a Jewish wedding ceremony!



What is lacking in Jewish Ceremonial Art and in most recent catalogues of similar character is, of course, a critically aesthetic approach. Curiously, the first and largest exhibition of this kind, the 1887 Jewish historical exhibition at London’s Royal Albert Hall, set a standard of critical honesty in its catalogue that this book does not match. It was conceded that the efforts of the creators (or purchasers) of this art were “less directed for the production of things of beauty, for the sake of their beauty, than to the illustration of the affection or reverence in which they held particular persons or things.” Hence “the mere richness of the gift was sufficient. . . . [and] design . . . a minor consideration. . . . [They] borrowed freely from the art types of the nations among whom they dwelt or from the more obvious methods of costly decoration.” To say as much today in America would probably be considered heretical.


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