Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Jewish Artwork and Exodus 20:4

A friend in Eugene makes Jewish artwork.

This painting, in particular, is an interesting one to discuss because it exemplifies an issue that Jewish art must deal with.

In Exodus 20:4 we are told not to make a "likeness" of anything real.

(A word-for-word translation of the verse reads, "Do not make for yourself a carved image, or all likeness that is in heaven from above or earth from below or water from under the earth." Hebrew grammar works a little differently, allowing the word "all" to mean "any" in this case.)

So most Jewish painting, at least until modern times, avoided any real-life subject matter. What, then, is painted?

The painting I linked to shows one traditional option: using words to make up the subject. In this case, the flames are made of the two Hebrew words Shema Yeshua ("listen to Yeshua"). If you visit a local Judaica shop (or search for the phrases "Jewish calligraphy" or "Jewish Illumination") you can find examples of more complicated pictures made entirely out of words. Here's a fairly simple one. I'm having trouble finding a complicated one using Google.

Another option was to use mythical creatures as decorations. Here's an example.

Using complex geometric shapes or decorations that might be called Celtic or Arabesque by most Americans is also very traditional.

It certainly avoids having to debate whether your church coffee shop should display contemporary art with nude human subjects!