The Myth of Aniconism: Image, Perception, and Power within Judaic Art

A Brief Examination of Figurative Representation in Conservative and Liberal Jewish Movements 

"Exodus" fresco from Dura-Europos, circa 256 A.D. (public domain image)



The Jewish artistic heritage is rich and complex.  Although many can claim a Jewish birthright, the reality of identifying a singular cohesive set of traits that constitutes Jewish identity proves elusive.  This task is complicated further considering the culture’s extensive history and the Diaspora both of which have contributed to the development of multifaceted communities within the larger community. 

This article will explore the modern artistic landscape within Judaism and specifically focus on how conservative and liberal movements approach the issue of representation within their respective religious parameters.   

A Brief Historical Overview of the Jewish People 

            In order to understand the modern artistic climate of Judaism, it is necessary to consider the extensive history of the culture as much of what happened in the past continues to inform the present.  I must concede that, one, I am certainly no expert on Jewish history and, two, that the brief history given here is wholly inadequate and is only presented to provide a very general overview. 

            The historical record of Judaism can trace its origins to nearly 4,000 years ago (Johnson, 1987, p.3).  Despite numerous hardships, the early Israelites maintained a cohesiveness that allowed them to endure, flourish, and ultimately establish, under Solomon, a united kingdom, the early Jewish nation (Johnson, 1987, pp. 62-64).  However, after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split and was subsequently conquered and occupied, first by the Assyrians, and, later, by other cultures such as the Persians, the Romans, and other nations too numerous to list. 

Consequently, as Jewish history unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to extrapolate a set of concepts or beliefs that decisively illustrate and define what can be called a singular Jewish identity.  From an art historical perspective, this task is likewise doomed to fail.  Difficulties arise for several reasons.  Historically, the land that the Israelites inhabited, as mentioned previously, has been subject to numerous conflicts and this has resulted in several “host” cultures exercising varying degrees of cultural and political influence.  

Up until the time of Constantine (272-337 C.E.), and shortly thereafter, the degree of tolerance for Jewish artistic and religious autonomy was, relatively speaking, high; although it is still very clear that the occupying culture determined, in large part, the particular nature of Jewish artistic and religious expression within the community.  Maintaining a semblance of autonomy within such a dynamic environment is complicated, to say the least. 

After Constantine’s death, the emergent and now state-sanctioned Catholic Church increased its hegemony amongst the population and a campaign to eliminate pagan worship ensued (Johnson, 1987, p.164).  Attention turned towards the Jewish population within the Roman Empire and, according to Johnson, “[t]hey [the Jewish people] became, for Christianity, a ‘problem’, to be ‘solved,’ (1987, p. 164).  Thus began an explicit effort of persecution which would, in large part, characterize a sizable component of the history of the Jewish people for the coming centuries. 

Because of persecution, commerce, actively violent religious conversion attempts, slave-trading, and homeland occupation, the Jewish Diaspora increased in scale and the resultant lack of a geographical center from which the Jewish community could establish a congruent artistic heritage contributed to further diversity within the community.  Martin Buber expressed a similar perspective when he indicated that “having their own land would make it possible for Jews to develop a national art,” (Olin, 2001, p.101).  

As the centuries progressed, sizable Jewish population centers blossomed and faded across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  It was not until the 29th of November, 1947, that the Jewish people had a nation that is, for the most part, internationally recognized as such (Johnson, 1987, p. 525).  Now, next to the United States of America, Israel is home to the largest population of individuals who identify themselves as Jewish (Johnson, 1987, p. 540). 

Although the moniker “Jewish” applies to anyone who can claim the cultural heritage by birthright or conversion, the division between conservative and liberal movements within Judaism has widened to some degree since the Diaspora.  Despite a shared history punctuated by repeated communal hardships and victories, conservative and liberal Jewish communities throughout history have exhibited a spectrum of extremely divergent thought on numerous issues–art being no exception. 

Art Historical Considerations 

Determining the artistic heritage of the Jewish people is difficult for reasons already discussed but also because the historical roots of Western Art History as a discipline contributed to a fundamental lack of understanding or, in some cases, blatant anti-Semitism with relationship to Jewish art.  

Regarding Judaism, there is a common perception—or as some authors and researchers ascertain, a common misperception—that Jewish art, as interpreted to mean the two- and three-dimensional representation of visual form, exists only in limited terms or does not exist at all (Bland, 2000, p.4).  Although largely inadequate, the term, “Jewish art,” here means artwork that is reflective of and is representative of the Jewish culture in a traditional and singularly continuous fashion; excluded are artists who happen to have a Jewish heritage.  There are several examples in early art historical records concerning the exclusion of Jewish art as a valid field of study and, indeed, the weight that these scholars carried as pioneers of art history have, to some extant, perpetuated misconceptions that have lasted to the present day.  Iconoclastic or “art-less” are labels that have been used in early art historical discourses to dismiss the Jewish artistic heritage from the discussion.  Margaret Olin elaborates: 

These wider consequences of the concept of Jewish art suggest the way in which art history structures an understanding of its material, emphasizing certain categories of material and marginalizing others.  Therefore, keeping in mind that a concept of nonexistent art has made its way into the discourse of art […] I delineate the place of the discourse about Jewish art, or rather about the lack thereof, within the structure of discourses about art history as they took shape along with the growth of the art historical discipline during the nineteenth century. […] In the nineteenth century, the particular nature of art history’s entailment with nationalism imbued it with a pattern of aims and categories it would eventually share with modern anti-Semitism, (2001, p.6). 

Further, some advocate that the Jewish tradition is guilty of aniconism; a term which intensifies the aforementioned perception and refers specifically to the “historiographic myth that certain cultures, usually monotheistic or primitively pure cultures, have no images at all, or no figurative imagery, or no images of the deity,” (Bland, 2000, p.4).  Although this paper will not explicitly redress the issue of whether or not the aniconsim moniker can be applied to Judaism, it is important to consider that, as is often the case, certain political and social influences may inherently and inaccurately influence common perception and that sometimes “[…] Jewish aniconism is a barometer indicating the pressure of modern culture and politics on Jewish life,” (Bland, 2000, p.8).  Indeed, Bland indicates that Jewish aniconism is “[…] an unmistakably modern idea,” (2000, p.8).  As such, it is necessary to consider that the general perception of the Jewish artistic heritage within mainstream society may not necessarily be accurate and, further, Jewish aniconsim, in certain cases, may be nothing other than an ideological construction in service of a particular agenda (Bland, 2000, pp. 3-12).  There is a Jewish artistic heritage—one that is as historical and diverse as the constituency of the entire Jewish people.  Regardless, Jewish Art History, as a discipline in its own right, is a contemporary development. 

Representation Within Jewish art 

            The issues characterizing aniconism and all of its associated aesthetical offshoots, so to speak, allude to the larger component issue which is: representation.  The act of translating natural form into a two or three dimensional product is, within some contexts, considered dishonest in that artifice can be mistaken for reality and, as such, mislead the viewer.  Further, experiencing an artistic representation of something is fundamentally different than experiencing the “thing itself,” and, within some religious perspectives, it is feared that the representation and not that which is represented will take spiritual precedence.  For example, the dichotomy of the visible and invisible within Sufism creates an aesthetic dynamic in which “[t]he visual qua physical is immediately suspect in its reliability, since what is important about the world is what is behind the world, not what is on the surface,” (Leaman, 2004, p.58).  Accordingly, by making the effort to paint something that is “of this world,” so to speak, the artist ascribes the thing painted more importance than it deserves. 

Within Judaism, the question of representation is important—even to the extant that an entire religious commandment is devoted to the issue.  “Do not make for yourself any idol, nor any image of what is in the heavens above, nor of what is on the earth below, nor worship them,” (Exodus 20:3, The Keter Crown Bible).  The Jewish religious component, along with several thousand years of Talmudic scholarship, facilitate numerous perspectives concerning the idea of representation; and, indeed, there are movements within Judaism that advocate nothing less than a complete eradication of any pictorial representation that could induce idolatry as well as other movements that are more lenient with regard to the second commandment. 

            Throughout the centuries, the dialogue concerning visual representation demonstrates a clear and largely unresolved struggle with the issue.  Maimonides (1135-1204 C.E.), a prominent medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, and rabbi presents one perspective as to how the second commandment should inform Jewish art: 

            It is forbidden to make images for [the sake of beauty] even though they are not to be used for idolatry, because it is said in the Bible, “You shall not make with Me…This [prohibition] includes even images of silver and gold which are made only for beauty, lest those who worship idols be misled by them and think they are for the purposes of idolatry.  However, this prohibition against fashioning images for beauty applies only to the human form […] If one fashions these, he should be punished, (Mann, 2000, p.24). 

Maimonides’ perspective is clear; however, interestingly, and unbeknownst to him, one thousand years earlier, a synagogue in a remote town unearthed in the present day area of Syria would directly question the legitimacy of the rabbi’s claim. 

Dura-Europos was a small garrisoned outpost established along a trade route on the Eastern border of the Roman Empire.  In 256 C.E., the town was destroyed by the Persians and, during the destruction, several sacks of sand were tipped over within the synagogue which managed to preserve the images until their discovery in 1920 (Baigell and Heyd, 2001, pp. 14-15).  What is striking about what would otherwise be a nominal archaeological discovery is that within the synagogue several images of the human form adorn the walls (see figure 1). 


Figure 1: Unknown [Fresco of Abraham] (circa 240 C.E.). Dura Europos. Retrieved November 5, 2008, from  (public domain photo) 

There was a period of skepticism and outright disbelief concerning the “Jewishness” of the figurative images since all scholarly work up to that point indicated a complete absence of what could be considered an authentic Jewish art history.  Clark Hopkins, the lead excavator of the site, recalled the moment when he unearthed the frescoes: 

            We stood together in mute silence and complete astonishment.  A casual passerby witnessing the paintings suddenly emerging from the earth would have been astonished.  If he had been a Classical archaeologist, with the knowledge of how few paintings had survived from Classical times, he would have been that much more amazed.  But, if he were a Biblical scholar or a student of ancient art and were told that the building was a synagogue and the paintings were scenes from the Old Testament, he simply would not have believed it.  It could not be; there was absolutely no precedent, nor could there be any.  The stern injunction in the Ten Commandments against the making of graven images would be sufficient to prove him right (Olin, 2001, p. 131). 

Subsequent scholarship has since confirmed that the frescoes were the work of Jewish artists and, further, figurative adornment was common during this era.  Perhaps even more interesting is that “[the] development of Christian art, and therefore its very existence, was dependent upon lost models of early Jewish art.  Jewish art preceded Christian art and was the central impetus that allowed the first Christians, without much hesitation, to make use of a didactic visual language,” (Baigell and Heyd, 2001, p. 19). 

General Conclusions: Conservative and Liberal Trends within Modern Jewish Art 

Despite sizable historical evidence to the contrary, there are present-day Jewish communities that advocate an artistic approach that excludes representational figurative art—even to the degree that figurative dolls and toys must be partially broken in order to be used (if a figurative item is broken, the intent that initiated the item’s making is “broken” as well) (Mann, 2000, pp. 34-36).  However, due to the fragmentary nature of the contemporary Jewish landscape, so to speak, it is more common to find individualistic and more lenient interpretations to the second commandment.  It is further possible to find a wide divergence of conflicting rabbinical positions concerning representational art within conservative and liberal communities alike. 

Further, this diversity of permissiveness has widened within all communities as a relatively modern shift in the aesthetic position that figurative artwork was not, as was advocated during medieval times, the “thing itself,” but rather implied a relationship to the thing represented, allowed Jewish artists an outlet through which representational art work could resume.  Margaret Olin cites Martin Buber’s efforts which confirm this aesthetic shift: 

            While the Jewish culture of the past did not provide Buber with a precedent for such art, he could draw on the Hasidic movement for permission to let the senses form a relationship to G-d.  Similarly, he could use his art theoretical training to help him conceive an art of relations reconcilable with Jewish artistic limitations.  Art theorists in fin-de-siècle Vienna conceived modern art as an art of relations.  For Buber, however, the concept of art in terms of relationships rather than objects made possible a mode of art suited to a people without art, (2001, p.126). 

What is most interesting is that the means by which a modern Jewish artist’s figurative and representational work became “permissible” was not through the positions of more liberal Jewish communities but, rather, via the framework of spiritual thought promoted within the very orthodox Hasidic community. 


            Conservative and liberal movements cannot be clearly delineated in terms of how each group chooses to represent the figure within their artwork.  As evident by numerous historical and academic examples, each group is subject, amongst many other factors, to the particulars of their tradition, the charism of a particular community rabbi or secular leader, and the confluence of contemporary events.  Leniency with regards to the allowance of figurative works, contrary to popular opinion, arose, in large part, from the spiritual dictums of a highly conservative Jewish group, the Hasidim.  Likewise, iconoclasm is present in many modern day liberal Jewish movements as evident by unadorned synagogues which remain so as to not result in distraction during worship.  Clear classification remains elusive.  What is clear, however, is that the Jewish artistic heritage with regard to figurative representation and aniconism has been influenced by a precedent set upon false assumptions and pretense that speaks more of Western European hegemony within the artistic community than with regard to any classification based upon evidencial truth. 

Reference List 

Baigell, M. & Heyd, M. (2001).  Complex identities: Jewish consciousness and modern art. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 

Bland, K. (2000). The artless Jew: medieval and modern affirmations and denials of the visual. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

Leaman, O. (2004). Islamic aesthetics: an introduction. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 

Mann, V. (2000). Jewish texts on the visual arts. United States of America: Cambridge University Press. 

Olin, M. (2001). The nation without art: examining modern discourses on Jewish art. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

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