Jewish art as inherently un-figurative
Jewish art encompasses all of the Jewish painters, sculptures, metal smiths and architects that created religion-inspired art from the first dated history until today. Jewish law prohibits the depiction of any human image or the use of imagery to depict sacred content, as written in the second Commandment, and so in Jewish art a visual language has been created that is very different from those seen in Europe and Asia . Whereas early Jewish art, up until the 7 th century A.D, can still show the occasional use of figurative imagery, most especially under the influence of the Byzantine era, later on even these rare depictions would disappear utterly and symbolic, abstract design would become the norm. Jews would restrict themselves to developing the ancient art of Hebrew calligraphy and many art works are just that- artifacts that have been decorated with icons and writing. Very clear Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences can be seen as are the very many Phoenician influences. All of these cultures contributed to the emergence of a distinctly Jewish art form that evolved during the different periods- from the Persian period of the Second Temple in 587-332 B.C, to the Hellenistic period between 332-37 B.C and finally to the ancient Roman period from 37 B.C to 70 A.D.
Symbolism in Jewish art:
From the Byzantine period [the 4 th to 7 th centuries] many of the floor mosaics of synagogues are still preserved in Israel in various locations; Naaran, Beit Shaan, Ein Gedi, Tiberia and Beit Alfa. There are scenes that show the animals boarding onto the Ark , Daniel in the lions den and icons that signify the twelve tribes of Israel . There are certain characteristics that are described in detail in the Old Testament; images of lions, seraphim, olive branches and date fronds that can be seen again and again in archeological findings; there is the seven-part 'Menora' lamp and the ram's horn. These are all accepted Jewish symbolism. But this rigid set of accepted symbols did expand across the years, as Jewish communities in the Diaspora were pushed from one country to a next; this influenced the art and its complexity.
The abandonment of Jewish art in times of persecution:
In Germany and France the beautiful mural paintings of the synagogues were destroyed in the late centuries of the Byzantine period and during the 11th century the harsh socio-political climate of the Crusades made the Jews withdraw themselves even further into their faith, abandoning almost all of the crafts and using Jewish imagery in the transcription of holy scriptures and literature. Many of these pages are still intact today; prayer books for Pass-Over, books of medicinal information and folklore. Miniature images and writing is especially associated with these scholars and artists. Much later, in the late 16 th and early 17 th century, portraits of holy men also began to appear in Italy and Holland, where Jews lived their lives in close proximity to other communities and exchanged cultural ideas and in the 18 th century a new, practical form of art emerged. Bowls and candlesticks of Jewish make and design became common; chalices for the blessings of the Sabbath wine and incense burners. These were made alongside the decorations for the synagogues.