Gabrielle Sed-Rajna. Jewish Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. 640 pp. $175.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8109-3514-3.
Reviewed by Steven Fine (Associate Professor, Rabbinic Literature and History, Baltimore Hebrew University)
Published on H-Judaic (August, 1999)
Jewish Art, by the eminent French art historian Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, is truly a beautiful book. Containing nearly eight hundred illustrations, including two hundred and seventy-two in full-page color, this volume is truly a delight for the eye. Jewish Art certainly fulfills the goal of the publisher of providing a weighty and beautiful tome. This volume is more than a thick coffee table book, however. It includes images of well known and less well known examples of "Jewish Art" from biblical times to the present.
In this volume, Sed-Rajna set out to fill a "lacuna" created since the appearance of the last scholarly volume to bear the title Jewish Art, Cecil Roth's Jewish Art: An Illustrated History. Roth's edited volume appeared in Hebrew in 1956/57 (Tel Aviv: Masadah) and in English in 1961 (New York, McGraw-Hill), and was slightly revised by Bezalel Narkiss in 1971 (London: Vallentine, Mitchell). It is Sed-Rajna's position that: "despite the impressive profusion of publications on specific topics [since Roth], a complete overview, taking into account most recent discoveries and the newest theories, remained a desideratum" until the appearance of her book (p. 13).
Sed-Rajna has taken on a formidable task, owing both to the great progress that has been made in "Jewish art" scholarship over recent decades, and to the quality of the other Jewish Art. The question at hand is whether Sed-Rajna's study fulfills its goal of being a "complete overview" of "Jewish art"? Does it supersede Roth?
Like Sed-Rajna's volume, Roth^Òs book is weighty and well-illustrated, particularly for the time in which it was published. It has been the standard for a generation, a period during which the field of Jewish art has developed as never before. Roth's volume (1971) numbered 332 pages, excluding illustrations. Sed-Rajna's numbers a whopping 635, including illustrations. Roth^Òs volume was a veritable "Who's Who" of the Jewish art community of his day on both sides of the Atlantic. This impressive collection of twenty essays includes articles by such greats as Roth himself, M. Avi-Yonah, Rachel Wischnitzer, L.A. Mayer, A.M. Haberman, Alfred Werner, and Franz Landsberger. Covering what was known of Jewish artistic creation in the late 1950's, this volume was a landmark, each author setting his or her distinctive specialty and tone to each article.
Collectively, this volume was intended to tell the story of the art of a nation, from its Biblical origins through the most contemporary of art by Jews or about Judaism. Even the circular plan of the Galilean village of Nahalal is included in this volume, together with Canaanite goddesses, ancient synagogues, glass from Islamic lands, printed Hebrew books, and the paintings of Raphael and Moses Soyer. Just as Italians, Britons, and Americans have national art forms, so too, argues this volume, do the Jews. This is despite the widely-held notion that Jews don't do art owing to their religion, a conception that this volume comes to set aside. In fact, Roth opens his volume with an apologia: "The conception of Jewish Art may appear to some to be a contradiction in terms" (p.11). The normalization of the Jews, particularly their national normalization, required that they have a national art, like all of the nations. Roth's book is in many ways the Jewish counterpart to the well-known introduction to the history of art (now multi-authored), Gardner's Art Through The Ages. It is the one-volume statement of the Jewish contribution to the world of art.
Sed-Rajna^Òs Jewish Art is similarly dedicated to the proposition that there is a continuous Jewish national art. She traces this art, like Roth, from biblical times through the "present day." Like Roth's volume, Sed-Rajna^Òs book opens with an apologia for the existence of Jewish art. The conceptual similarities between these volumes are indeed striking.
Sed-Rajna is assisted by a team of four scholars, all but one of whom are associated with Israeli institutions. Most of the articles were prepared by Sed-Rajna herself. The article on "Synagogues: The Community as Unit" was prepared by G. Jarrassé. Ziva Amishai-Maisels prepared an article on "Jewish Artists From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day." The short discussions of "major synagogues" by R. Reich, R. Klein, P. Leriche, G. Sed-Rajna and F. Jarrassé are extremely useful (pp. 537-606). Finally, the bibliography and index make this volume very usable and its scholarly context easily accessible.
Turning to the articles on Jewish art during the Greco-Roman period, my own area of expertise, the articles on "The Golden Age of the Second Temple: The Splendor of Jerusalem" and "The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism" were both written by Sed-Rajna. They parallel articles in Roth^Òs volume by M. Kon ("Jewish Art in the Time of the Second Temple"), M. Avi-Yonah ("Synagogue Architecture in the Late Classical Period"), R. Wischnitzer ("Jewish Pictorial Art in the Late Classical Period") and S. Appelbaum ("Minor Arts of the Talmudic Period"). These articles are all dated methodologically and because of the incredible discoveries of the last forty years. Nevertheless, the insights suggested by these giants of the previous generation are still of great interest and use. Sed-Rajna^Òs articles, by comparison, emerge with mixed though generally positive results. The descriptions of archaeological finds are accurate (if at times cumbersome), as are many of the historical assertions made. The author is not aware of the much recent scholarship by historians on the Second Temple and Talmudic times, and even of work by historians on art during this period. This is not entirely her fault. "Jewish art" is no longer a subject where one individual can encompass the entire field.
As to her interpretations of the art, Sed-Rajna is too strongly influenced by the commonly-held messianic/salvational and "cosmic" interpretations of ancient Jewish art. To my mind an approach that makes full use of ancient Jewish literature (especially liturgical texts) and recent studies of the relationships between art and ritual contexts (on ancient Christian contexts: P. Brown, T. F. Mathews, R. MacCormack; on the Dura synagogue: A. Wharton) promise a fuller understanding of these complex monuments.
Ancient "Jewish art" in the Land of Israel is privileged by Sed-Rajna over Diaspora evidence, which appears in a very cursory manner. The great synagogue of Sardis, the most significant Jewish monument outside of Israel, is only mentioned in passing. No Diaspora synagogue from antiquity is illustrated in this volume other than Dura Europos. Oddly, Dura is the only ancient Diaspora synagogue to appear in the "major synagogues" section.
Jarrassé's discussion of medieval and modern synagogues is quite competent, as is Amishai-Maisel's survey of modern Jewish artist. The choice of synagogues and manuscripts illustrated was superb, bringing to the fore images that are not often seen. Sed-Rajna's best contributions relate to medieval manuscripts, the author's area of expertise. Printed books are not discussed. Strikingly lacking are expansive discussions of Jewish art in Central Asia, the Near East, and the Far East. Moreover, Kurdish Jewry, Yemenite Jewry, and Indian Jewry are invisible, or nearly so. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the major exhibitions on each of these communities that have been mounted by the Israel Museum in recent decades. In fact, L.A. Meyer's essay on "Jewish Art in the Moslem World" in Roth's anthology, dated as it is, is still a more useful treatment of eastern communities.
Sed-Rajna's Jewish Art in many ways carries on where Roth left off. While it does not completely "fill the lacuna" caused by the "profusion of publications" since Roth^Òs masterful and diverse anthology, this volume is rich in images and discussion of Jewish "Art Through The Ages." It is a ready source of beautiful illustrations and reasonable discussions of many of the essential monuments of "Jewish art." For this accomplishment Sed-Rajna is to be congratulated. This book indeed belongs in all library collections that collect in the history of art or in Judaic Studies.
With that, it is my sense that Sed-Rajna^Òs book represents a final statement of a tradition of Jewish art interpretation. Recent advances in the historiography of "Jewish art" suggest that a shift away from the paradigm accepted by Roth and Sed-Rajna is coming into its own. Shalom Sabar's work on Italian Ketubot, catalogs produced by Vivian Mann of the Jewish Museum, and Richard I. Cohen's Jewish Icons (Berkeley, 1998), to list just a few, all reflect the "naturalization" of Jewish art within Judaic studies. No longer the poor sister, Jewish art is in the process of full integration into Jewish history.
Similarly, articles collected by Catherine M. Soussloff in her brand-new anthology, Jewish Identity in Modern Art History (Berkeley, 1999), point to a fundamental paradigm shift regarding the study of Jewish art within general art history. Soussloff's collection suggests that the "contradiction in terms" between "Jewish" and "art" that Roth and to a similar extant Sed-Rajna hoped to counteract is being washed away by post-modernist scholarship. For the first time, there is hope that Jewish artistic production will be accepted within the mainstream of art historical research. One might imagine that the next massive summary of scholarship in Jewish Art will take a very different shape from those that will have preceded it. We can hope for pleasant surprises when, in due time, that volume is assembled.
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Steven Fine. Review of Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle, Jewish Art.
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