In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Art, Medieval to Early Modern

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Historiography
  • Journals
  • Ritual Art

Art History Jewish Art, Medieval to Early Modern
Katrin Kogman-Appel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0105


The first work of Jewish art to attract scholarly attention toward the end of the nineteenth century was the “Sarajevo Haggadah,” a medieval illuminated manuscript from Iberia. It was eventually published in Vienna in 1898. A few years earlier, one of the few surviving synagogues in Spain, a building commissioned by Samuel Halevi Abulafia in Toledo (1356), had been declared a national monument, and since 1910 the site has functioned as a museum. A dramatic turning point in the historiography of Jewish art occurred in 1932, with the discovery of the 3rd-century synagogue at Dura Europos in modern Syria. In the years to follow, numerous other synagogues and illuminated manuscripts were first documented and were later analyzed and contextualized. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw the establishment of several collections of Jewish ritual objects. Whereas medieval finds in this field are extremely rare, such collections are relatively rich in early modern objects. Illuminated manuscripts began to appear in Jewish societies in the tenth century in the Middle East and around the 1230s in Iberia, France, the German lands, and Italy. Although numerous ancient synagogues have been unearthed by modern archaeologists, architectural remains from the Middle Ages are extremely sparse. The earliest structure that was still standing in 1938 was a Romanesque synagogue in Worms. Having been destroyed in November 1938 by the Nazis, it was reconstructed by the German authorities in 1961. Other structures were to follow, and the oldest continuously functioning synagogue (from c. 1280) is found in Prague. By the late nineteenth century, few medieval synagogues in Iberia that had passed into Christian hands in the course of the fifteenth century and after the expulsions of the Jews from Iberia in the 1490s were still standing. Several archaeological campaigns since the late twentieth century have revealed further remains. Significantly, more structures survive at various locations in Europe from the Early Modern period. What is described here as works of Jewish art were not always produced by Jews. Hence, the definition of “Jewish art” in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period does not necessarily or solely depend on any artists’ identities. For the purpose of this survey, Jewish art will thus not be defined by means of its makers, but rather by means of its users. It refers to art not necessarily made by but for Jews, art that thus functioned as a fermenter in the formation of Jewish cultures. In many fields of Jewish art, the role played by preferences of Jewish patrons is still in need of serious attention in modern scholarship.

General Overviews and Historiography

A collection of chapters by different authors, edited by Cecil Roth, was the first general survey of Jewish art published after World War II (Roth 1961). It was followed in the 1990s by Sed-Rajna 1997, which considers more-recent discoveries. Both books cover Israelite and Jewish art, from prehistoric finds in the Land of Israel to the modern (postwar) period. There is no more recent survey on medieval and early modern Jewish art that considers the postmodern discourse that developed in the humanities since the 1990s. An essay by Eva Frojmovic offers an interesting appraisal of early-20th-century scholarship (Frojmovic 2002).

  • Frojmovic, Eva. “Buber in Basle, Schlosser in Sarajevo, Wischnitzer in Weimar: The Politics of Writing about Medieval Jewish Art.” In Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other: Visual Representation and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Edited by Eva Frojmovic, 1–32. Cultures, Beliefs, and Traditions 15. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

    A critical analysis of late-19th- and early-20th-century historiography, focusing on works by Martin Buber, Julius von Schlosser, and Rachel Wischnitzer, shedding light on the nationalistic approaches of the authors that parallel in many senses the approaches of art historical schools in general that in fact excluded Jewish art from the discourse.

  • Roth, Cecil, ed. Jewish Art: An Illustrated History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

    A general descriptive survey that covers Israelite and Jewish art from Antiquity to the postwar period, this book was the first monumental work to put the major archaeological findings of the twentieth century into one context with the scholarship about Hebrew manuscript painting, synagogue art and architecture, and modern art.

  • Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle, ed. Jewish Art. Translated by Sara Friedman and Mira Reich. New York: Harry Abrams, 1997.

    Following up on Roth’s earlier work, this book surveys Jewish art in a similar descriptive approach, also covering discoveries that had been made since the publication of Roth 1961.

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