Page 186 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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On the contrary, their fate and their history have always been
interlinked and interwoven w ith that of other separate, inde*
pendent entities. Hence, to treat Jewish art in ethnic terms is
to overlook a vital historic dimension and to distort the entire
pattern o f which the art of the Jews is an integral part.
Some writers, like the late Ernest Namenyi, feel they can discern
T h e Essence o f Jew ish A r t
(New York, Thomas Yoseloff, 1960)
by tracing certain un ique leitmotifs which course through Jew•
ish art and thus set Jewish art apart and distinguish it from other
art. Important in this definition is primarily the treatment of
subject matter in Jewish art rather than the ethnic origin o f the
art. Namenyi asserts, for instance, that in order to express “the
manifestation of the W ill of God, in motion, both in time and
in space,” Jews invented “continuous narrative” in art, a method
which substitutes for single, isolated scenes a series of continuous
ones. Th is theory, however, does not accord with the facts. Con*
tinuous narrative was known in Roman art, from which both
Jews and Christians adapted it for their specific purposes. In
Namenyi’s treatment of “The Candlestick of Redemption ,” we
are given the impression that the candlestick is a static symbol
w ithin Judaism. Nowhere do we learn how the meaning of the
menorah changed under the influence of Hellenistic thought,
nor how Christian use of the menorah and the impact of Chris-
tian thought in Medieval Europe affected the mystic and mes-
sianic meanings the Jews attributed to it. T h e evidence presented
by Namenyi and others does not substantiate a definition of Jew-
ish art solely in iconographic terms.
In an attempt to bypass both the ethnic and iconographic pit-
falls, Stephen S. Kayser states in
Jew ish C e rem on ia l A r t
(Phila-
delphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1959):
Jewish art is art applied to Judaism . . . Jewish art does not
depend on who produced it. The accident of birth may
make an artist Jewish, but this fact alone does not permit us
to characterize his work as Jewish.
The functional approach to Jewish art, though more satisfying
than the other theories, is still far too restrictive. It would exclude
ceremonial objects commissioned or made by Jews, which were
presented at times to nobles, kings, popes, and presidents. It would
exclude illustrated Hebrew manuscripts of a secular nature since
they are not directly related to the pieties of Judaism. Moreover,
portraits of Jews as well as paintings and objects made primarily
for esthetic rather than for utilitarian purposes would of neces-
sity be excluded. In an article entitled “Jewish Art: Fact or Fie-
tion?” (
C en tra l C on ference o f Am e r ican R a b b i s Jou rn a l ,
April
1964), I tried to deal more fully w ith this question.