27 November 2010

Jewish silver art: filigree work

Jewish art has usually been considered prohibited because of the strict Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in the heaven above or that is in the water under the earth".

Although practices differed between countries and across generations, by the 12th century the fear of a pagan environment was no longer relevant for Western Jews. Their aversion to artistic work had long since diminished. Although rulings were not uniform, in general it was agreed that art was not an infraction of Rabbinic law whose veto only extended to complete representation of humans in the round and of God. So sculpture was the one art form that was never created by Jews.

filigreed Sabbath prayerbook cover

 Because Judaism was a way of life that sanctified everyday practices and routines, everyday articles were valid objects for craftsmen. Just as there was no area of ordinary existence that was untouched by Judaism, so there was almost no category of object that could not be decorated. For this reason Judaica was not limited to Fine Art. Indeed it is a truism that some objects were almost entirely utilitarian in purpose and were not manufactured to particularly please the eye. Even when Jewish art did achieve a level of great beauty, it still deviated from naturalism, towards a more ornamental approach.

Judaism was always enriched by the many ceremonies carried out by all male members of the community. When an article had a particular ritual purpose, it had to be created by a Jewish silversmith, according to the liturgy appropriate to Judaism and with the languages people spoke.

When there was no ritual purpose, the artist and the art could be very flexible. So we cannot tell, for example, whether individual burial society tankards or double wedding cups were Christian or Jewish. We can tell, however, that they were pieces of art of their time and place. Religious art might have served an eternal God, but it was subject to the same fads and fashions as were all other products.

Jewish ritual always had some purposes that it shared with Christianity, and others that Christianity did not adopt when in broke away from its mother religion. One shared value was that people of both religions were lifted above the mundane and the secular when they performed acts of piety. These acts became an expression of the relationship between the individual, or the community, and God.

People of both religions were also reminded of the historical component of their faith when they perform ancient observances. There was a powerful sense of continuity and permanence in rituals that derived from the fore fathers in ancient Israel.

Finally ritual enabled people in both religions to find an appropriate format for mobilising their emotions and thoughts on the occasion of major events in their lives such as a birth, marriage or death.

filigreed menorah/candelabra, 
19th century, Polish

Thus all rituals, whether carried out in a holy building or not, could be considered religious. And all medieval art was, in that sense, religious. But medieval Jews had 613 specific commandments to fulfil throughout their life and this is what separated them from their Christian neighbours.

The didactic function of art was rarely important in Judaism because the near universal literacy amongst Jewish males, at least, made it unnecessary. Compare this to Christian medieval art when teaching the illiterate was the main purpose of stained glass windows, sculpture and precious metal work. Nonetheless art was valued; it made the achievement of the 613 commandments more pleasing and merit-worthy if they were fulfilled in a beautiful way.

But because the life of medieval Jews was precarious, only art work that could be packed up at a moment's notice would be commissioned. Fixed or heavy structures were out of the question; stained glass and frescoes were very very rare. Three dimensional sculpture was in any case banned.

filigreed mezuzah case, 

Filigree is a delicate and lace-like decorative style, made with twisted threads usually of gold and silver, or stitching of the same curving motifs. Filigreework was not a Jewish invention - see for example the use of gold and silver filigree in Greek, Etruscan and Indian art. But after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish silver smiths settled in North Africa and introduced filigree and cloisonné techniques to the craftsmen there. Filigree work became most popular amongst Jewish Yemenites.

Filigree work also became a very popular decorative technique in the south German silver centres in the 17th century. Beautiful examples of antique filigreed rosaries from Bavarian Christian silversmiths abounded. Soon Jewish silversmiths started using filigree on spice containers for Sabbath, Esther scrolls for Purim or any other Jewish object that they fancied. Even illuminated Jewish manuscripts could be decorated with wide borders ornamented with lush foliate forms, framing their opening pages. Initial words were often written, in gold, within very large panels embellished with filigree work.

Giorgio Busetto and Pascal Jonnaert showed a Russian spice tower from the 19th century, made by a Jewish artist. The base was designed in the form of a three dimensional David's shield made with an impressive work of filigree. Above the base was a hidden cup with 6 large stones on its base and 5 small jade stones in the patterns of filigree flowers. The tower's base was retractable so that the cup could be used for the service to farewell the Sabbath.

A menorah/candelabra’s silver was often decorated with filigree motifs. The scrolls might contain a double-headed eagle or an arched double doorway that opened as an ark would open; to show a Torah scroll inside. Other motifs included open flowers, pillars, crowns and birds. The front was always set with eight oil-containers perhaps in the form of miniature containers, and there was also a servant light with scrolling filigree stem supporting a candleholder.

Cote de Texas blog has the most beautiful filigreed cover for a Sabbath day prayer book. It looked so ornamental and so delicate that we can assume it was made for a woman to carry. I only wish I knew which country it came from and when it was made.

filigreed spice tower and cup, 
19th century, Russian

Typically a mezuzah case held the prayer parchment that was attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes. The parchment itself held the holiness of the object but the beauty of the holder could magnify the glamour of the object. In the Israeli mezuzah case (see photo), the filigreed silver was further decorated with semi precious stones.

When the Silver Department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design was established in Jerusalem in 1908, teachers from Yemen, Germany and Poland came to teach filigree silver art to the students.


andrew1860 said...

Theses pieces are amazing and intricate! I would be afraid to touch them. The small pieces of filigree are so delicate I wonder if there is a problem polishing them?

artlover15 said...

I have heard you lecture about Huguenot silver, which was large and grand. These pieces are tiny and delicate.

Hels said...

andrew and artlover,

the Huguenot silver was almost pure, VERY expensive and often monumental in size. The noble families who bought these silver art works were wealthy and had enough staff to keep the objects looking pristine.

The filigreed religious objects, on the other hand, were tiny, far from pure silver and for very ordinary families in very ordinary homes. The beauty of these tiny objects lay in the intricacy of the design and the lovely craftsmanship, as you note.

Viola said...

I love filigree silver work. These are so beautiful. Like Andrew, I wonder if they could be polished easily?

I am interested in the Huguenot silver because of my ancestry.

My mother, an Anglican, dislikes too much decoration in churches because of the Second Commandment. I'm the complete opposite and very attracted to ornate European churches!

Hels said...


filigree work has no shiny surfaces, so any Silvo cream or spray that can be gently rubbed in via a toothbrush will work. Then washed off with warm water.

I am with your mum re the church decoration question. There is something deeply moving about majestic architecture, not cluttered with ornate paintings, sculpture, carved Baroque timberwork etc.

ChrisJ said...

The menorah is very beautiful.

Also, I had never heard of the ban on sculpture - interesting.

Hels said...


it is an interesting point about the sculpture, the art form that had historically been most disapproved of by medieval and renaissance rabbis.

By the late 19th century world, even three-dimensional art became more common amongst Jewish artists. Consider Jacob Epstein and all the brilliant Paris school sculptors: Jacques Lipchitz, Elie Nadelman, Chana Orloff and Ossip Zadkine.

Margaret said...

What a fascinating post! The examples of the art form that you have chosen are lovely. I have read about Jewish filigree work, but I've never really seen it before.

Hels said...

there are tons of beautiful filigree silver objects being made for MODERN ritual purposes.

But you are quite right about silver objects made in the 19th century or earlier - damn hard to find!! I keep up to date by reading Sotheby's three-times-a-year auction catalogues of Judaica eg http://www.silvercollection.it/judaica.html

Unknown said...

Hello Hels! Lovely post, and congrats on its selection in the Art History Blog Carnival.

I have one query - you refer to Judaism and Christianity - do you have any info on similar craftsmanship seen in Islamic nations. I think of some of the Ottoman relics I saw as a youngster at Topkapi museum, and even some of the replicas we had at home and remember a similar degree of intricacy.

Are you aware of any resources/references that compare these traditions amongst the two cultures more closely? I have a volume entitled 'Palaces of Gold and Light' but its main focus is Istanbul/Ottoman relics at Topkapi.


Hels said...

H thanks for the note.

I too have seen beautiful filigree silver from North Africa and the Middle East, ritual objects of course but also jewellery, swords and other objects.

Perhaps a reader can suggest where Islamic silver filigree art originated and who taught it to whom. I am at a conference just now, but I will have a look at my catalogues when I get back home.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the response Hels. I imagine as Islam is the most recent that they would have inherited aspects of these metalworking traditions along with the historical and religious ones, and put their own spin on it. I can see antecedents for some of these stylistic elements coming from the East - which are the historical origins of many of the Turkic peoples in particular.

Every time I open my Topkapi catalogue I cant put it back down until I get to the end - it's just breathtaking stuff!


Hels said...

Interesting question you pose. Robert Irwin (Islamic Art) is my basic textbook for undergrads.

He suggests that in the Islamic lands, metalwork was the leading artform (at least until books took over).

In northern Iran, Herat, Mosul, Damascus and Cordoba, metal workers created stunning objects made from base metals, inlaid with precious metals. Filigreed work was also popular, as was repousse work.

Some dates would be helpful.

Lord Cowell said...

This is an amazing post, thank you for the art history, sociology and theological perspectives on Jewish art. I hadn't given it particular thought before, but I am quite interested now. I shall have to look into the Jewish silversmiths further.

I like decoration in church, as long as it serves the purpose of enhancing worship and worshipper's relationships with God.

As you alluded, Art in the Christian context did have a didactic purpose amongst the illiterate masses. However, by the time of the Gothic revival and the new Oxford Movement, there was an element of ars gratia artis, divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function.

Hels said...

Mr Lord,
it is stunning silver art, isn't it? The trouble is.. all my images are from the late 19th century, because those are the items I can locate. I would dearly loved to have shown Jewish silver art from 17th century Augsburg, for example.

It would be interesting to know if there were medieval and early modern families wealthy enough to buy their own ritual silver objects, as opposed to objects being owned solely by the community.

I have seen VERY expensive illuminated manuscripts owned, in the 13th-16th centuries, by individual families. So I see no reason why elegant families wouldn't have wanted other art forms in their homes.

Unknown said...

The Maltz Museum has been buying-up artworks of Marc Breed's and destroying them.
-UPI Newswire


Hels said...

Thank you Stanley. I presume you mention Maltz Museum in this context because of its amazing Temple Museum of Religious Art. I know the Maltz did a rescue mission to save any surviving European temple art that got to the USA after the Holocaust.

So why would a museum get involed in destroying art?

Golden said...

Bezalel must have jumped at the opportunity to design, teach and create silver art when the Academy first opened. When we study Bezalel later this year (2018), I would enjoying seeing the early years (pre-1929) as opposed to the second incarnation (post-1935).

Hels said...


I think you are quite correct. When the artist Boris Schatz established the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem in 1906, he and his teachers were quite revolutionary. And very effective.