Those who see this picture won't sin: Jewish art on parchment and paper


From 20. 07. 2005 to 28. 08. 2005

Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, U Staré školy 3, Prague 1
20 July – 28 August 2005

The items from Jewish households and synagogues that have been selected for this exhibition, particularly from the Jewish Museum in Prague’s collection of manuscripts, are not prescribed religious appurtenances. Pictures or texts-pictures that were made as an expression of folk piety at the margins of the canonical rituals of religious life, they became established in time as a necessary addition to, ornament for and commentary on such rituals.

With words and pictorial symbols, they refer to certain religious obligations and to the basic concepts of Judaism; sometimes as amulets they also call for protection against harm and disaster. Their essential, and sometimes only, means of expression and artistic medium is Hebrew script which, together with the Hebrew language, in Judaism, is considered to be holy and endowed with creative powers – for it was through the Torah written in these letters that God created the world.
Most of these pictures were made by learned men – trained scribes of Torah scrolls, phylacteries and mezuzot (Heb. sofre sta”m), rabbis and students at religious schools. Their natural material was parchment and paper and their most distinctive artistic medium was Hebrew calligraphy. A specific decorative technique employed by Jewish scribes – already appearing in the oldest extant biblical codices from the ninth century – is that of micrography, the creation of ornaments and figurative motifs and symbols out of texts written in miniature Hebrew script.
The parchment or paper cut-out became a popular and widely available art technique in the Jewish milieu from the end of the seventeenth century onwards. In Central and Eastern Europe, where it made its way from Germany, it achieved its greatest popularity in the eighteenth and, particularly, nineteenth centuries. Folk imagination adorns its works with motifs from Jewish tradition and folklore. From the rich tangles of tendrils and flowers emerge figures of birds and animals that are popular in Jewish iconography: the qualities of deer, eagles and lions exemplify to man the proper fulfilment of the Torah (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 5:23); storks fighting with a snake symbolize piety and control over evil instinct and sin. Royal animals – lions and eagles – guard the symbols of supreme holiness: the menorah, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and God’s Holy Name. The founding figures of the Jewish religion, Moses and Aaron, are the most frequent companions. The symbols and texts are usually set within an architectural frame. The columns bearing arches and gables recall the Holy Ark in the synagogue, but also refer to the columns in the Temple of Jerusalem. The portal and the figures of Moses and Aaron are among the most frequent decorative motifs on the title pages of printed Hebrew books, another source of inspiration for folk artists.
In addition to the most common materials and techniques, there are pictures painted on glass and embroideries that were handmade by folk artists. These items were also in demand from Jewish (even, less frequently, non-Jewish) printers: in the nineteenth century, the oldest folk woodcuts were replaced by engravings and lithographs, run-of-the-mill work that suited the burgher taste of the day. Some of these are on view in this exhibition as an addition to the folk work that they gradually replaced and almost pushed aside.
What were these items and what were they used for? Most of the pieces that appear in the Jewish Museum’s collection and in this exhibition are Shivitis – an integral part of the synagogue furnishings since the eighteenth century (the oldest Shiviti bearing a date in the collection is from 1772). In the Ashkenazi milieu, the Shiviti is usually set in a decorative frame next to the Holy Ark on the pulpit of the cantor who leads the prayer. The Shiviti emerged from a doctrine that attaches deep mystical significance to prayer and to its purity and true intention, probably at the end of the seventeenth century – a time when the doctrine spread from a narrow group of mystics through Kabbalah writings and rituals into the everyday life of the faithful. The name Shiviti is based on Psalm 16:8 – “I have set [Heb. Shiviti] God always before me” – which reminds man of God’s omnipresence and urges him to remember God and his commandments in every action, to follow God and, in so doing, to avoid sin. This applies particularly in prayer, when one’s mind should be completely turned to God, as only a pure prayer has meaning and may be heard. Purification of one’s thoughts is achieved by the visualization of God’s name before one’s inner sight; an aid to this is the concentration of one’s gaze on the Tetragram, the written four-letter Name of God (which must not be pronounced and is credited with magic powers) that is contained in the afore-mentioned biblical verse.
Besides this verse, the second most distinctive element of the Shiviti is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the Temple of Jerusalem, which is inscribed with the words of Psalm 67. By reading the psalm in this form, the worshipper symbolically relights the Temple menorah, becomes spiritually linked to the Temple and, in so doing, anticipates its restoration and redemption. The mystical numerical and structural parallels between the psalm and the menorah endow their combination with magic and protective powers: according to one tradition, King David’s shield had a menorah with psalm 67 engraved upon it, which helped him to attain victory over his enemies. The Shiviti, then, is also used as an amulet to protect one in prayer, the synagogue and the entire community.
The light of the menorah symbolizes the light of God’s commandments and, in a mystical sense, God himself. The entire textual image connecting the menorah and the Tetragram of the verse of Psalm 16: 8 – which, on most of the plaques, forms a kind of superscript to it – thus becomes a symbol of God. Other texts, mostly quotations from the Bible and the Mishnah, emphasize love, awe of God and cleaving to Him, or strengthen the mystical and magical aspects of the Shiviti by using combinations of the various names of God. Shivitis also appear in prayer books, whether printed with text or inserted as loose sheets. Similar to synagogue Shivitis, these serve the personal piety and religious practice of worshippers: for purifying and concentrating the mind in the moment one approaches God with prayer, and for coming closer to God. Shivitis, which are mostly textual, are usually written and, apart from the calligraphy, decorated only with ornamental pen-and-ink drawings; less frequently – and mostly to the detriment of the text – they are richer in pictorial decoration.
Incomparably simpler in terms of content and function are Mizrah and Zeh ha-shulhan, the wall ornaments that appear in Jewish households. Their decoration, however, is freer and more varied. The Mizrah (Heb. east) is hung on the eastern wall to mark the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple, upon whose restoration are pinned the hopes of the Jewish nation and toward which are turned its prayers. The oldest Mizrahs in the Jewish Museum’s collection, dating from the second half of the eighteenth century, are printed and decorated only with plant motifs and animal figures. The decoration of the Mizrah became established at the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, from which time it was never without the figures of Moses and Aaron, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant, the menorah and, later on, a view of the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. Another type of Mizrah is adorned with biblical scenes, with the prophet lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem in the centre. A Mizrah made in the 1820’s by the Prague printer of devotional pictures, Václav Hoffmann, represents an exception: although it is the work of a Jewish draftsman, the lion – lying beside a monument surmounted with a crown – recalls more the patriotic emblem of Bohemia. The letters of the word Mizrah are usually elaborated upon in the verse, “From this side [comes] the spirit of life” – the Mizrah and the place where it is located are also endowed with sacred and protective powers.
Another type of domestic decoration is named after the first words of the biblical verse that regularly appears on it: “This is the table (Heb. zeh ha-shulhan) that is before the Lord” (Ezekiel 41:22). This quotation, however, is not taken directly from the Bible – where it is part of a passage describing a vision of the restored Temple – but from the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 3:4), where the table, at which we eat and over which are recited the words of the Torah or blessing, is compared to the Temple’s sacrificial altar which atones for the sins of Israel. Post-biblical Jewish doctrine makes present, and replaces, the temple cult through the many references incorporated into prayers and everyday rituals. In a similar way, remembrance of the Temple of Jerusalem and hopes for its restoration are incorporated through Psalms 137 and 126 into the Grace after meals (quoted on two of the preserved sheets). This type of household decoration has not been preserved anywhere – with the possible exception of Germany – outside the Czech lands; it appears that this is a specific tradition of the local Jewish milieu from, at the latest, the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Apart from floral ornaments and animal figures, the most common motif in the decoration are figures of Moses and Aaron. Aside from these regular decorative elements of synagogue and household furnishings, other textual and pictorial decorations were made for various occasions in the Jewish religious calendar: for the sukkah (a booth in which Jews stay during the festival of Succot), for the omer (the counting of 49 days – the omer – between the festivals of Pesah and Shavuot) and for Purim (the Jewish Museum’s collection contains only one modern hand-painted picture for this occasion). A unique piece is a sheet with a religious poetic composition for the festival of Simhat Torah that was written and painted by Samuel Dreznitz, a scribe and illuminator who worked in Mikulov in the first half of the eighteenth century. An essential symbol on the exhibited amulets is the Magen David or Shield of David, the ancient magical symbol, later associated with Judaism – the six-pointed star and hexagram. The texts here regularly include the Psalm 121; amulets for newborn children also contain exorcisms against the female demon Lilith, while amulets for the protection of the home and against disease and disaster comprise, among things, texts and symbols that also appear on the Shiviti and Mizrah.
Similar affinities and intermingling of functions, texts and symbols are also apparent on other types of objects. It is often impossible to determine the main function of an individual item: alongside amulets that bring together several functions also appear Mizrahs combined with Shivitis or Mizrahs that are used for commemorating the death of a family member (Yiddish: Yarzeit). On one group of items that include Shivitis, amulets and a Zeh ha-shulhan plaque we find texts urging people, as a kind of memento mori, to timely repentance and good deeds. A quotation from the text on one of these items has been chosen as the title of this exhibition, for it seems to capture the mission shared by all these expressions of folk piety and faith: “Those who see this picture won't sin.”
The exhibition will be on view at the Robert Guttmann Gallery in Prague (at U Staré školy 3) from 20 July until 28 August 2005. The gallery is open daily from 9am to 6pm, except for Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
For more information, please contact the Museum’s Publicity Department at email: [email] josef.nechvatal[at]

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