Artistic Adaptation in the Jewish Diaspora: The Ashkenazi Approach to Ornament in the Decorative Arts




Lockwood, Susan

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This thesis challenges some commonly held opinions about the restrictive nature of the Ashkenazi decorative arts vocabulary, often perceived as the result of a long-practiced avoidance of figural imagery throughout the history of the Jewish Diaspora. While Jewish ceremonial and everyday objects produced in various media and in geographically diverse locations and time periods have shared similar uses and meanings, their broad range of decorative styles and materials indicate the extent to which Jewish populations have always absorbed and adapted the ornamental styles of outside cultures. This suggests a consistent pattern of interest in the decorative styles of neighboring Christian, Muslim, and pagan cultures. I argue that this history of the fundamental flexibility of the Jewish decorative arts supports the reason why the immigrant Jewish artisans who re-established themselves in America in the latter years of the nineteenth century had the ability to further adapt their artisan skills to a wider, secular market of consumers. By drawing upon centuries of practice in developing a richly varied ornamental vocabulary based on a broad amalgam of design sources, the Jewish American artisans of this period further demonstrated the flexibility inherent in the evolution of their design capabilities, all the while maintaining a core belief system firmly rooted in over three millennia of unchanging religious observance.



Jewish art, Jewish history, Ashkenazi, Jewish tombstone iconography, Medieval manuscripts, Jewish Diaspora