Material for the formation of an opinion on the art of the ancient Hebrews is extremely scanty, as the vestiges are limited to certain specimens of pottery and of the glyptic art, including incidental references in Hebrew literature, touching mainly the Temple at Jerusalem.

Shekel of Simon Maccabeus. (Exact size.)(From the collection of J. D. Eisenstein.)Pottery. Moses Arragel Presenting His Castilian Translation of the Bible to Don Luis de Guzman.(From "Estudios de Erudicion Española.")

The potter's art reverts to the earliest days. After their settlement in Canaan, the Israelites no doubt soon learned this art from the inhabitants, although for a long time thereafter the Phenicians, who carried their earthenware to far-off lands, still continued to supply the interior of Palestine. Excavations in Jerusalem and Tell el-Hesy (probably the ancient Lachish) have yielded a proportionately rich fund of material, sufficient, according to Flinders Petrie, to trace the history of Palestinian pottery. Petrie distinguishes an Amorite, a Phenician, and a Jewish period, each having its own characteristic style. It is undoubtedly true that the art of pottery among the Hebrews was developed under Phenician influence, for its forms are always coarse imitations of Phenician models. The older finds, especially those of Jerusalem, exhibit forms that are in use to-day throughout Palestine and Syria. See Pottery.

Hebrew Pottery.(From Warren, "Recovery of Jerusalem.")Seal-Engraving.

Glyptics dates back to remote antiquity. If tradition assumes that signet-rings were worn by the Patriarchs (Gen. xxxviii. 18), and that the generation of the wilderness-journey was skilled in engraving on precious stones, it points at least to the antiquity of the art. The Hebrews were taught this kind of engraving by the Canaanites, who, in their turn, had received it from the Phenicians. Originally, this art of engraving came from the East; for in the Euphrates district it had been the custom since remotest time to attest all the more important business transactions by written contracts, to which the seals of the parties interested were affixed. The northern Syrians and Phenicians no doubt adopted the custom through their frequent intercourse with this district; and, with the custom, they doubtless learned also the art of making the seals. The devices upon these seals point likewise to their Eastern derivation (see Perrot and Chipiez, "Histoire de l'Art dans l'Antiquité," vol. iii., "La Phénicie," p. 240). It is, however, always difficult to decide whether any particular seal among those preserved belonged to the Hebrews or to some neighboring nation, unless it contain some distinctive name. Even when the name is indubitably Jewish, it is always possible that it may have been made by Phenicians. The Hebrew and Phenician seals resemble each other very closely in shape, script, and ornamentation. As to ornamentation, there are found devices of Phenician origin, such as the palm-leaf, garland of poppy-heads or pomegranates, winged spheres, etc., and those of Egyptian, such as Hathor's insignia, the eye of Osiris, etc. (see the illustrations in Benzinger, "Hebräische Archäologie," pp. 258 et seq.; and see article Seals).

Seal of Elishegib bat Elishama cut in jasper.(In the British Museum.)Metal-Casting.

Of metal-work there are no remains extant. The description of Solomon's Temple is the main source of information upon this point, the notable fact in which is that it was a Tyrian artificer, named Hiram (I Kings vii. 13) or Huram Abi, as the chronicler calls him (II Chron. ii. 13), who made the necessary utensils for the sanctuary. The Jews themselves evidently had not yet mastered the art of casting in bronze or brass, certainly not to the extent necessary for this work. The account of the building in I Kings vii. affords only the merest outlines of the larger art-works manufactured for its use, such as pillars, the brazen sea, portable lavers, or basins, etc. The shapes of the smaller utensils, vessels, and vases of gold and silver were undoubtedly molded after Phenician models. It was especially in the manufacture of such articles that the Phenicians excelled; and their products ruled the market, particularly in Egypt. Even if the Jewish metalworkers under Hiram learned enough to make the smaller articles themselves (compare II Kings xvi. 10), they still were constructed upon Phenician lines. The same is true of the ornaments employed, which exhibit the Phenician composite style. Thus, in addition to native flowers, are found the palm-leaf of Assyria, the lotus-flower of Egypt, and especially pomegranates and colocynths. Figures of animals, so frequently found on Phenician vases, were among the decorations of the borders of the brazen sea. In religious symbolism, likewise, the same Egyptian and Jewish forms are found alongside each other: the lotus, the eye of Osiris, Hathor, and Horus upon seal, all of Egyptian origin—the original meaning of these symbols was of course lost to the Syrian artists—while the most frequent device of Babylonian origin among the Hebrews was the cherub (I Kings vi. 23-28, 32, 35; vii. 36; see Cherub).

Fragment of a Glass Vase, with Representation of the Temple.(From Vigouroux, "Dictionnaire de la Bible.")

Older than the art of metal-casting among theJews was another species of metal-work—overlaying with metal plate. The very ancient Ephod received its name no doubt from the fact that it consisted of a figure of wood or other material, overlaid with gold or silver foil. The "calves of gold" at Dan and Beth-el were probably only idols thus overlaid, and not entirely composed of solid metal (I Kings xii. 28). Later accounts of the building of the Temple specify that the walls and doors, and even the floor, were overlaid with gold-leaf.


The plastic art was the one that had the least opportunity for development. Sculpture in stone hardly existed at all among the Jews: they possessed neither clay idols—the "maẓebah" was always a plain stone pillar—nor sarcophagi, which latter, in Phenicia and Egypt, afforded opportunity for art-display; nor are any sculptured decorations of their stone houses known. They evidently lacked during all this period the ability to execute artistic work in stone.

Ivory-and wood-carving, on the other hand, were practised by the Jews from ancient times. The above-mentioned overlaying with metal involved, as a necessary condition, that the underlying wood had been wrought into proper shape. The old teraphim seem to have been of human form, or at least to have possessed a human head (I Sam. xix. 13). The cherubim for the Holy of Holies were carved out of olive-wood. The wood-work of the walls and doors of the Temple was ornamented with carvings (I Kings vi. 18, 29, 35). Solomon's throne of state is mentioned as an important product of the carver's art (in ivory) (I Kings x. 18-20); but unfortunately it is not stated whether it was made by Jewish or by Phenician artificers.

Religion as an Opponent of the Plastic Art.

It was the religion of the Jews that precluded the full development of the art of sculpture, and so confined it within the above-mentioned narrow limits. In the most ancient times, when images were not proscribed, the technical ability to make them artistically was lacking; and when in later periods this artistic skill might have been acquired from others, images were forbidden. The persistent fight of the Prophets against images was waged with such success that in the end not only was any representation of the Deity forbidden, but even the portraiture of living beings in general, man or beast. Such a command as that of the Decalogue (Ex. xx. 4; Deut. v. 8) would have been impossible to a nation possessed of such artistic gifts as the Greeks, and was carried to its ultimate consequences—as to-day in Islam—only because the people lacked artistic inclination, with its creative power and formative imagination.


The same reason, to which is to be added a defective sense of color (see Delitzsch, "Iris, Farbenstudien und Blumenstücke," pp. 43 et seq.; Benzinger, "Hebr. Archäologie," pp. 268 et seq.), prevented any development of painting. Attempts in this direction are found in the earliest times in the custom of decorating with colors jars, vases, and articles of similar character. Objects found at Tell el-Hesy show such attempts of a somewhat rude fashion; those found in Jerusalem exhibit them executed in a more careful and finished manner. The question, of course, still remains whether these latter objects are native products or imported articles. In either case the painting amounts to but a simple form of ornamentation by means of colored lines, in which geometrical figures predominate, with parallel lines and lines at right angles, zigzag and waving lines, all forming a sort of band around the neck or body of the vessel. In the Old Testament, painting is not mentioned: when Ezekiel (xxiii. 14) speaks of "men portrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed with vermilion," it is not painting that is referred to, but probably outline drawings with a colored pencil, the contours being then filled in with color. See Cherub, House, Sanctuary, Synagogues, Temple, Pottery, Seals.

Robinson's Arch, Jerusalem.(From a photograph by Bonfils.)
  • Herzfeld, Zwei Vorträge, über die Kunstleistungen der Hebräer und Alten Juden, 1864;
  • Bliss, Tell el-Hesy, a Mound of Many Cities, 1894;
  • Perrot et Chipiez, History of Ancient Art, vol. iv.;
  • Flinders-Petrie, Tell el-Hesy, 1891;
  • Benzinger, Hebräische, Archäologie, 1894, pp. 249et seq.;
  • Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie, 1894, pp. 259 et seq.
J. Jr. I. Be.