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The Bible in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art.
The Bible and the Visual Imagination.
Imaging the Bible in Wales. The Bible and Art. Biblical Subjects in Christian, Jewish and Islamic Art.




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Art in the Abrahamic Faiths: Jewish Christian and Islamic Perspectives

Project-in-process with the assistance of The Leverhulme Trust


Despite the general injunction against images in Judaism and Mohammed’s skepticism of the painter in Islam [‘On the Day of Judgment when the painter stands before the throne of God, he will be commanded to put life into the works of art he has created, and when he confesses his inability to do so, he will be cast down into Hell, as one who has presumptuously dared to arrogate to himself the creative functions that belong to God alone’], biblical figures and illustrations have always been a significant feature of Jewish and Islamic art.

In Jewish art, the representation of biblical scenes has had a long and rich history, for example, the figurative paintings of the synagogue at Dura-Europos and the early illustrated copies of the Septuagint in the third century, the illuminated Hebrew manuscripts of the medieval and renaissance periods and the paintings of Marc Chagall and other Jewish European artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In Islamic art, visual narratives associated with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Ark of the Covenant, Joseph, Solomon and Sheba (frequently expanded and embellished with the liberal use of Jewish midrashic and haggadic elements) are frequently found in illustrated copies of the ninth-century Kitab al-Umanwa (‘The Book of Nations and Kings’) and in the later Qisas al-Anbia (‘Stories of the Prophets’). In an illustrated manuscript of Rashid-al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh (‘General History’) dating from 1314 CE (London, Royal Asiatic Society), the author displays a first hand knowledge of Jewish talmudic and midrashic traditions and follows the Hebrew Bible so closely that some phrases appear to be an exact translation of the corresponding Hebrew. The illustrations accompanying this particular Islamic text reflect the same reliance on Jewish tradition.

The relationship between Jewish, Christian and Islamic representations of biblical characters and scenes through the centuries is intriguing, if intensely complex. Joseph Gutmann has shown how Christian and Islamic art creatively adapted and adopted stories from the haggadah (‘that great storehouse of Jewish and Christian legends’). For example, the depiction of the burial of Abel (not recorded in the Bible), found frequently in ninth to fourteenth-century Western Christian tradition and in sixteenth-century Iranian Islamic art, underscores the significance of Jewish legends for the artistic and literary traditions of both Christianity and Islam.

Jewish Manuscript.
Jewish Manuscript, © New York Public Library: Dorot Jewish Division

Scholarly interest in drawing out the significance of the relationship between Jewish, Christian and Islamic visual representations of biblical subjects has largely been restricted to Art History departments. The research literature (starting from the distinguished Schweich Lecture series of British Academy in the 1930s), including catalogues of several exhibitions highlighting the relationship between visual artifacts emanating from the three traditions, shows very powerfully that visual representations of scenes from the Hebrew Bible need not always be interpreted predominantly through the lens of New Testament typology. Jewish and Islamic art allow us to see alternative and different aspects of the biblical subjects they depict.

Moses holding the ten Commandments.
Moses, mosaic from the Church of St Oudoceus, Llandogo, Wales, 1889, © Imaging the Bible in Wales. Photograph Martin Crampin

Although the relationship between the textual traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has always been of interest to biblical scholars, this has not been the case with the common visual traditions that underlie (or distinguish) the three faiths. Those scholars who do use biblical images to look for the covert or obscure messages that might or might not re-inforce the messages sent by the corresponding texts, generally limit their selection of images to those that have come into existence through Christian patronage. A greater awareness of the depiction of biblical subjects in illustrated Jewish and Islamic literature and their mutual spheres of influence helps broaden the repertoire of images that the biblical scholar can draw on.

The aim of this project, still in its infancy, is to extend the focus on biblical art beyond the predominantly Christian lens through which we are generally required to view subjects from both the Old and New Testaments and to include different and alternative perspectives from the visual traditions of Judaism and Islam.


Adam and Eve from the Zubdat-al Tawarikh manuscript.
Adam and Eve with their Twin Children, Zubdat-al Tawarikh Manuscript, 1583.
© Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul