Kabbalah in Art and Architecture
Kabbalah in Art and Architecture
- Batsheva Goldman-IdaBatsheva Goldman-IdaHebrew University of Jerusalem
Kabbalah (literally “the receiving” [of tradition]) is an early form of Jewish mysticism. Key concepts include the ten sefirot (heavenly spheres), the Hebrew alphabet, Shiur Qomah (dimensions of the divine body), the archangel Metatron, and the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of the Godhead).
The main books of the Kabbalah, written in early antiquity, include Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), an early and major source, thought to be from the 3rd century ce, whose commentaries constitute most subsequent Kabbalistic literature and Sefer ha’Bahir (Book of Enlightenment), first published in the early 12th century. Both works discuss the ten sefirot and the Hebrew letters. Other works are the Hekhalot (Palace) literature, which includes the ritual praxis of “descending to the Chariot” and hymns recited in a celestial Temple, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the book of Enoch, and sections of the Dead Sea scrolls. In the Mishnah Hagigah (220 ce), two variants of Kabbalah are mentioned: the study of Creation and the study of the Heavenly Chariot. These two categories are linked to biblical prooftexts: the study of creation to the first chapter of Genesis, and the study of the Heavenly Chariot to the first chapter of the book of Prophet Ezekiel.
Of the Kabbalistic treatises and texts written in the medieval period, the most important ones are the book of the Zohar (Splendor) by Moses de Leon (c. 1240–1305) and possibly other authors, and the writings of Abraham Abulafia (1240–c. 1291) and that of his student Joseph Gikatilla. The book of the Zohar is distinguished by a reliance on the ten sefirot, although couched in esoteric references, while the many books by Abulafia present linguistic mysticism with permutations of divine names. The former emphasis on the sefirot is also known from the ‘Iyyun (Study) Group in Provence, and Azriel of Gerona (1160–1238), whereas in works by the Hasidei Ashkenaz (German Pietists), led by Judah the Pious (1150–1217) and Eleazar of Worms (c. 1176–1238), numerology and angelology are basic tools.
- Judaism and Jewish Studies
- Mysticism and Spirituality
- Religion and Art
Interest in Kabbalah has endured through the centuries, impacting major practitioners of art and architecture from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Although sometimes their discussions converge, two paths are distinguishable in Kabbalah: that of linguistic mysticism, mainly promulgated by Abraham Abulafia, and that of the ten sefirot (heavenly spheres), developed in the Zohar, developed further by Safed Kabbalah in the 16th century.
Some Neoplatonic elements seem compatible with the Kabbalah.1 This was of great importance to the Renaissance Humanists, a period discussed in some detail in the following discussion. Whereas Plato posited in the 4th century bce the theory of abstract forms beyond the mundane, the Hellenist Neoplatonism emphasized monism, an ultimate single reality.
The connection to Sufism, a mystical praxis thought to have developed as early as the 8th century ce, was promoted by Abraham (1186–1237), the son of Maimonides.2 We find Sufi mystic traits in some aspects of Kabbalah. The impact of Kabbalah on Islamic art and architecture is still under study and is outside the scope of this presentation. However, the graphic images of what is popularly known as Yoga Art, generally Tibetan or Buddhist art, bear a close resemblance to Kabbalistic diagrams, and their visual traditions are found in modern and contemporary art.3
The study of Kabbalah is unencumbered by ritual and carries a more universal message. It can be viewed as a philosophy, rather than a way of life, although this is rarely the case in the late medieval and early modern periods. This may be one reason for its appeal in the post-secular era. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many writers, musicians, and artists incorporate Kabbalah into their paintings and lyrics.
Italy was a focal point for the diffusion of Kabbalistic thought and the Hebrew language associated with it throughout Europe from the 13th through the 15th centuries.
During the Renaissance, Humanists Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Egidio da Viterbo (Giles of Viterbo, 1470–1532) had many of the major Kabbalah texts mentioned earlier translated from Hebrew to Latin. Their interest in Kabbalah as an original source of mystical knowledge on par with Christianity and Islam, and in the Hebrew language as a classical language equivalent in value to Greek and Latin, provided the impetus to Christian Kabbalah in 16th-century Germany, 17th and 18th centuries in France, and 19th century in the United States and the United Kingdom. By the early 20th century, poets, philosophers, and artists had access to basic sources and concepts of Kabbalah through the Christian Kabbalah. Pico’s translator was Flavius Mithridates (active 1450–1483). The Latin translations of Mithridates reached the Vatican Library and are now being published in Latin, Hebrew, and English.4 Pico studied with Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno (c. 1435–1504).
Pico Della Mirandola
The translations from the Kabbalistic writings in Hebrew were prepared in advance of Pico’s presentation scheduled for January 1486 of his 900 Theses, forty-seven of which concerned the “secret doctrine of the Jews,” that is, the Kabbalah, and an additional seventy-one related to Kabbalah in his secundum Opinion propriiam. For Pico, the prisca theologia (the ancient, all-encompassing religion) was found in a cultural syncretism, including that of the Kabbalah. In Pico’s Kabbalah, God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the Divine names, and the words of scripture, a revelation transformed by Pico to include Christology and Trinitarian theology. Pico transposes the Kabbalist themes of exile, death, atonement, and redemption onto the Christian Trinity, with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as the savior.5
Egidio da Viterbo
Egidio da Viterbo became the Prior general of the Augustinian Hermits and was a cardinal and church reformer, discovering the harmony of Christianity with Greek and Latin patristic authors like Origen and Augustine, Ficinian Platonism, and Hebrew mysticism. His Book on Hebrew Letters (Libellus de litteris hebraicis) was written in 1517, to convince Pope Leo X to reform the Hebrew alphabet.6 His major work Shekhina was written between 1528 and 1531 and dedicated to Pope Clement VII. In this book, he equates Mary with the Shekhina.7
The Humanists continued to learn Hebrew, which had reached the status of a classical language on par with Greek and Latin. Egidio even received a gift of Hebrew manuscripts from Pope Leo X in 1515.8 Egidio studied with Elias Levita (1469–1549), who also taught him Arabic and Aramaic, as his guest in Rome for a decade.
On the Use of Hebrew in Art during the Renaissance
Hebrew was considered to be the original language in which the world was created. As Pico wrote: “If a first, and not accidental language, exists, it is clear . . . that it is Hebrew.”9 This means that rather than a conventional use of words to describe reality, the Hebrew language carries a direct impression of reality. As a result of this, and due to the camaraderie of Jewish, Muslim, and Christians in translating classical works from Arabic and in scribal workshops in Spain and Italy, from the 13th century and throughout the Renaissance, proper Hebrew texts were sometimes incorporated into altarpieces and manuscripts. Early works in Spain include the Altarpiece of the Virgin of Santes Creux, 1403–1411, and the Altarpiece of Christ and the Virgin, ca. 1420 (Parish Church of Rubielos de Mora).10
Giulio Busi, in his Introduction, to The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew, includes artists Giotto, Fra Angelico, Cosmè Tura, Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Carpaccio, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as artists who used Hebrew, and the patrons Lorenzo de’ Medici, Federico da Montefeltro, Isabella d’Este, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano, who encouraged the use of Hebrew letters. According to Busi, “more than any other [artist], Ludovico Mazzolino made the inclusion of Hebrew letters part of his personal style.”11
Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and Pseudoscripts
Andrea Mantegna’s most private and last work, intended for his own chapel, includes proper Hebrew. When Isabella d’Este (1474–1539) opened her study room (studiolo) between 1499 and 1502 for philosophical study and collection of manuscripts and artwork in Mantua, a city that became a center for the printing and diffusion of Kabbalistic texts, she called on Mantegna to decorate it in the work Minerva Chasing the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (1499–1502), where he painted using Hebrew, Latin, and Greek pseudoscripts.
When an accurate Hebrew was not available, Renaissance artists took to using truncated Hebrew letters, called pseudographica, lending a mysterious appeal. These “pseudoscripts” were letters that seemed to be in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic but had no discernible semantic content. They were generally used as decorative elements on objects and costumes in religious scenes by Mantegna, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and Filippino Lippi . The most famous pseudoscript was on a wooden tablet, the titulus crucis, reading “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” in truncated Hebrew letters and in Greek and Latin mirror writing, sent to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence in early 1492 to be deciphered by Pico and subsequently rendered in detail by Michelangelo. One characteristic of Kabbalah is the visual aspect of its arrangement of words on a page. Their non-semantic nature is meditative and gives rise to an emphasis on the graphic quality of the page.12 Similarly, according to Alexander Nagel, in the Renaissance, the artists
willfully dismantled and recomposed the medium of language. Their placement on hems and sleeves suggested that the scripts have an oral quality, that they are communications. . . . They signal a potentiality that is lost sight of in normal, conventional language. . . . They are unreadable to us, and yet they are being presented to us . . . across the gap of illegibility.13
Raphael included both pseudo-Hebrew and correct Hebrew script in his paintings. While Moses in the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Museums) displays a biblical text written with pseudo-Hebrew letters, the vigorous figure of Isaiah in the Roman church of Sant’ Agostino displays a scroll written with correct Hebrew letters.
Current scholarship places Egidio da Viterbo, who was a theologian under Pope Julius II and Leo X, in contact with Raphael and one who may have advised him. Art historian Stefania Pasti points to a possible influence of Egidio’s Historia viginti saeculorum on Raphael’s Vision of Ezekiel and on the Vatican Logge di Raffaello.14 There may also have been an influence of Egidio on Raphael’s Isaiah in the Church of Sant’ Agostino. However, since Pope Julius II was trained in Franciscan theology, and Egidio was an Augustinian, Pasti doubts that the pope advised Egidio regarding the Stanza della Segnatura (1508–1511), one of the four reception rooms in the Vatican Palace. Others, however, suggest that there may have been some interaction.15
Influence of the Clergy on Art
The clergy often had a role in directing the papal works of art in an advisory capacity. Other times, clerical writing served as a theological basis for painting and sculptural themes. However, not often can a written directive be found. One notable exception is two letters of Fra Girolamo Redini (1460–1524) to Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, indicating iconographic details of Andrea Mantegna’s work Madonna della Vittoria (1496), which, in the early 21st century, is in the Musée du Louvre.16 The case for an influence from the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) on Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, 1470s–1480s (Florence: Uffizi Gallery), is still being contested.17
Research on the ramifications of Pico’s and Egidio da Viterbo’s interpretations of Kabbalah on art is still in process. Egidio’s Augustinian theology may have impacted the late Renaissance and Mannerist artists Sebastiano del Piombo and Paolo Veronese. According to scholars, Egidio’s unique Augustinian theology was referenced for the Borgherini Chapel of Sebastiano del Piombo.18
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel
In 20th- and 21st-century scholarship, some have suggested possible Kabbalistic references in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, while others vehemently oppose the idea.19 One concept put out concerns the masculinity of Michelangelo’s female Sibyl figures as an expression of their becoming closer to the image of God, the Deity, viewed as masculine.20 Actually, in the Kabbalistic Circle in Safed of the Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), the voice of the Shekhina, the feminine aspect of the Godhead, speaking through man, was considered an expression of closeness to the Divinity.21
Hebrew Manuscripts and the Kabbalah
Direct influences of the Kabbalah are more easily read in medieval Hebrew manuscripts. Thus, the Norsa-owned Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, 1349, has a full-page illustration that features the Creation above and the Heavenly Chariot below.22 In the Creation cycle of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Barcelona, c. 1350), and specifically the same-size moon and sun in the days of Creation, the concept of the sefirot Malchut (Shekhinah) and Tiferet as du-parsufin (androgynous or two-faced) and bekoach shaveh (of equal potency) are Kabbalistic elements found in the Nahmanides school. Another indication of this influence is in the unusual depiction of the Second Day of Creation in the Sarajevo Haggdah, where three sections conform to the highest triad of the sefirot: the sefira of Keter, associated with air; the sefira of Hochmah, associated with fire; and the sefira of Binah, associated with water.23
In the Lurianic Kabbalah of the Ari (Isaac Luria ha’Ashkenazi, 1534–1572) of Safed, the configurations of the sefirot become more complex to include the Parsufim (literally: faces [facets]) of the Godhead). Concepts of Zimzum, Shevirat Ha’Kelim, and Tikkun, promulgated in the writings of Hayyim Vital (1543–1620), the Ari’s disciple, reached a wide audience through manuscripts and print, which were illustrated. Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570) also introduced illustrative diagrams and graphic designs in his Kabbalistic works. An early diagram common to Kabbalistic texts, found in a commentary to Sefer Yetzirah (1284), places the sefirot one within the other. Similarly, the ten sefirot are described as the layers of an onion by Moses Cordovero (1522–1570), and are so pictured in his writings.24 Another diagram, also known from the 1280s, describes the sefirot as the limbs of a humanoid in the form of an Aleph, and is found in Cordovero’s writings.25
Early Modern Period
The early modern period is saturated with mystical and messianic fervor, which finds expression in architecture, its decoration, ambience, and use, and in art and ritual objects, indicating the impact of intellectual history on the physical world.
The advent of the 16th century brought a rise in interest in the Hebrew language and Kabbalah in Christian circles, and the publications of Christian Kabbalah. As in the Renaissance, many converted Jews assisted in the translation, study, and dissemination of the material. Notable among these publications are those of Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1521), De Arte Cabalistica (Hagenau, 1517), who had met with Pico and received Portae Lucis (Augsburg, 1515): a Latin translation of Sha’ari Ora (Gates of Light) by Joseph Gikatilla, whose illustrated frontispiece became an iconic image of the configuration of the sefirot; and Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s (1636–1689) Kabbala Denudata (Sulzbach, 1677–1678). Some of the illustrations in these books as well the graphic nature of their Kabbalistic texts—the result of Kabbalistic permutations—reached wider audiences over the next centuries. Typical of the interest in Christian Kabbalah is Rembrandt’s A Scholar in his Study (c. 1652).
Such Christian Kabbalistic books were produced in France from the 17th century, and publication continued in England and the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, notably by Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), whose influence extended to musicians David Bowie and the Beatles.26 In France, the Theosophical Society and other similar societies included artists, and freely combined Far Eastern and Kabbalistic ideas, as did Helena Blavatsky (1831–1871), the founder of the Theosophical Society.
Christian Kabbalah led the way to a better understanding of Kabbalah in subsequent periods. The German Humanists continued the study of Hebrew, as did Martin Luther. Their goal was not only to convince the Jews to convert but also to discover divine truths. Thus, we find the Polish Humanist Jan Potocki (1761–1815), who describes quite accurately the core concepts of the linguistic mysticism of Kabbalah:
In Hebrew, every letter is a number, every word a learned combination of signs, every phrase a terrible formula, which, when correctly pronounced with all the appropriate aspirates and stresses, could cause mountains to crumble and rivers to dry up. . . . Words strike the air and the mind; they act on the senses and on the soul. Although you are not initiates, you can easily grasp that they are the true intermediaries between matter and every order of intelligence.27
The Great Parchment (Sefiriotic Ilanot and the Ripley Scrolls)
Among the works translated for Pico into Latin was the Great Parchment or Sefer Sippurim (Book of Tales), a group of mystical stories illustrated on a parchment scroll. The original scroll was lost, and a manuscript of its textual content translated for Pico. However, in the early 16th century, Egidio acquired a copy of the parchment that retained the illustrative content, as well as the complete Hebrew commentary. This manuscript became part of the library of Caterina de’ Medici. When the scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) received it, he commissioned the Scottish Hebraist James Hepburn (1573–1621) in 1606 to copy it. In the early 21st century, it is now in the Bodleian Library. In the beautifully colored scroll, the images are, from top to bottom, a circle with the words Ein Sof (The Infinite) written in the upper half and the bottom half darkened, the configuration of the ten sefirot, the Menorah (Temple candelabrum), the Shulkhan (Shewbread Table), the divine Chariot, and the Garden of Eden. These images recur later in the genre of ilanot (Hebrew parchment scrolls of the Lurianic configurations of the sefirot; literally: trees) from the 18th to the 21st century, used as amuletic devices and meditation charts.28 The ilanot can be favorably compared with the Ripley Alchemical scrolls, although their content differs. The Ripley scrolls, of which there are more than a dozen, describe pictorially the process of producing the Philosopher’s Stone, and other alchemical processes, and include the verses of George Ripley (1415–1495) from The Compound of Alchemy (London, 1591).29
Villalpando and the Temple Plan
The messianic focus on the Temple in Jerusalem in the 17th and 18th centuries led to unique architectural plans for synagogues and churches in Europe. The nine-bay ground plan was one of the characteristics of the Temple plan, according to the Spanish Jesuit and architect Juan Bautista Villalpando (1552–1608). Villalpando undertook, together with Herónimo del Prado, a fellow Jesuit theologist and architect, to give a detailed reconstruction and full commentary on the Third Temple as described by the prophet Ezekiel in chapters 40–42. The first volume of their treatise was published in 1596 and reached Poland as early as 1610, although it was initially applied to non-Jewish buildings.30 According to Sergey R. Kravtsov, the nine-bay plan in synagogues and churches of the 17th century reflects “the essential role played by both architectural typology and messianic mysticism in . . . sacred buildings that were modeled to a great extent on the iconography of the Temple.”31 Villalpando’s theoretical writings were given wide exposure through a graphic rendition of the Temple plan by Rabbi Jacob Judah Aryeh Leon (Templo; 1603–1675), a Hebraist, draughtsman, and Freemason of Marrano background, whose treatise Retrato del Templo de Selomoh (The Depiction of Solomon’s Temple, 1642) was translated into seven languages.
In terms of Kabbalah, nine connotes the sefira of Yesod, the conduit between male and female, which connects to Malchut (Kingdom), the mundane world. In addition, nine comprises, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, the totality of the five levels of Parsufim and the Four Worlds in ascending order—Assiyah (Action), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation), and Atzilut (Emanation)—through which they move. Contemporary artist Eli Petel (Eliyahu Fatal; b. 1974) created the series Tesha be’Afela (Nine in the Dark, 2009), consisting of aluminum sculptures of oversized Hebrew letters and cardboard talismans.32
In Amsterdam, architects Jacob von Campen and Daniel Stalpaert were influenced by Templo’s model and applied the nine-bay plan in their design of the Great Ashkenazi Synagogue (1670–1671) and the Great Portuguese Synagogue (1671–1675), the latter with curved buttresses on the exterior of the building—another architectural feature of the Temple according to Villalpando. In the context of a discussion on the impact of the Holocaust on abstract artists and architects in the post–World War II period, Mark Godfrey mentions the Kabbalah as one of the sources of their artistic endeavor and, in particular, Louis I. Kahn’s (1901–1974) uncompleted Holocaust Memorial project for New York City (1966–1972). Godfrey argues that the architect chose an arrangement of nine (later six) glass cubes as a means of distancing his memorial from the didactic monumentality of fascist architecture and simultaneously creating a contemplative space whose very abstraction would foster communal interaction and remembering.33
The four pillars surrounding the bimah in the Polish Ashkenazi nine-bay synagogues in this period often reached to the arched ceiling, high above the congregants and connoted for some the four pillars of the heavenly Chariot associated with the three forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and King David. This belief also led to another ritual process associated with the Passover Seder plate, when the plate is raised with four symbolic foods to connect with the heavenly Chariot.34
Lehrtafel of Princess Antonia of Württemberg
In a Lutheran theosophical context, a Lehrtafel, a unique teaching panel or devotional object, was used by Princess Antonia of Württemberg. Executed as an altarpiece for the church in Bad Teinach in southern Germany (1659–1663), the profusely illustrated work integrates the sefirot into a pansophic concept, interweaving Kabbalah and Christological concepts, to be accessed by both Christian laity and those who possess a deeper knowledge of Kabbalah.35
Sefer Evronot (Intercalation Manuals)
The convergence of the fields of science, astrology, astronomy, Kabbalah, and calendar studies gave rise to a whole new visual tradition in the early modern period: Evronot (or Ibronot; Hebrew calendar intercalation manuals or almanacs that were illustrated). More than 200 such manuscripts from 1560 to 1800 are extant. While many of the illustrations relate to the technical charts or are genre scenes and puns, others carry mystical references and use a profusion of alchemical images. We find here the figure of God as the Great Architect, wrapped in a garment of letters (based on a Kabbalistic and Midrashic understanding of Psalms 104:2, in which light refers to the letters, thought to be instrumental in the creation of the world). There is a continuing reference to panim ve’ahor (front and back), a term also found in the linguistic mysticism of Abraham Abulafia, and used to describe the union of the male and female aspects of the Godhead in Safed Kabbalah, where the optimum position is panim ve’panim (front to front).36 Other illustrations and texts include: the Secret of the Menorah (Sod ha’Menorah), based on Midrashic and Kabbalistic traditions; the Secret of the Hand (Sod ha’Yad), found in amuletic contexts on paper and metal, and more.37 Alchemical and Freemasonry symbols abound such as the Alchemical rod, compass, the Great Architect of the Universe, the Hourglass, Jacob’s Ladder, the Keystone, the Masonry Square, the All-Seeing Eye, the Green Dragon, the Astrolabe, and more. There is a visual reference to the Apocalypse of Abraham, and biblical scenes related to the transmutation of water to blood. To date, scholars have not approached this material in terms of their esoteric content, which warrants further study.38
Hebrew Manuscript Illustration
Hebrew manuscript illustration continued in the 18th century, blossoming in Moravia, where small prayer books with Kabbalistic texts were produced in the “Amsterdam” style of printing. At times, older illustrative motifs received Kabbalistic interpretations. For example, Eshet Hayil (Woman of Valor; Proverbs 31:10–31), recited at the Friday evening meal, generally thought of as referring to Wisdom, or to the woman of the house, was now viewed as representing the Shekhinah.39 This outpouring of a manuscript tradition in an era of printing evolved mainly due to the rise of the Court Jews in Central Europe, some of whom actively studied Kabbalah.40 In addition, Lurianic manuscripts in this period were illustrated, with key Kabbalistic concepts including images of Adam Kadmon, the primeval man; faces of the Godhead as part of the Lurianic configurations; the influx of the Ein Sof (Infinite One) as a beam or wedge of light in the concentric circles of the sefirot; and more.41
Hasidic Art and Architecture
As the Jewish population moved from Central Europe to Eastern Europe during the mid-17th and the mid-18th centuries, the Kabbalistic notions expressed in art traveled with them. The diffusion of Lurianic Kabbalah influenced the early Hasidic masters who sought ways of integrating the Kabbalistic meaning into ritual objects previously considered merely functional. As Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim (1742–1800) of Sudilkow, the grandson of the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760), explained regarding the Tsaddik (Hasidic master): “In all material things with which they occupy themselves, they adhere not to the material aspects, but to the inner ones, to the secret of the divine inherent in them.”42
Figurative images of kabbalistic themes are found in Hasidic manuscripts and illustrated Safed Kabbalistic manuscripts. These include such central Kabbalistic concepts as the Shattering of the Vessels, the Four Worlds, the Eight Kings, and the Seven Palaces.43 It appears that Renaissance thought may have influenced Hasidic illustration. In a Hasidic prayer book (1759–1760), the scribe and illustrator Avraham Shimshon of Rashkow (c. 1730–1799) chose the cherub, a figure that embodies the god of love—Amor, for the Kedushah prayer of Musaf. There is an ideational parallel between this prayer, with its identification with the angels above, and the figure of Amor, which represents both divine and earthly love, as expressed in the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino. The parallelism is emphasized by the heart-shaped frame around the word Keter (Crown, also the first and highest Sefira), accentuating the emotion of love on the part of the worshipper at this point in the prayer service.44
Ritual art involves the use of objects in ceremonies associated mainly with the home. In ritual art, early Hasidic masters chose to elevate everyday objects to the level of the legislated sacred and ceremonial objects, their liminal nature allowing room for innovation. Doing so was in step with the objective of “worship through corporeality”—that is, “a mundane action accorded the validity and value of worship by virtue of the intention given to it.”45 These included the Passover Seder plate, the Kiddush wine cup, and the hanging Sabbath lamp. For example, the Lelov Rebbe Elazar Menachem Mendel (c. 1827–1883) introduced a Sabbath lamp in the configuration of the ten sefirot. Under the hook extend metal wires to hold three glass dishes for oil (Hochmah, Bina, Daat), followed by a middle ring of six glass vessels (Hesed, Gevurat, Tiferet, Netzah, Hod, Yesod) and the lowest being a single ring (Malchut). Not only was the form Kabbalistic in design, but its method of lighting on Friday evening in the synagogue is also related to linguistic mysticism: three wicks in the upper ring, nineteen wicks in the second ring, and another four wicks on the bottom ring—totaling twenty-six, the gematria (numberical equivalent) of one of the divine names of God, while the four wicks are to be associated with the Tetragrammaton. A later version of the lamp consists of twenty-six interlocking rings in five groups of vessels, corresponding as well to the levels of the Parsufim according to Lurianic doctrine. This ritual object allows for contemplation on many levels, during the act of kindling.46
Objects were at times also endowed with Kabbalistic significance even when their initial form and decoration drew from local folk art. Such was the case with the Chair of Nahman of Breslov [Bratslav] (1772–1810), which he received in the summer of 1808. In the 21st century, thischair is in the Great Bratslav Yeshiva in Me’a She’arim, Jerusalem. Closely after its receipt, Rabbi Nahman dreamed of a fiery chair, which he shared with his disciples. In the fall of 1808, he delivered a sermon, which expounded on the chair, and in the fall of 1809, he incorporated a description of the chair into one of his tales. Combined together, they present a polemic of imagination and thought based on Kabbalistic sources, connecting the chair with the divine Throne of Glory.47
Mystical Interpretations of the Belz Hasidic Synagogue Construction
In architecture, Belz Hasidic Jews imbued the construction of their synagogue with mystical meaning. The fortress-like turret on the roof of the Great Synagogue of Belz, dedicated in 1843, closely resembles an earlier masonry synagogue, the Sobieski Synagogue in Zolkiew (1692), while retaining an “old-fashioned Baroque survival style for their synagogue.”48 However, according to internal Hasidic sources within the dynasty, its construction was precipitated by a theophany experienced by its first rabbi, Shalom Rokeah (1781–1855), who physically assisted in the task of construction. The rabbi discussed this with his brother who had berated him for an action deemed unseemly for a Hasidic leader:
On the last of the thousand nights there was a strong [gust of] wind, shattering mountains and breaking rocks. It broke all the windows in the study hall and extinguished the candle. I wanted to go to home out of fear but the wind stopped me from leaving. In my depth of sorrow and despair, I opened the Holy Ark and cried out until the Lord had mercy on me and the storm abated. An old man came and studied the whole Torah with me. The last law he taught me was the building of a synagogue. Believe me, dear brother, if only I could, I would build it by myself from top to bottom. How could I give the holy task to another? Only the Lord knows that my strength ebbs but what is in my power to do I will do myself.49
After the synagogue was built, the mystical implications in every brick and mortar were palpable to those who were sensitive to them:
I heard from the holy Rabbi Simeon of Yaroslaw who came to Belz after the synagogue building was completed. And Rabbi Shimon felt with his hands in every place and said: “Good, good.” But in one place he was silent and said nothing. And the holy rabbi said to him: “at the time when the builders were working at this place, I was not at home.”50
The building, a synagogue, became central to this sect and all subsequent rabbis personally supervised their construction. The first four generations of Belz rabbis inscribed their tombstones with the image of a sacred portal. The present rabbi has reconstructed the Belz synagogue in Jerusalem, dedicated in 2000, with mystic intentions, not all of which are publicly shared.51 There are varying grades of blue color in the ceiling and nine crystal chandeliers.
Wooden Synagogue Decoration
The early modern period in Europe, referred to by Gershon David Hundert as the era of the popularization of mysticism and Kabbalah, was characterized by a rise in messianic aspirations and eschatology.52 Beginning with Safed Kabbalah in the late 1530s, extending through the abortive messianic movement of Shabbetai Zvi (1626–1676), messianic aspirations are a corollary of the Kabbalists. Kabbalah is often linked to messianic ideas. Egidio was asked to be present when David Reubeni (1490–c. 1541) came to meet with Pope Clement VII in 1524. Reuveni was in association with Solomon Molcho (1500–1532). Both had messianic aspirations. Abraham Abulafia is another figure who sought to meet with Pope Nicholas III in 1280 and had messianic claims.53 Since the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem were both considered to be paradigms of the heavenly abode, and the synagogue is considered to be a “lesser Temple,” in the mid-18th century in Italy, and especially in Piedmont, there was a proliferation of Temple vessel motifs in synagogue decoration. This may relate to the messianic expectations expounded by Italian Kabbalist Immanuel Hai Ricchi (1688–1743), who calculated the coming of the redemption to be between 1740 and 1780.54
In the artistic program of the wooden synagogue paintings in the mid-17th to the 18th century, the painted ceilings of the wooden synagogues in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were filled with images of the divine heavenly abode: holy beasts of the divine Chariot, the Leviathan, and the Behemoth (eschatological beings to be partaken of by the righteous in the next world); the Heavenly Jerusalem; and the constellation signs of the zodiac.55 From the medieval period onward, the ceiling of the synagogue had been likened to the heavens and was even decorated with a star-filled blue sky. This custom likely had its source in the Babylonian Talmud, where the fifty gold fasteners of the tapestries covering the Tabernacle in the Wilderness “looked like stars [set] in the sky.”56 The original ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo painted it was blue and covered with stars.57
Mystical elements came to the fore not only in the exterior architecture but also in the flora and fauna imagery of the wall paintings in Hasidic synagogues. As Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir (d. 1798–1800) explained:
The Shekhinah [feminine aspect of the Godhead in Kabbalah] is an eagle among birds, a dove among fowl, and a rose in the vegetative world, because the Shekhinah changes according to the division of actions in the world.58
The rampant figures of the lion and unicorn could be interpreted in a messianic or eschatological context. As Boris Khaimovich explains:
In the mural of the Khodorov [Chodorow] synagogue of 1714, the lion and the unicorn are depicted in a peaceful embrace, and the lion holds up the horn with one paw as if blowing into it. . . . [T]he unicorn’s horn in the lion’s mouth may indeed be interpreted as the shofar ushering in the arrival of the messianic era.59
The imagery of King Solomon’s throne rightfully found its place on the synagogue ceiling since Solomon’s throne was viewed as a paradigm for the divine throne. There, alongside lions and eagles, is a full entourage of pure and impure animals, including an ox, lion, goat, wolf, camel, leopard, peacock, eagle, rooster, cat, dove, hawk, and two dolphins—all animals included in the pictorial scheme of such synagogues.60 The same heavenly creatures were incorporated in the upper regions of the three-tiered Torah ark, which, bounded by a gate and chain, and reached by ascending steps, also connoted a holy realm. There, the Temple sacrificial animals were also often sculpted in relief on the Torah Ark doors.61 Upon entering the sacred space, the Jewish worshiper essentially emerged from one mode of being to another, from a mundane reality to a supernal one.
Ecclesiastical art featured the Temple Menorah from the Byzantine period, placed in the Orthodox Church and located between the altar stone on which the greatest Sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated and the Upper Throne, where the bishop sits. The image of the Temple Candelabrum in the church begins as early as 800 ce and, along with it, the Ark of the Covenant.62 In the 16th century, Guillaume Postel (1510–1581) gave a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Candelabrum.63
Modern and Contemporary Art
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, occult groups and Symbolist art took to the fore, sometimes utilizing Kabbalistic lore in a polysemic way. The field of Theosophy, led by Annie Besant and Helena Blavatsky, and that of Anthroposophy, led by Rudolf Steiner, are steeped in such lore. Of the major artists of this period, William Blake’s (1757–1857) interest and possible knowledge of Kabbalah and Hebrew have been often discussed.64 In the 20th and 21st centuries, the fields of kabbalah and art are intertwined, nurturing one another in ways that are both creative and unique.
In the early 20th century, the Dada, and later the French avant-garde Lettrists, used techniques similar to that of the early Kabbalistic linguistic mysticism, which led to later innovations in sound poetry.
Indeed, while they did not yet deconstruct texts into individual letters, the Symbolist poets served as inspiration for the Dada and Lettrist artists. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), 1897 by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) promoted the use of unique typography and a visual approach to writing.65 The calligrams of Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), such as Il pleut (It Rains), 1914, herald the postmodern concrete and visual poetry of writers, such as Emmett Williams (1925–2007). “Sound poetry should be understood as analogous to pattern poetry. . . . There is less a drive toward the abolition of the word than an attempt to actualize its plastic potential.”66
Constructivism and Suprematism: Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) and El Lissitzky (1890–1941)
The nonobjective and non-figural character of the synagogue space coincided with the nonobjectivity of the Supremacist vision. On Malevich’s visit to “the Catholic, Orthodox, and Judaist churches” in Vitebsk: The Orthodox church, for him, “contains no place to go”; the Catholic Church “does not stand any more on the ground, and it is passing above it.” The Jewish synagogue, however, is “completely non-present, only a place of reflection. . . . In that synagogue I flew upon the letters, having lost a body and blood.” The dialectics of vision range from the “full of blood” and “terrestrial” Orthodox church to the Catholic cathedral as mediator between the terrestrial and the heavenly and, finally, to the synagogue as pure incorporeality and nonobjectivity.67
In El Lissitzky’s famous “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” 1919, the wedge entering the circle is possibly a reference to the Kabbalistic diagram of the light of the Ein Sof entering the sefirot at the moment of Creation, which he might have seen in a manuscript or book on his expedition to the Mohilev synagogue.68 In the doctrine of Zimzum , a ray—seen as a hollow pipe or wedge—of divine light, enters a series of concentric circles of the sefirot. This is referred to in the Zohar as the
spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the head of Infinity. . . . The blinding spark is the first impulse of emanation flashing from Ein Sof through Keter and proceeding to delineate the various sefirot.69
The Lurianic kabbalistic doctrine of Zimzum (contraction or withdrawal) precedes creation. Its diagrams feature a line of light entering the concentric circles of the sefirot. The line of light representing the Ein Sof, the infinite boundless light.70 This image seems to repeat itself in a self-portrait of Constantin Brâncuşi, dated 1928–1933. While Brâncuşi’s portrait of James Joyce is a spiral with straight lines alongside, his own self-portrait, Relativement, tel que moi (I, Myself, Somehow), c. 1929 – although it has been compared to Picabia’s spirals and Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs that recall alchemical charts,71 – seems much closer to a Kabbalistic diagram and recalls El Lissitzky’s use of the compass in his own Self-Portrait: Constructor, 1924.72
The Golem and Contructivism
A connection between the Kabbalistic concept of Golem and Constructivism, which was founded by Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), may be found in “treating human forms, functions and emotions by mechanical analogies.”73 Noteworthy among these artists, who interacted with Dada figures occasionally, are George Grosz and Raoul Hausmann in Berlin in the 1920s. Along the later Surrealist artists, Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) continued her interest in the Golem.74
Kultur-Lige Artists and Abstract Art
The preference for abstract art is seen in a claim of the Kultur-Lige artists Issachar Ber Ryback (1897–1934) and Boris Aronson (1898–1980) that “only through the principle of abstract painting, which is free of any literary [figurative] aspects, can one achieve one’s own national formal expression.”75 A Hasidic tradition based on Kabbalah reminds us of works by Piet Mondrian (1872–1944): Moshe Ephraim of Sudlikow, espouses:
For the secret of the entire Torah is the secret of Menasseh and Ephraim [eschatological symbols for the Messianic Era]. And Menasseh is the secret of the line; and Ephraim is the secret of the point, as is [seen] in this drawing.76
This statement is followed by a diagram in the text: 0| and continues: “The secret of the line is simple and the secret of the circle is, it seems to me, that the line is on the right and the circle is on the left.”77
Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) and Cubism78
A rare, direct reference to the correlation between Kabbalah and Cubism is found in Scholem’s diaries. The entry, dated August 31, 1917, was written following a visit to the avant-garde Sturm Gallery in Berlin. Among the exhibited works was Picasso’s Woman Playing the Violin (1911), which Scholem described as “completely different and . . . among the finest pictures in the exhibition,”79 and declares:
In the pure Cubist approach, identity is dissolved. . . . Spiritually, cubism expresses the essence of space by dissecting it. . . . Cubism is the artistic expression of the mathematical theory of truth. Without question, there are mystical materials introduced here . . . Jewish art . . . seems to rest on the symbolic division of space. This is particularly clear in the Kabbalah’s [Ilanot] “Tree of Life,” which almost has a Cubist feel to it.80
Dada and Lettrism
Modern and contemporary art is indebted to Gershom Scholem, who published his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism in 1941.81 The fourth chapter, devoted to “Abraham Abulafia and the Doctrine of Prophecy,” resonated with the Dada poet Yvan Goll (1891–1950) and the Lettrist leader Isidore Isou (1925–2007) in a very profound way.
Goll, who wrote many poems on Abulafia, declared:
One of my ancestors was Abulafia, martyr of the Word. . . . I consider that this thirteenth-century man is the direct precursor of those discovering the “alchemy of the word” like [Arthur] Rimbaud, “words in freedom” like [Guillaume] Apollinaire, [and] the “word in itself” like [Stéphane] Mallarmé.82
Yvan Goll’s interest in Abulafia coincided with an interest in alchemy. A poem dedicated to Abraham Abulafia, “Raziel,” was published in Goll’s book Le Char Triomphal de l’Antimoine (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, 1947), the title based on a pseudo-book on alchemy published in 1604 and attributed to Basil Valentine. The illustration for the poem by Victor Brauner (1903–1966) depicts the Melusine or the Siren of the Philosophers, a common alchemical symbol for the Anima Mundi, used in the 21st century as the logo for Starbucks. The figure is composed of an open hand with facial features, where the index and ring fingers are turned down to recall a crown. The mermaid with a stream of blood and a stream of milk issuing from her breasts feeds a bird and a snake. On the left is a sun disk, composed of twenty-two dots, the total number of Hebrew letters.83
Isou mused: “Perhaps I would have been Abraham, son of Abulafia of Saragossa, he who left in search of the mystical river, Sabbation, and wanted to obtain the knowledge of the veiled essence of God by the permutation of the letters of the alphabet and the Talmudic numbers (Is this not my lettrism?),” and viewed himself in messianic terms.84 The study of Kabbalah was of great interest to the Lettrists. The Lettrist leader Gabriel Pomerand wrote himself a note to remind himself to order Lazare Lenain’s La Science cabalistique ou l’Art de connaître les bons Génies (Amiens, 1823) from the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, a book of Christian Kabbalah delineating the seventy-two-letter name of God as related to three verses in Exodus 14:19–21 describing the splitting of the Red Sea.85
According to Isou, the meaning in Lettrist poetry “flickers” because “the abstracticised letters have become quantitative values, losing the concept first attached to them.” The word hewn is used in connection with the Hebrew letters in Sefer Yetzirah. The Lettrists used the term chiseling with regard to actual cutting or scratching a filmstrip before screening, a technique used by Isou and Lemaître. Isou also used the term to distinguish between two polarities in art and poetics—“amplific” and “chiseling”—to categorize the construction and deconstruction of form. Kabbalistic letter permutations were not required to be immediately meaningful. According to Moshe Idel, “The Kabbalah, which is presently hidden, i.e., the ‘wisdom of the Names and letters’ will in the future be the accepted means of communication.” Such “meaninglessness” is exemplified by an excerpt from Isou’s 1950 Researches for a Pure Prose Poem: “Ghprstnstzdgfblmkrstvxwtsrkmbfpntzsch nsntzze! FMNZ TGGGHTZ HH HHKRRVCPMPCRTRCPT.”
Unique Lettrist artworks, which are expressive without being figurative are found especially in the works of Jean-Louis Brau (1930–1985) and Alain Sati (1944–2011), and seem to convey an evocative sense of mystery through the letters and the spaces between them against a muted color background.86
Later Artistic Works
Later artistic works were also influenced by Scholem. In the 1950s, Saul Raskin (1878–1966) illustrated an entire book on the Kabbalah.87 A group of California counterculture poets and artists in the 1960s, notably Jerome Rothenberg, Jack Hirschman, and David Meltzer, became immersed in Abulafian lore and artist Bruria Finkel created a body of work based on Abulafia’s writings. Their interest was preceded by manipulations of Hebrew in the work of Beat Artist Wallace Berman (1926–1976).
Umberto Eco (1932–2016) and Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986)
Umberto Eco himself has written about Abulafia and named the computer in Foucault’s Pendulum published in 1988: “Abulafia.” The chapter headings are according to the ten sefirot.88 The aborted film based on the book was set to be directed by Stanley Kubrick. The story The Aleph (1945) by Jorges Luis Borges, is also based on Kabbalistic ideas.
Current interest in art and spiritualism in the 21st century is evident in major exhibitions and events over the past decade: beginning with the 2008 Traces du Sacré (Traces of the Sacred) at the Centre Pompidou, through the “Speculatio mystica” session of the Salon Suisse at the 2015 Venice Biennale and my 2016 exhibition Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism. Two important exhibitions on the Golem were held: Golem: From Mysticism to Minecraft at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin (September 23, 2016–January 29, 2017) and Golem! Avatars of a Clay Legend at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du judaïsme (March 8–July 16, 2017).91 A major 2019 show Kabbalah: The Art of Jewish Mysticism was co-produced by the Jüdisches Museum Wien and the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam. In 2019, the Guggenheim Museum exhibited artists Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) and in 2020, the Whitney Museum exhibited Agnes Pelton (1881–1961).
Among the outstanding films of the 20th and 21st centuries that relate to Kabbalah: Paul Wegener (director), The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920; Michał Waszyński (director), The Dybbuk, 1937 (by playwright Semyon An-sky, 1863–1920; screenplay: Alter Kacyzne, 1885–1941); Wojciech Has (director), The Saragossa Manuscript, 1965; Darren Arnofsky (director), Pi, 1998; Guy Richie (director), Revolver, 2005; and Scott McGehee (director), Bee Season (2005). Recently, there have been digital Kabbalistic artworks, still in progress, such as that of Adam Muscat and Sarah-Lou Maarek in the United Kingdom.92
Art and Scholarship
In the 21st century, we find an interplay of kabbalah and art through the sharing of digital databases, juxtaposing the fields of research and art in a dynamic that is continually growing in intensity. Elliot Wolfson (b. 1956, United States) is a well-known Kabbalah scholar who is also an artist and a poet. His artwork is generally abstract and lyrical, expressing mood and thought. For Wolfson, it is a way to express the ineffable, a language beyond words. In his work Rose (2003), the erotic nature of the Zoharic image is apparent.93 An artist who later turned to Kabbalah scholarship is Suzy Sitbon (1948–2014), who views the opening pages of medieval manuscripts as a diptych, tracing the elliptical Kabbalistic micrography to the 13th century ‘Iyyun Group. Sandra Valabregue-Perry (b. 1972), whose PhD dissertation is on Isaac of Acre, the Ein Sof, and Theosophical Kabbalah, also studied art with Abraham Pincas in Paris. For Valabregue-Perry, the imagery of the ilanot and amulets serve as a graphic springboard for her highly colored images, such as the “Androgynous” series (2018–2020).94 Israeli art historian and artist Michael Sgan Cohen (1944–1989) is a seminal artist, for whom Kabbalah is part of his visual language.95
Selected Contemporary Plastic and Performing Artists
In contemporary times, there is a fine line between bogus and authentic Kabbalah in art and architecture. It is a popular theme. You will need to circumvent the wealth of material to determine what is worthy of further inquiry and what is derivative and uses conventional motifs without a deep understanding. For this reason, I give only a few of the major players and focus on those who have integrated and creatively molded Kabbalistic ideas into their own new expressions of art. Among these are David Bowie, Madonna, Anselm Kiefer, R. B. Kitaj, sound artist Victoria Hanna,96 and the lesser-known Jonathan Leaman, Abraham Pincas, and David Louis. Contemporary art uses and misuses Kabbalah, but more important are those who integrate Kabbalah as part of their creative process and these are discussed individually in the following subsections.
Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015, United States)
Leonard Nimoy created his Vulcan right-hand signature greeting “Live long and prosper” based on the gesture of the Priestly Bessing,97 which has kabbalistic intentions and is found on amulets. His photographic series, Shekhina,98 of an elusive, lovely figure, is very suggestive of the “parable of the young maiden,”99 referring to the Shekhinah in Kabbalistic writings.
R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007, United States)
Kitaj also relied on Scholem for his inspiration when after his wife, Sandra, passed away in 1980, he began a series of paintings in Los Angeles equating Sandra with the Shekhina. Kitaj identified his late wife Sandra (1947–1994) with the Shekhina—the female presence of God according to the Kabbalah. His erotic Los Angeles paintings focus on his reunion with her.100
Leonard Cohen (1934–2016, United States)
Regarding the songwriter Leonard Cohen, Elliot Wolfson explains that in his songs:“Kabbalistic imagery provides a mechanism by which the poet both expands and constricts the boundaries of his Judaism vis-à-vis other traditions in an effort to legitimate the validity of the other on the basis of affirming the distinctiveness of his own cultural formation.”101
Abraham Pincas (1945–2015, France)
A very different kind of art was produced in France by Avraham Pincas, a nephew of Jules Pascin (1885–1930), who studied Abraham Abulafia’s linguistic mysticism and Kabbalah and whose figurative and meditative scenes use Hebrew letters.102
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945, Germany)
Anselm Kiefer was introduced to Kabbalah through the writings of Gershom Scholem in the 1980s and continues to draw on the material in his process of making art, choosing themes from the Kabbalah, such as the Shattering of the Vessels, the Shekhinah, the divine Chariot, the Sefirot, and more, reinterpreting them through his own prism, at times in conjunction with themes from the Holocaust. Thus, the installation Breaking of the Vessels (1990) also references Kristallnacht in November 1938. Among other subjects addressed in Kiefer’s work are the stories of biblical figures such as Cain and Abel, Noah and Samson; the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the Godhead, also considered to be the Divine Presence; Isaac Abravanel, the 15th‐century biblical scholar and statesman who was forced from Spain in the expulsion of 1492; and Paul Celan, the Romanian‐born German‐language Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust and was one of the first in the postwar era to write about these experiences. In a paradoxical statement regarding the Tikkun (the restoration of the Cosmos), Kiefer states “what has been divided can be brought back together again—not in the form of a reunification, but in a way that we cannot yet define.”103
David Bowie (1947–2016, United Kingdom)
Occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) inspired David Bowie in his album lyrics and photo set for 1976 Station to Station, where Bowie is seen sketching in chalk the sefiriotic tree of life, and sang: “bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle. . . . Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth . . . got to keep searching and searching, And oh, what will I be believing,” and in his 2016 Blackstar “Lazarus,” he sang, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” and wore a similar outfit as in 1976.104 It is Kabbalah mediated through the occultism of Crowley, who also influenced the Beatles, and is himself featured on the cover of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); and Led Zepplin.
David Louis (1949–2021, United States)
David Louis is an artist for whom both Hebrew letters and the Kabbalah constitute a terrain intermingling in the real and supernal worlds.105 Kabbalah, and especially its doctrine of the letters, finds expression in the works of other American artists such as, Dov Lederberg (b. 1941), and many others in the so-called Safed school, an example of which is Avraham Lowenthal.106
Color Field Artists: Barnett Newman (1905–1970) and Morris Louis (1912–1962)
In modern and contemporary art, the use of abstraction and light as a medium is not necessarily Kabbalistic. However, in the case of Barnett Newman and some of Moris Louis’s work, titles such as Aleph or Zimzum seem to reference Kabbalah for the viewer. Morris Louis’s series of seven paintings, Charred Journal: Firewritten (1951), initially appeared merely to be abstract representations of white swirls on black backgrounds, but Mark Godfrey shows how they were inspired by the Nazi book burnings of 1933, as well as the Kabbalistic idea that the Torah originated in divine black and white fire.107 Another series of Louis’s is the Aleph Series I–XIII (c. 1958).108 Barnett Newman’s series Stations of the Cross (1958–1966) held the subtitle: “Lema Sabachthani?” (“Why Have You Forsaken Me?”). This resonates with the Kabbalistic notion of Zimzum as Hastarat Panim, the withdrawal or turning away of God.109
Samuel Ackerman (b. 1951, Ukraine)
In Habits de la Terre (Garments of the Earth), Samuel Ackerman gives poetic expression to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav sayings and sermons,110 which are steeped in Kabbalistic and mystical traditions.Rabbi Nahman also had a very graphic intuition. The role of the imagination in the homiletics of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1810) has brought many contemporary artists to identify with him as their muse. Among these are besides Samuel Ackerman, also Grégory Abou, Sanda Zemor, Rachel Koskas, Cécile Reims, and Yosef Joseph Yaakov Dadoune.111 In the 2017 exhibition, which I curated, To and Fro: Rabbi Nahman of Breslov and Contemporary French Artists (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute, October 2017), Ackerman joined this group of artists, who had been inspired by Rabbi Nahman in their artwork. For Ackerman, even the word “Bratslav” translates for him as “Covenant of the Heart.” In his watercolor series, “Stairs of the Heart,” the transparency of the medium gives form to the sefirot, the divine sparks of light, and serves as a platform for what he calls “pictorial faith” in a Supremacist-like kind of drawing. His Bratslav Scroll (1980) was unrolled in front of the closed Gates of Mercy as a messianic gesture. To Ackerman, Rabbi Nahman is the archetypal artist whose very language lends itself to contemporary artistic expression. In Israel, Ackerman was a member of the Leviathan Group, which also included artists Mikhail Grobman (b. 1939, Russia), and Avraham Ofek (1935–1990, Bulgaria).
Anish Kapoor (b. 1954, United Kingdom)
Anish Kapoor encapsulates his own art in reference to that of Barnett Newman, when he says:
Barnett Newman is an artist who was at the vanguard of modernism, and yet somehow his work is infused with the philosophical. He made very large canvases and used the very simple device of a zip or space in the middle of the canvas that seemed to open to a space beyond. This language of deep abstraction seems to me to be a language of an inner world. I believe that is where art comes from and what art must speak about.112
Individual titles of works in Anish Kapoor’s series Internal Object in Three Parts: Keriah I–III (2014), which refers to the Jewish ritual of rending garments in times of mourning, or Gabriel the Angel stops and listens to the silence of the Cave (2014) seem to reference concepts found in Jewish ritual and mystic thought.113
Jonathan Leaman (b. 1954, United Kingdom)
Leaman, who I present here for the first time, sought religious imagery outside of Christian iconography, and found the Kabbalah to be a source “so esoteric as to encourage an infinite range of interpretation.” He is interested in haecceity, the “thisness” of things, that which makes objects unique. His approach to objects is not as symbols, attributes, or metaphors but as reifications, the visual or material expressions of thought. Leaman’s work involves a meticulous assimilation of the studied Kabbalistic material, resulting in an authentic expression. Leaman is engaged with “things,” with the “muck of haecceity.” As he says: “What interests me in this whole Kabbalah nonsense is the slippage, the polysemy that seems like images to me. I find the Zohar appealing not so much for the oddities and striking images as for its reassuring roundabout homiletics—the concreteness of the metaphors and imagery first attracted me to the Kabbalah, but now I find that a bit of an illusion. I guess I just like the sense of a fizzing world full of powers and ardour, even if it is the swooning opposite of ‘matter’.” So, for example, the
The Ante-Room (1999–2002) shows the threshold of the Ante-Room . . . The striding figure has just passed beyond the Pargod—the curtain that shields the Infinite One (Ein Sof) from the gaze of the angels. On it are stitched the attributes and archetypes for all emanations and matter. In regard to the painting The Great Pipe (2006–2011), Leaman writes:
“Maimonides says ‘overflow’ applies to God, likening him to an overflowing spring of matter. [Jakob] Bohme, echoing the kabbalists, called the veil between initial Will and the matter (or muck) of creation, the ‘upper waters.’ The ‘Great Pipe’ is the sage (or Tsaddiq) as conduit for the brimming over of the higher process. ‘His mouth is simply an organ of transmission.’ I came across the expression in Moshe Idel’s book on Hasidism, but misunderstood it, literally, conflating the pipe with the phallic expression of divine abundance and kindness (Hesed through Yesod). . . . The Great Pipe comes in largesse and excessive spillage, the come [cum] that builds tiers and trace levels and history. God’s benison is semen in excess. ‘He shall see seed’ (Isaiah 53:10)—‘See seed.’ Quite: . . . The sea is subject to the spatter, the stream, not active, nor initiating: not energy at all. Clouds incline to the pipe in vortices, the image of order, the ‘as though’ again the ‘this’ of pipe, surfeit and overbrimming, as if the will of the spiral.”114
Madonna (b. 1958, United States)
Based on the commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag to the Zohar, Madonna, who frequented the Kabbalah Center of Rabbi Philip (Shraga) Berg and his wife Karen Berg, which they had begun in the early 1970s,115 incorporated elements of Kabbalah in a sophisticated manner in the video clip Die Another Day (Warner’s Bros., 2002).116 True artists work with the material and integrate it, changing it into something new. In the clip, she has a tattoo of the Hebrew letters LAV (lamed, aleph, vav) on her right arm, one of the permutations of Abraham Abulafia of the seventy-two-letter Name, related to the act of crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19–21), used by tradition to create a Golem.117 Madonna wears tefillin straps on her left arm, wound in the traditional way of seven on the arm and three on the hand between the fingers in the form of Shaddai, a name of God. Earlier, in the early 20th century, Boris Aronson in a theater sketch for the figure of Lilith in a Yiddish play also depicts her with tefillin, here wound around her leg. The avant-garde artists of the 1920s often used the tefillin as a decorative device in costume and book frontispieces.118 In a fencing match, the black and white figures of Madonna represent opposite sides, the forces of good versus the sitra ‘ahra (the Other Side), or evil, indicative of the warring of the two personae within the individual. The repeated references to the epic Shattering of the Vessels, the Lurianic explication of the Creation, where the light could not be contained in the vessels, and they shattered (leaving the fragments to be collected and raised in a Messianic vision to rebuild the Cosmos, the process of Tikkun) can be seen in the repeated breaking of glass vitrines, windows, and the fragmented mirror in the video. Madonna’s children’s books are also Kabbalah-themed.
Conceptual and Neo-Conceptual Artists
As Giulio Busi wrote, “The idea that the letters are not only simple tools for communication . . . led the mystics . . . to modify the usual sequence of the alphabet and the language itself. The pages of Kabbalistic texts are often broken by lines in movement, but sentences curving and bending or consonants reshuffled on the page. . . . The subversion of the normal word order underlined the non-semantic value of the consonants.”119 In the latter half of the 20th century, artists Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), and Lawrence Weiner (1942–2021), among others, used English letters as a graphic component of their contemporary artwork. This relates to Kabbalah in the move from a purely semantic use to a graphic use of the letter.
Artistic creations in digital immersive environments such as the Japanese art collective teamLab and the ongoing work of James Turell (b. 1943) and Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967),120 can be seen as a continuation of the use of light as a tool, or of the use of light and sound as tools, to create ambience, which is seen as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), and often connected to space, as an architectural feature, which corresponds to the notion in Kabbalah and Hasidism that the “whole earth is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
Architecture and Kabbalah
Alexander Gorlin (b. 1955, United States)
Alexander Gorlin is an architect who uses Kabbalah directly in his work. For example, the Torah Ark of the North Shore Hebrew Academy (1999) consists of a fractured Star of David, whose facets are crown-like to indicate the sefira of Keter. The sefirot are featured as a configuration diagram on the Torah Ark curtain.121 In his 2013 book, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, Gorlin traces the concept of Zimzum (contraction) in many architectural projects: Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1965); Barnett Newman’s Zimzum (1969); Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Berlin (2001); Moshe Safie’s design for Yad Vashem (1997–2005); and Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin (2005).122 According to Gorlin, Louis Kahn’s plan for the Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem (1967–1974) and his Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut (1974), relies on the concept of the divine light dividing into four sections.123
The Kabbalah as a source of mystical imagery and its use of the Hebrew language significantly enriched the fields of art and architecture in the medieval and early modern periods and continues to inspire artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. From the Renaissance Humanists through Christian Kabbalah to 20th-century Kabbalah scholarship, the ideas rooted in the Kabbalah have become common knowledge. Kabbalah has also had an impact on the praxis of Judaism, finding expression in prayer texts, ceremonies, and songs, lending new meanings and insight into standardized rituals. The Church has always maintained a mystical component to its self-understanding, often based on ideas that are Kabbalistic or Temple-related. Through this article, it is my hope to have illuminated some of the artistic trends as they developed in time and show how this mystical knowledge was shared with other religions as well as providing a wellspring for secular and post-secular life in the 21st century.
Discussion of the Literature
The interest in Kabbalistic literature was initiated by Martin Buber in his translations of Hasidic mystical stories. Twentieth-century scholarship into Kabbalah, however, begins with Gershom Scholem, whose book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, published in 1941 in English,124 and especially the fourth chapter on Abraham Abulafia, had an impact on the Dada poet Yvan Goll, Lettrist leader Isidore Isou in the 1940s and 1950s,125 and counterculture poets and artists in California in the 1960s, leading to them including linguistic Kabbalah in their poetry and artwork. Scholem continued to publish and lecture extensively. Although often contested, much of the scholarship in the early 21st century remains in dialogue with Scholem’s writings. Among his students, Joseph Weiss (1918–1969) was a deeply insightful commentator on Hasidic mysticism and on Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in particular.126 Zvi Mark (b. 1963, Israel) continues to study and publish on Rabbi Nahman’s writings. Isaiah Tishby’s (1908-1992) thesaurus on the Zohar, first published in 1949 in Hebrew, remains a standard work, opening up the field to its visual imagery.127 This was furthered by the lexicon of the Zohar by Yehuda Liebes (b. 1947, Jerusalem)128 and, more recently, by the monumental Pritzker edition of the Zohar, translated with commentary by Daniel C. Matt (b. 1950, USA).129 While Scholem saw the world of Kabbalah as mediated through symbols and followed a historical linear progression, Moshe Idel (b. 1947, Romania), a prolific scholar, introduced a new, multifarious, permeable approach to Kabbalah, which touches on the experiential and the intertwining of magic and mysticism.130 Idel often lends his expertise to art exhibition catalogues, and writes on the Kabbalistic approach to color, as did Scholem.131 In architecture, pioneering research by Sergey R. Kravtsov (b. 1974, Ukraine) has paved the way for a better understanding of the mystical aspects of church and synagogue construction in 17th-century Amsterdam and Poland.132 Along with Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin (b. 1967, Russia), an architectural historian and director of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has examined the decoration and architecture of many synagogues in Eastern Europe. However, while Thomas Hubka (b. 1946, USA) claims there is a Kabbalistic basis for their design,133 others have contested this claim.134 While some synagogue texts may be traced to 16th-century Safed Kabbalistic ritual, others are standard prayers. Maya Balakirsky Katz (b. 1973, USA) has discussed the Belz Hasidic synagogue in Jerusalem in terms of Kabbalistic design. However, some mystic aspects of the design are not written about openly. Batsheva Goldman-Ida (b. 1955, USA) writes on the connection between Kabbalah and the design and form of ritual objects, as well as synagogue decoration.135 The 2018–2019 exhibition Kabbalah, jointly curated by the Joods Historisch Museum and the Jüdisches Museum Wien included an important essay by Alexander Gorlin on architecture and the Kabbalah.136 The 2016 exhibition Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism by Goldman-Ida presented cross-currents and connections between Kabbalah and modern and contemporary art.137 Rabbi Nahman is seen as a modernist who bridges the secular and the sacred. A 2017 exhibition curated by Goldman-Ida traced the connection between contemporary French artists and Rabbi Nachman.138 The Israel Museum 2020 Seated Seclusion: Bratslav Hasidim and Contemporary Design focused on contemporary chair design, the chair of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and the chairs of his followers used in a Kabbalistic rite of seclusion.139 A special 2020–2021 issue of Images was devoted to Kabbalah and art, with a focus on contemporary artists.140 Boaz Huss (b. 1959, Israel) has written on Madonna, and other aspects of contemporary Kabbalah,141 as well as focusing on the some of the associations with an affinity to the Theosophical Society, as they touch on Kabbalah and art.142
Primary Sources and Links to Digital Materials
- Akrap, Domagoj, Klaus Davidowicz, & Mirjam Knotter, eds. Kabbalah, exh. cat. Jüdisches Museum Wien (31.10.2018–3.3.2019) and the Joods Historisch Museum Amsterdam (28.3–25.8.2019). Bielefeld and Berlin: Kerber Verlag, 2018.
- Busi, Giulio. La Qabbalah visive [Visual Kabbalah]. Torino, Italy: Einaudi, 2005.
- Busi, Giulio, and Silvana Greco, eds. The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew. Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2019.
- Goldman-Ida, Batsheva, ed. Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism, exh. cat. Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 16.6–14.11.2016. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016.
- Goldman-Ida, Batsheva. Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2017.
- Goldman-Ida, Batsheva, ed. “Kabbalah and Art.” Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture 13 (2020).
- Gorlin, Alexander. Kabbalah in Art and Architecture. New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2013.
- Idel, Moshe. Absorbing Perfections, Kabbalah and Interpretation. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
- Matt, Daniel C. The Zohar: Pritzker Edition. 9 Vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004–2017.
- Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Jerusalem: Schocken Books, 1941.
- Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Translated by Ralph Mannheim. New York: Schocken, 1965.
- Sjöberg, Sami. The Vanguard Messiah: Lettrism between Jewish Mysticism and the Avant-Garde. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.
- Wolfson, Elliot R. “Metaphor, Dream, and the Parabolic Bridging of Difference: A Kabbalistic Aesthetic.” IMAGES 14, no. 1 (2021): 82–95.
1. Abraham Abulafia, “Imre Shefer,” in Collected Works, ed. Amnon Gross (Tel Aviv: Amnon Gross, Aharon Barzan & Son, 2000–2002), 193–194; and Saverio Campanini, “Receptum est in recipiente per modum recipientis: Traces of the Liber de causis in Early Kabbalah,” in Reading Proclus the Book of Causes, vol. 2, ed. Dragos Calma (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2021), 456.
2. Paul B. Fenton, “Judaism and Sufism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, ed. Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 201–217; and see Paul B. Fenton, “Maimonides—Father and Son: Continuity and Change,” in Traditions of Maimonideanism, ed. Carlos Fraenkel (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009), 103–137.
3. Anit Mookerjee, Yoga Art, with a contribution by Philip Rawson (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973); and see also Véronique Altglas, “Yoga and Kabbalah as World Religions? A Comparative Perspective on Globalization of Religious Resources,” in Kabbalah and Contemporary Spiritual Revival, ed. Boaz Huss (Beer Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2011), 233–250.
4. Collection of Kabbalistic texts in the Latin translation by Flavius Mithridates for Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, c. 1468–1487, 30.3x22.2 cm. (Vatican City: Vatican Library), MS Vat. ebr. 190. This collection is being translated into English as a series of publications, including the Hebrew and Latin texts: The Kabbalistic Library of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a joint project of the Institute für Judaistik of the Freie Universität, Berlin, and the Instituto Nazionale de Studi sul Rinasciemento, Florence.
5. Crofton Black, The Heptaplus of Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola and Biblical Hermeneutics (London: University of London, 2004).
6. François Secret, ed., Scechina and Libellus de litteris hebraicis, 2 vols. (Rome: Centro Internazionale di Studi Umanistici, 1959).
7. Daniel Stein-Kokin, “Entering the Labyrinth: On the Hebraic and Kabbalistic Universe of Egidio da Viterbo,” in Hebraic Aspects of the Renaissance: Sources and Encounters, ed. Ilana Zinguer, Abraham Melamed, and Zur Shalev (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2011), 27–42.
8. Stein-Kokin, op. cit., 27.
9. Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Conclusiones paradoxe . . . secundum propriam nova in philosophia dogmata inducentes, Conclusio LXXX (Rome: Eucharius Silber, 1486), for full text, see: https://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/pico/about.php; See also: Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).
10. Vivian Mann, ed., Uneasy Communion, Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain (New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2010), 28, fig. 10; 92, ill. 36.
11. Introduction, Giulio Busi and Silvana Greco, eds., The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew, exh. cat. (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2019), 32–34; Andrea Mantegna, The Holy Family and the Family of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1504–6 (Mantua: Basilica of Sant’Andrea); and Andrea Mantegna, Minerva Chasing the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, 1499–1502 (Paris: Musée du Louvre).
12. Guilio Busi, Mantova e le qabbalah (Mantua and the Kabbalah) (Geneva, Switzerland, and Milan: Skira, 2001), 43, 57; Suzy Sitbon, “Intersections between Artistic Visual Creation and Cosmogony in Some Spanish Bibles,” Iggud: Selected Essays in Jewish Studies 3 (2005): 99–113; and Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2017), 13–79.
13. Alexander Nagel, “Twenty-Five Notes on Pseudoscript in Italian Art,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 59–60 (Spring–Autumn 2011): 237–238; Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism, exh. cat., 16.6–22.214.171.124–11.16 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016), 204; and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Crucifix, c. 1493 (wood, polychrome, 145x35 cm; Florence: Church of Santo Spirito).
14. Stefania Pasti, Le fonti della Visione di Ezechiele di Raffaello: l’Historia Viginti Saeculorum di Egidio da Viterbo e il De Partu Virginis di Jacopo Sannazaro (Urbino, Italy: Accademia raffaello, Atti e Studi, 2016). My thanks to Saverio Campanini, who referred me to Stefania Pasti.
15. Ingrid D. Rowland, “Raphael’s Eminent Philosophers: The School of Athens and the Classic Work Almost No One Read,” in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, ed. Diogenes Laertius (Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 557–559; and see also Heinrich Pfeiffer, Zur Ikonographie von Raffaels “Disputa”: Giles da Viterbo und die christlich-platonische Konzeption der Stanza della Segnatura (Rome: Università Gregoriana, 1975).
16. Letters from Friar Girolomo Redini to Duke Francesco Gonzaga, dd. August 29 and 30, 1495, AG, busta 2447, carta 3801 and carta 381 translated in Ronald Lightbrown, Mantegna (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 178–179. On the Duke’s wife, Isabella d’Este, see Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua: A Study of the Renaissance, vol. I (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1903), 124–127; Edwin Hall and Horst Uhr, “Patrons and Painter in Quest of an Iconographic Program: The Case of the Signorelli Frescoes in Orvieto,” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 55, no. 1 (1992): 35–56; translated in Ronald Lightbrown, Mantegna (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 178–179.
17. Ernst Hans Gombrich, “Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8 (1945): 7–60. However, see Claudia Wedepohl, “Why Botticelli? Aby Warburg’s Search for a New Approach to Quattrocento Italian Art,” in Botticelli Past and Present, ed. Ana Debenedetti and Caroline Elam (London, UK: UCL Press, 2019), 183–202.
18. Marsha Libina, “Sebastiano del Piombo and His Collaboration with Michelangelo: Distance and Proximity to the Divine in Catholic Reformation Rome” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2015), 155–170; 171–183. The concept of silence and time may also be found in the work of Paolo Veronese: see Francesco Trentini, “Paolo Veronese: dall’immagine al silenzio” (PhD diss., Università Ca’Foscari Venezia, 2010).
19. The main source for this contention is Heinrich Pfeiffer, The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision (New York: Abbeville Press, 2007); see also Jane Schuyler, “The Left Side of God: A Reflection of Cabala in Michelangelo’s Genesis Scenes,” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 1 (Fall 1986): 12–19. Stefania Pasti strongly contests the idea that Egidio da Viterbo and his interest in Kabbalah had anything to do with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. In personal correspondence with the author, Pasti wrote on June 30, 2022: “I doubt that he had something to do with the Sistina vault. And, having read a lot of what he [Egidio] has written. . . . I can say that nowhere he speaks about the said ‘heroic masculinization of females’. I am rather amused by the whole thing!”
20. Costanza Barbieri, Michelangelo e la Sistina, L’arte e l’esegesi biblica: Summary of History of Art Course (Rome: Università Europa di Roma, 2020–2021); Costanza Barbieri, “Neoplatonism, Augustinanism and Michelangelo’s Masculine Women,” ed. Liana de Girolami and John Hendrix (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), 109–122; and see also Costanza Barbieri and Lucina Vattuone, Michelangelo e la Sistina, l’arte e l’esegesi biblica [Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Biblical Art and Exegesis] (Rome, Italy: Gangemi, 2017).
21. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2018), 114–115.
22. Evelyn M. Cohen, “The Art of the 1349 Guide for the Perplexed: The Scribe, the Artist, the Censors, the Owners,” in The Austrian Guide for the Perplexed 1349: An Illuminated Maimonides Manuscript in Hebrew, by the Scribe Jacob ben Samuel Nachlieb [Krems, Austria], ed. Evelyn M. Cohen (Alon Shvut, Israel: 2008), 42–47; folio 142v. This manuscript is currently owned by the Italian State.
23. Dalia-Ruth Haperin, “The Sarajevo Haggadah Creation Cycle and the Nahmanides Schol of Theosophical Kabbalah,” Studies in Iconography 35 (2014): 168–169, 174, 176–177.
24. Joseph H. Chajes, “Spheres, Sefirot, and the Imaginal Astronomical Discourse of Classical Kabbalah,” Harvard Theological Review 113, no. 2 (2020): 255, n. 80; 256, n. 90.
25. Joseph H. Chajes, “Spheres, Sefirot, and the Imaginal Astronomical Discourse of Classical Kabbalah,” Harvard Theological Review 113, no. 2 (April 2020): 230–262.
26. For example, Adolphe Franck, La Kabbale ou la philosophie religieuse des Hébreux (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1843); Lazare Lenain, La Science cabalistique ou l’Art de connaître les bons Génies (Amiens: Lazare Lenain, 1823); and Aleister Crowley, 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977).
27. Jan Potocki, The Ninth Day, The Cabbalist’s Story, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, 1805–1815, trans. Ian Maclean (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 102.
28. J. H. Chajes, “Kabbalistic Trees (Ilanot) in Italy: Visualizing the Hierarchy of the Heavens,” in The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew, ed. Giulio Busi and Silvana Greco (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2019), 170–183.
29. Exploring the Ripley Scroll (British Library, UK): and see Anke Timmermann, “The Ripley Scrolls: Alchemical Poetry, Images and Authority,” in Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry, ed. Anke Timmermann (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013), 113–142.
30. Ioannis Baptistae Villapandi (Juan Bautista Villalpando) and Hieronoymi Pradi (Herónimo del Prado), In Ezechielem explanationes et apparatus urbis ac templi Hierosolymitani, Commentariis et imaginibus illustratus opus tribus tomis distinctum . . . , 3 vols. (Rome: ex. typ. A. Zannetti [et. J. Cianconii], 1596–1604).
31. Sergey Kravtsov, “Juan Bautista Villapando and Sacred Architecture in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 64 (September 2005): 312–339; and Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central and Eastern Europe in the Early Modern Period,” in Jewish Religious Architecture, from Biblical Israel to Modern Judaism, ed. Steven Fine (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2020), 187–189, n. 14, figs. 10.3, 10.4.
33. Mark Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 251–256.
34. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 183, n. 81.
35. Elke Morlok, “The Kabbalistic ‘Teaching Panel’ of Princess Antonia: Divine Knowledge for Both Experts and Laity,” Church History and Religious Culture 98, no. 1 (2018): 56–90.
37. See Theodore Schrire, Hebrew Amulets, Their Decipherment and Interpretation (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1966). See Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Mystic and Esoteric References in Evronot Books,” Festschrift for Prof. Shalom Sabar, Welcoming Visuality: New Studies in Jewish Art and Material Culture, ed. Vladimir Levin, Sharon Liberman Mintz, and Rina Talgam (Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2025).
38. George Herbert Box and Joseph Immanuel Landsman, The Apocalypse of Abraham (London and New York: Macmillan, 1919); Elisheva Carlebach, “Palaces of Time: Illustration of Sifre Evronot,” Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture 2 (2009): 21–44; and Elisheva Carlebach, Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).
39. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 44, figs. 11a–b.
40. Selma Stern, The Court Jew: A Contribution to the History of the Period of Absolutism in Central Europe, trans. Ralph Weiman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950), 244–246.
41. J. H. Chajes, ILANOT–Maps of God (Haifa, Israel: University of Haifa, Digitalized Humanities Project, 2024); see Eliezer Baumgarten, “Faces of God: The Ilan of Rabbi Sasson ben Mordechai Shandukh,” Images 13, no. 1 (December 2020): 91–107; and Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 45–46, figs. 12a-c.
42. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 6.
43. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 63, fig. 18.
44. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 67, fig. 20.
45. Emannuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader (Hanover, NH, and London: Brandeis University Press, 2012).
46. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 212–219.
47. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 345–375; Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “The Birthing Chair, the Chair of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: A Phenomenological Analysis,” Ars Judaica 6 (May 2010): 115–132; and Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “The Chair of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav,” in Seated in Seclusion, Bratslav Hasidim and Contemporary Design, exh. cat., ed. Sharon Weiser-Ferguson and Eran Lederman (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, March 2020–December 2021), 145–144.
48. Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Krupski I S-ka, 2004), 290–294; and see also Sergey R. Kravtsov, “Jewish Identities in Synagogue Architecture of Galicia and Bukovina,” Ars Judaica 6 (2010): 85–86.
49. Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central,” 206–207; 206, n. 58.
50. Shalom Rokeach of Belz, Dover Shalom (Prexymyl, Ukraine: Amkroit and Freinda, 1910), 8–9 (fol. 4b–5a), Section 10; 9 (folio 5a), Section 11. Translated in Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central,” 206–207.
51. Maya Balakirsky Katz, “The Sacred Architecture of Contemporary Hasidism,” in Fine, Jewish Religious Architecture, 334–351.
52. Gershon David Hundert, “Popularization of the Kabbalah,” in Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity, ed. Gershon David Hundert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 162–176.
53. Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 122–123.
54. Yehuda Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, trans. Batya Stein (New York: SUNY Press, 1993), 96.
55. Steven Fine, “The Zodiac, Synagogue Mosaics and Jewish Liturgy,” in Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, ed. Steven Fine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 196–208.
56. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 99a. See Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central,” 194–195, 194, fig. 10.6.
57. Erickson Jes, “Color and Light: Michelangelo’s,” in Voices from the University: The Legacy of the Hebrew Bible, ed. Heidi Szpek (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse Press, 2002), 49.
58. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art, 111–112, n. 43.
59. Boris Khaimovich, “The Jewish Tombstones of the 16th-18th Centuries from the Eastern Province of the Polish Kingdom—A Study of the Iconography and Style Genesis” (PhD diss., Hebrew University, 2005), 121, 130.
60. Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central,” 197, n. 33.
61. Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central,” 199. On sacrificial animals, see Numbers, Chapters 28–29.
62. Peter Bloch, “Siebenarmige Leuchter in Christlichen Kirchen,” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 23 (1961): 55–190; and François Secret, Guillaume Postel (1510–1581) et son Interpretation du candélabre de Moyse en Hébreu, Latin, Italien et Français (Nieuwkoop, The Netherlands: B. De Graff, 1966).
63. Yvonne Petry, “Postel and Renaissance Kabbalah,” in Gender, Kabbalah and the Reformation: The Mystical Theology of Guillaume Postel (1510–1581), Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 98, ed. Yvonne Petry (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2004), 71–93; and Ronit Meroz and Judith Weiss, “The Source of Guillaume Postel’s 1553 Zohar Latin Translation,” Renaissance Studies 29, no. 2 (2014): 247–260.
65. Thomas A. Williams, Mallarmé and the Language of Mysticism (Athens : University of Georgia Press, 1970), 42, 55–56. See Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016).
66. Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery, Imagining Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 94.
67. Letter of Kazimir Malevich to Mikhail Gershenson dd. December 19, 1919, in Kazmir Malevich, Sobranie sochinenii v pyoti tamakh, ed. Aleksandra Shatskikh, vol. 3 (Moscow: Gilea, 1995–2000), 334–337; see Igor Dukhan, “El Lissitzky—Jewish as Universal: From Jewish Style to Pangeometry,” Ars Judaica (2007): 1–20; and see also Batsheva Goldman-Ida, The Path of Abstraction: Alois Breyer, El Lissitzky, Frank Stella: Wooden Synagogues, exh. cat., Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 10.7–10.18.10.2014 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2014), 135–131.
68. Artur Kamczycki, “El Lissitzky, His Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge and Their Jewish Inspirations,” in Russian Émigré Culture: Conservatism or Evolution? ed. Christoph Flam, Henry Keazor, and Roland Marti (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 89–10; and El Lissitzky, “Vegn der Mohliver shul: zikhroynes” [The Synagogue of Mohilev], Milgroim 3 (1923): 9–13 (Yiddish); English by Seth L. Wolitz in El Lissitzky, “Memoirs Concerning the Mohilev Synagogue,” in Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art (1912–1928), ed. Ruth Apter Gabriel (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1988), 233–234.
69. Daniel C. Matt, trans. and commentary, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) I, 107–108, n. 4.
70. Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of James Joyce, from the book Three Fragments from Work in Progress by James Joyce (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1929).
72. The use of letters as a graphic device is found in Kabbalistic writings. See also Ruth Apter-Gabriel, “El Lissitzky’s ‘Self Portrait (Constructor),’ 1924,” Ars Judaica, the Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art 6 (2010): 101–114.
73. Matthew Biro, The Dada Cyborg, Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2009) in Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words, 208, nn. 30–32; 23, figs. 9–10.
74. Matt Stromberg, Leonora Carrington’s Little-Known Explorations of Jewish Mysticism [Matt Stromberg, Leonora Carrington’s Little-Known Explorations of Jewish Mysticism], Hyperallegic (July 28, 2022).
75. Issachar Ryback and Boris Aronson, “Di Vegn Fun der Yidisher Moleray” [Pathways of Jewish Art], in Oyfgang 1 (Kiev, Ukraine: Kultur Lige, 1919), 113. For English translation, see Goldman-Ida, Path of Abstraction, 133.
76. Rabbi Moshe Ephraim of Sudlikow. (1748-1800), Degel Mahane Ephraim, Parashat Yayehi, Naftali (Jerusalem: Mir, 1994), 71.
77. Ephraim of Sudlikow, Degel Mahane Ephraim, 71.
78. Rabbi Moshe Ephraim of Sudlikow (1748-1800), Degel Mahane Ephraim, Parashat Yayehi, Naftali (Jerusalem, Israel: Mir, 1994), 71.
79. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Scholem’s Views on Art and His Approach to Art History,” in Scholar and Kabbalist: The Life and Work of Gershom Scholem, ed. Mirjam Zadoff and Noam Zadoff (Conference Proceedings of the Institute of Jewish Studies, University College, London), 19 (Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2019), 171–205.
80. Goldman-Ida, “Scholem’s Views,” 173, n. 6.
81. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem: Schocken Publishing House, 1941); see also Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1969); and Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, trans. Jonathan Chipman (New York: SUNY Press, 2012).
82. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Serendipity,” Museum Musings, Images 10 (2017): 109–120; and see also Yvan Goll, “Raziel,” in Fruit from Saturn, ed. Yvan Goll (Brooklyn, NY: Hemispheres Editions, 1946), 33–38.
83. Yvan Goll, Les cercles magiques (Paris, Edition Falaize, 1951); Dialogue sur le verbe (manuscript), quoted by Sami Sojberg, “Remaking the Present through Language: Messianic time in the works of Yvan Goll and Isidore Isou contra Benjamin and Agamben,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 14, no. 2 (2015): 199–214.
84. Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words, 215–192.
85. Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words, 211–212.
87. Saul Raskin, Kabbalah in Word and Image; With the Book of Creation and from the Zohar (New York: Academy Offset Print, 1952). Thanks to Catriel Sugarman for introducing me to this aspect of Raskin’s oeuvre.
88. Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, trans. William Weaver (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1989).
89. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Introductory Remarks on Georg Langer’s ‘On the Function of the Jewish Doorpost Scroll’ from 1928,” Images 13, no. 1 (2020): 80, nn. 20–22.
91. See Moshe Idel, “The Golem in Jewish Magic and Mysticism,” in Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art, ed. Emily D. Bilski, exh. cat. (New York: Jewish Museum, 1988), 22–30; Moshe Idel, “Golem in Ecstatic Kabbalah,” in Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, ed. Moshe Idel (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 99–106; and Moshe Idel, Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), V.
93. Elliot R. Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); and see also Elliot R. Wolfson, “Metaphor, Dream, and the Parabolic Bridging of Difference: A Kabbalistic Aesthetic,” Images 14, no. 1 (January 2021): 82–95.
94. Abraham Pincas and Sandra Valabregue, La Source et la Nuage (Paris: E.R.E.C., 2003); and Sandra Valabregue, Concealed and Revealed: ‘Eyn Sof (Infinity) in Theosophic Kabbalah (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2010) (Hebrew).
95. Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words, 147–153.
98. Leonard Nimoy, Shekhina: Photography, Introduction by Donald Kuspit (New York: Umbrage Editions, 2002), 96.
99. Idel, Absorbing Perfections, 197–198, 304–305.
100. Mirjam Knotter, “From Angel to the Shekhina: The Influence of Kabbalah on the Late Work of R. B. Kitaj,” Images 13, no. 1 (2020): 21–46; cf. R. B. Kitaj, unpublished notes, entry dated December 1, 2003. © R. B. Kitaj Estate.
101. Elliot R. Wolfson, “New Jerusalem, Glowing Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key,” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 15 (2006): 105.
102. LE SITE OFFICIEL D’ABRAHAM PINCAS Artiste-peintre, écrivain-voyageurProfesseur à l’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris (1985–2011); see Goldman-Ida, “Serendipity,” 111, fig. 2; and Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words, 168.
103. “Speech by Nir Barkat: Anselm Kiefer on Jerusalem and the Kabbalah,” The Art Newspaper, December 1, 2011.
105. David Louis, A Portrait of the Alef (Jerusalem: Louis-Chen, 2022).
107. Idel, Absorbing Perfections, 45–79.
109. Goldman-Ida, “Jonathan Leaman: In Conversation,” Images 13, no. 1 (2020): 58.
110. Samuel Ackerman, Habits de la Terre (Paris and Tel Aviv: Galerie le Minotaure, 2007).
112. “Interview: Anish Kapoor is the Biggest Name in Art, The Jewish Chronicle, September 24, 2009. Matthew Baigell, “Barnett Newman’s Stripe Paintings and Kabbalah: A Jewish Take,” American Art 8, no. 2 (1994): 33–43; and Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust, 251–256.
117. Boaz Huss, “All You Need Is LAV: Madonna and Postmodern Kabbalah,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 611–614.
119. Busi, Mantua and the Kabbalah, 73.
123. Gorlin, Kabbalah in Art, 58.
124. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1946).
126. Joseph Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism, ed. David Goldstein (Oxford: Littman Library by Oxford University Press, 1985).
127. Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts/Systematically Arranged and Rendered into Hebrew by Fischel Lachower and Isaiah Tishby with Extensive Introductions and Explanations by Isaiah Tishby, English translation by David Goldstein (Oxford: Littman Library by Oxford University Press, 1989).
128. Yehuda Liebes, “Chapters in the Lexicon of the Zohar” (PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1976) [Hebrew].
130. Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
131. Moshe Idel, “Kabbalah: A Short Introduction with an Emphasis on Its Magical Aspects,” in Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish Life, exhibition catalog (New York: Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, November 4, 2003–January 30, 2004), 12–30; Moshe Idel, “The Menorah in Kabbalah,” in Kabbalah, En utställnig om judisk mysticism, exhibition catalog, ed. Erika Aronowitsch, Yvonne Jacobsson, and Lisa Marie Mannfolk (Stockholm: Judiska Museet, April 7–December 31, 2002), 51–64; Moshe Idel, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (New York: SUNY Press, 1990); Moshe Idel, “Faces and Re-Presentations in Jewish Thought,” in Representing God, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes(Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2014), 71–101; an augmented edition (Brooklyn and New York City, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 2019); Moshe Idel, “Visualization of Colors 1: David ben Yehudah he-Hasid’s Kabbalistic Diagram,” Ars Judaica 11 (2015): 31–54; Moshe Idel, “Visualization of Colors, 2: David ben Yehudah he-Hasid’s Kabbalistic Diagram,” Ars Judaica 12 (2016): 39–51; and Gershom Scholem, “Colours and Their Symbolism in Jewish Tradition and Mysticism,” Diogenes 28, no. 109 (1980): 64–77
132. Kravtsov, “Juan Bautista Villapando,” 312–339.
133. Thomas C. Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2003), 108.
134. Adam J. Teller, Review of “Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community, by T. C. Hubka,” AJS Review 31, no. 2 (2007): 409–412.
135. Goldman-Ida, Hasidic Art; and Batsheva Goldman-Ida, “Synagogues in Central and Eastern Europe in the Early Modern Period,” in Jewish Religious Architecture, ed. Steven Fine (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2020), 205–207.
136. Alexander Gorlin, “Architecture and the Kabbalah,” in Kabbalah, ed. Domagoj Akrap, Klaus Davidowicz, and Mirjam Knotter, exhibition catalog (Vienna: Jüdisches Museum Wien, 2019), 231–237.
137. Goldman-Ida, Alchemy of Words.
138. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, curator, To and Fro: Contemporary French Artists and Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, The Jerusalem Biennale exhibition (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute, October 2–8, 2017).
139. Eran Lederman and Sharon Weiser-Ferguson, Seated in Seclusion: Bratslav Hasidim and Contemporary Design, exhibition catalog (Jerusalem, Israel: Israel Museum, March–October 2020).
141. Huss, “All You Need Is LAV,” 611–614.
142. Julia Chajes and Boaz Huss, eds., Theosophical Appropriations: Esotericism, Kabbalah, and the Transformation of Traditions (Beer Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2016).