Bezalel’s Vision: As Above, So Below?

Opening this weekend at the Father Ryan Art Center (http://fatherryanartscenter.org/) in McKees Rocks, PA, Bezalel’s Vision, one of my favorite original artworks, will be shown as part of The Best of PSI Exhibit (Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators). It was first created in 1989 when I taught illustration at Carnegie-Mellon University and is one of two large scale sumi ink and watercolor drawings. The other, shown below, is a visual meditation on Judah Ha-Levi, the 11th century Jewish-Spanish poet, physician, musician and philosopher. Here is the narrative for Bezalel that I wrote when it was first shown at the Carnegie-Mellon Art Gallery, then located on Craig Street in Oakland, for an annual faculty exhibit:

Bezalel’s Vision was created as an answer to one of the many questions I had concerning the second commandment. ‘Who was the first Jewish artist?’ Inspiration for this portrait of the legendary artist & mastercraftsman was found in Chapter 31, verses 1-5 of the Book of Exodus. When Moses was instructed to build a tabernacle in the desert for the Jewish people who had left Egyptian bondage so they might properly worship God, he expressed his fear that he was incapable of such a task. God reassured Moses and instructed him to approach Bezalel, the son of Uri who had been endowed with the imagination and skills needed to organize and engineer this project. (the title of today’s post, ‘As Above, So Below’, reflects my later understanding that the tabernacle’s design was designed to mirror it’s twin in the spiritual realm.)

I have imagined Bezalel as a physically powerful man at 40 years of age;  an individual who could inspire the loyalty of the many craftsmen and women needed to complete this sacred project despite the difficult living conditions of the desert exile. Bezalel is shown against a narrative background of the text, which will become his life’s work. In his hand is an Egyptian reed stylus and ink palette with which he is drawing the design for a helmet. This will be worn by Aaron, the High Priest. It seems logical to ascribe Egyptian-style tools to this story, since the use of these tools was not unknown by Jewish artisans who had lived in Egypt for many generations. A group of architect’s and craftsman’s tools are also shown in the lower left hand corner next to a carved band which will become part of the Aaron’s helmet. This band is inscribed with the words “Holy To The Lord” in pre-Canaanite Hebrew letters. In the lower right hand corner is a lion, representing the Tribe of Judah from which Bezalel originated and a group of pomegranates. Pomegranates frequently appear in my work both for their esthetic design appeal as well as their symbolic importance. It is said that the number of its seeds (613) corresponds to the number of categories of mitzvot(commandments) which Jews are obligated to fulfill. For me, the story of Bezalel is not only a powerful example of the concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah’ or the practice of creating beautiful objects to enhance worship, it also illustrates the delicate balance between art and religion which inspire my own continuing explorations.


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