Although architecture has long been thought of as enjoying minimal importance in the Jewish tradition, present-day scholarship continues to show otherwise. Two new books clearly demonstrate how Jewish ideas, themes and experiences have directly impacted the built environment.
In his provocative and beautifully illustrated study, “Kabbalah in Art and Architecture,” Alexander Gorlin argues that kabbalistic concepts have deeply influenced the creative work of both Jewish and non-Jewish artists and architects. A prominent New York City-based architect who has designed both synagogues and private residences for clients including Daniel Libeskind, Gorlin embraces an eclectic interpretive method that “ascribe[s] Kabbalistic meanings to art… [and] architecture” in a variety of ways, “in illustration, allusion, metaphor, symbol, or parallel, even when clearly not intended [by the architect or artist in question].” This approach gives Gorlin the flexibility to identify surprising parallels and sources of influence among a diverse array of artworks and buildings.
Gorlin begins his book by describing key kabbalistic concepts and then goes on to show their impact on art and architecture in ten copiously illustrated chapters. Chapters 1 and 2, for example, employ references from the Zohar and other Jewish texts to show how iconic biblical structures were represented in early modern European art. These include engravings and paintings of Noah’s Ark, the Israelites’ Tent of Meeting (or Mishkan), and Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples, as well as such famous visual motifs as Jacob’s Ladder and the prophet Ezekiel’s sublime throne chariot, or merkava.