Ketubahs Around the Globe

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In terms of Jewish art, the ketubah is one of the first glimpses we see. The purpose of a ketubah is to bind two people in marriage. Simply put, it is a marriage contract. But over the centuries, the ketubah has developed as a true piece of artwork. It is not just words on a page. It is intricately designed, containing beautiful imagery and calligraphy. But ketubahs were never limited to Israel. As the Jewish people migrated throughout the rest of the world, so did their traditions and of course, their art.

The Jewish Museum in New York City has a wonderful new exhibit on ketubahs. They come from all parts of the globe throughout the past few centuries. A close look at this exhibit shows us how different each region was in their designs. In the 17th and 18th century, Italy was at the forefront for European ketubahs. This was the age of Baroque and Rococo (late Baroque) art. Baroque was all about the ornate and you can certainly see these ornate and lavish designs embedded in the marriage contract. Italian Jews developed unique styles and symbols with multiple layers of decorations.

Around the same time period, the Greeks were doing something completely different. They preferred figurative details, such as angels, cherubs, satyrs and biblical figures. However, as the world moved out of the Baroque period, we see that same shift in ketubah artwork. A ketubah from Rome in 1836 shows the neo-classical design that began to sweep Europe. The designs are extremely clean and simple, with barely any figures depicted.

Not only do we see an influence of the art world, there is a definite influence of the country's own culture. Secular symbols and imagery are often incorporated into the design. If you look at the ketubah from Rome in 1836 and compare it to one from Iran around the same time period, there are no overlapping design similarities. The ketubah from Iran is typical of Islamic culture in that it contains no figurative elements at all. Instead, there are bright colors and simple forms. The actual text is subordinate to the overall designs and patterns.

Artists are influenced by many forces -their upbringing, their culture, their religion, and the current world around them. Therefore, it is no surprise that each ketubah created can be so vastly different from another. Some artists choose to look to the past for inspiration, while others look to the future. But culture will always play a vital role and it is truly fascinating too see its profound effects on the ketubah.

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