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Moriah’s Illuminated Torah

Avner Moriah, the well-known Israeli artist, has illuminated the Book of Genesis.  No small feat, he has conjured images for all the major narratives as well as alluding to other analogous stories throughout the Torah.  He sees the first book of Torah as nothing less than “a poem,” a minimalist text that yields an unending series of explorations of the mysteries and conundrums of the human condition.  While this is hardly the first nor largest of his explorations of biblical and Jewish narrative, it is easily the most ambitious.

Moriah is now an old hand at Jewish narrative.  Between 2004 and 2007 he completed the amazing task of illuminating four of the five megillot.  His 2004 Haggadah is highly praised and sought after as a modern masterpiece of Jewish illumination.  “Resplendent colors from Egyptian and Assyrian wall paintings… small human and animal figurines of the early Bronze age” grace this contemporary addition to haggadot artwork.

Gathering at Mount Sinai (2001), oil on canvas, 12’ X 12’ by Avner Moriah Courtesy Jewish Theological Seminary, New York
Gathering at Mount Sinai, 2001, oil on canvas, 12’ X 12’ by Avner Moriah, courtesy Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

He inaugurated his visual Torah studies in 2001 with an enormous multi-paneled oil on canvas measuring overall 12 feet by 12 feet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Gathering at Mount Sinai (2001) is emblematic of almost all of Moriah’s subsequent biblical art.  At first he depicts the specific events of the text, often including much of the text itself, in a somewhat literal and historic manner, symbolically approximating ancient Hebrew and Egyptian costume and setting.  The composition centers on a 6’ X 6’ square depicting 36 episodes that he has distilled from the Sinai narrative, combining to create an image of the mountain itself.  This central panel is surrounded by 12 square paintings, each simultaneously depicting one of the Ten Commandments, one of the plagues, one relevant midrashic tale, and a section devoted to each of the 10 martyrs murdered in the Hadrianic persecutions.  Two other panels are devoted to the Burning Bush and events in Moses’ earlier life.  The resulting artwork presents no less than a visual Torah, echoing the holy text in its complexity and contextualizing it Jewish history and thought.

Another large commission connected with JTS around the same time was the Women’s Zodiac.  This series of 14 paintings has similar complexity, here combining diverse scriptural and midrashic narratives concerning Biblical women with symbolic representations of the Hebrew months.

Moriah was born in Jerusalem and continues to live and work there.  Anticipating his diverse approach to art making, he got his BFA at Bezalel Academy of Art and then came to America and earned a MFA at the world-renowned Yale University Graduate School of Art.  His current art exhibits a unique blend of Middle Eastern sensibility of color and strangely primitive figuration combined with post-Modern use of text and composition.

His earlier works include a series of paintings on Israeli Soldiers (1981-1987); a Shoah Series (1998); Expulsion (from Spain) Series (1990); War of Independence Series (1997) and the Landscapes of Israel paintings (1980 to present).  This last ongoing series is very dear to Moriah who sees painting the Holy Land of Israel a kind of sacred obsession.  Traveling the length and breath of Israel in his specially outfitted van that was a portable studio, he encountered what he saw as the “source of humankind” in the unique light and topology of Israel’s African rift landscapes.  Much to our loss, he has been forced to abandon this intimate encounter with the Land since the 2001 intifada made such a project a danger to his personal safely.

Avner Moriah’s Illuminated Genesis contains images on almost every page of the Torah’s epical first book. The originals are done in watercolor and gouache on paper.  While that one-of-a-kind handmade chumash is not for sale, a limited edition of 100 copies is available from

The Flood (2010), Illumination by Avner Moriah Courtesy Avner Moriah
The Flood, 2010, illumination by Avner Moriah, courtesy Avner Moriah
The Covenant (2010), Illumination by Avner Moriah Courtesy Avner Moriah
The Covenant, 2010, illumination by Avner Moriah, courtesy Avner Moriah

The artist was initially attracted to these narratives because of what he feels are their universal appeal.  As he has delved into the complex narratives and their commentaries, Moriah has developed his own midrashic process.  In the unique pairing of comparative narratives he effectively provides a textual guide that links and intertwines many of Genesis’ stories.

In his visual anecdotes multiple comparisons can be investigated.  The Akeidah is paired with both the expulsion of Ishmael and the episode of Lot and his daughters to explore the tumultuous relationship between a father and child.  The theme of a woman determined to become a pivotal part of the Jewish people is revealed in both the narratives of Judah and Tamar and Ruth and Naomi.  In a similar way Moriah explores the themes of anger, happiness, fear, love, sorrow and jealousy, among many others, by juxtaposing snippets of different narratives.  This complex method creates a visual and conceptual tapestry as one follows along the Torah text parsha by parsha.

This methodology is not mechanically imposed on the Torah, rather it is utilized only when the artist feels it will enlarge and elucidate the narrative.  As one can see in many other pages from Genesis such as The Covenant and The Flood, the main story is allowed to prevail in all its imaginative glory.  And not surprisingly the creation of an illuminated Torah produces many stand-alone works of art.  

Jacob’s Dream (2010), watercolor & gouache by Avner Moriah Courtesy Avner Moriah
Jacob’s Dream, 2010, watercolor & gouache by Avner Moriah, courtesy Avner Moriah
Hanoch Walking with God (2010), watercolor & gouache by Avner Moriah Courtesty Avner Moriah
Hanoch Walking with God, 2010, watercolor & gouache by Avner Moriah, courtesy Avner Moriah

Jacob’s Dream imagines the fabled ladder being composed of the angels themselves while the image of Hanoch (Enoch) Walking with God depicts a heavenly hand scooping up the saintly Hanoch.

Avner Moriah has carved out an odd corner in the cultural life of contemporary Jewish art.  His passion for the, at times harsh, realities of 20th century Jewish history along with the glories of Israeli landscape has mysteriously morphed into a equally fervent obsession with sacred Jewish texts, commentary and narrative.  In recent years he has spent most of his creative time immersed in ancient tales peopled with pious and paradoxically primitive Jews, a fabric of life that unmistakably also summons many aspects of 21st century life.  His aesthetic and intellectual approach is totally unique, combining ancient and modern without missing a heartbeat.  I can’t wait for the next four books of the Torah to issue forth from his brush.

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