Photo Credit:
Schocken Bible: ms. 14840, fol. 1v: Detail of frontispiece to Genesis. Early 14th century. Southern Germany, Jerusalem: Schocken Library.

Beyond the demons and the Dura hell, perhaps the most definitive representation of gehinnom in Jewish art comes from Numbers and the description of the earth swallowing up Korach. In the opening folio of the book of Genesis in the Schocken Bible (Southern Germany, 14th century), the illuminator represented 46 biblical episodes, starting with the temptation in Eden in the top right corner and ending with Balaam’s donkey in the bottom left corner. The second to last image shows Korach and his followers being swallowed by the earth, which is personified as a dog-like animal. Three men (Korach, Dathan, and Abiram?) are suspended upside-down inside the beast’s open mouth, in a scene that evokes Christian representations of hell.

There are certainly a few aspects of the images discussed above that require further examination and elucidation, but what should be clear is that even a cursory look at some of these examples of Jewish art show literal and figurative depictions of demons, Satan, and gehinnom. This won’t surprise many readers of this column, but perhaps it’s useful ammunition for the next time someone says Jews don’t believe in hell.

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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.