ANCIENT JEWISH COINS AND THE REVIVAL OF JEWISH ART:
THE BEZALEL SCHOOL



The "Hebrew Eretz Israel Style" of the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts

The creation of a genuine "Hebrew Eretz Israel Style" was one of Boris Schatz' major goals in establishing the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts in 1906. Many of the works produced in this school reflect the hopes and visions of the Zionist movement. As such, they became propaganda tools used to strengthen the Jewish people's awareness of their existence as a unique community. The Hebrew style that Schatz was so eager to create was based on, among other things, Jewish sources and symbols. He thus actively collected Jewish ritual objects and local archaeological finds, which would serve as sources of inspiration for his own works and those of his students. Among the many Jewish motifs that linked the Bezalel students to their remote past were ancient Jewish coins.

Bezalel School of Art and Crafts


Works Inspired by Ancient Jewish Coins by Students at the
Bezalel School of Art and Crafts Jerusalem, 1906-1929:


Unknown artist
Hanukkah lamp
Brass sheet, silver plated and stamped

The lamp depicts the columns of the Temple, the seven-branched candelabrum, and two coins of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. It also bears motifs based upon other Jewish coins.

Flagon
Coin of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
134-135 CE
The Temple façade
Coin of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
133 CE

Passover plate
Brass sheet, silver plated and stamped
Gift of Dan Abraham, New York

The plate is decorated with illustrations to the story of the Exodus from Egypt according to Zeev Raban's drawings. The manna pot appearing on two of the medallions is copied from that depicted on the fantasy shekels, and the double cornucopiae ("horns of plenty") with a pomegranate set between the horns is copied from Hasmonean coins.



Manna pot
Fantasy shekel
16th-19th century




Ancient Jewish Coins in a Work by Bezalel Student Suma Utkes


Probably inspired by the collection of ancient Jewish coins assembled by Boris Schatz, Suma Utkes (1892- 1944), a student at the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts, produced an album in 1911 with illustrations of Jewish coins on thin tracing paper, accompanied by an explanatory text in Russian. The source for Utkes' drawings and commentary was probably either F. de Saulcy's French work on Jewish coins, published in 1854, or Frederic W. Madden's English work from 1864. Both books contain the same illustrations, and it indeed seems likely that a Russian artist would have preferred the French text by de Saulcy over Madden's English text. Nonetheless, we believe that Utkes based himself on Madden's book, since the numbering of the coins in Utkes' album is identical to that fixed by Madden.

Interspersed between the pages of text are twenty-four drawings, Utkes' personal interpretation of the motifs appearing on the coins. Some of the drawings are lightly brushed in delicate watercolors. The majority, however, are typical "Bezalel"-style designs, namely, highly decorative images consisting of strong colors and flat forms delineated by prominent contour lines.

The identity of the artist is somewhat of a riddle. The album is signed "Suma Utkes (Ben-Israel)." However, apart from an entry dated April 1, 1911 in a Bezalel notebook, showing that a student named S. Utkes paid a partial tuition fee, attempts to find further information about S. Utkes have not been fruitful. An artist by the name of Zelman Utkes, born in Bialystok, is known to have studied painting in Vilna in 1907-8 and, after a sojourn in Berlin, to have arrived in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Bezalel School, probably around 1911. As no other Utkes is mentioned in the Bezalel records, and it is a most unusual name, it is likely that Suma Utkes and Zelman Utkes were one and the same person. Sadly, it seems that the artist met a tragic fate. He apparently never finished his studies, and with the outbreak of World War I, enlisted in the British Army. In 1923 he moved to Paris to try his luck, and in 1944, perished in the Holocaust.



Highlights of Utkes' album, 1911
Ink, gouache, and watercolor