Art and Judaism
The Jewish painter, illustrator and writer Ludwig Meidner (1884–1966) enjoyed international fame as an expressionist, but he was less known for his work on Jewish themes.
The following presentation features a selection of images from Ludwig Meidner’s artistic estate, which is managed by the Jewish Museum Frankfurt. It focuses not only on works that address Jewish religiosity but also on those that examine Nazi persecution.
In 1912, Meidner made his artistic breakthrough with a show at the Sturm Gallery in Berlin. The main themes of his expressionist art were captured in dynamic scenes of big city life that reflected the hustle and bustle of the modern metropolis.
However, Meidner was also famous for his poignant depictions of death and destruction, his so-called apocalyptic landscapes. His contemporaries interpreted these works as foreshadowing the First World War.
In fact, Meidner was particularly attuned to the upheavals and convulsions of his time. With his "Krieg" (War) series, created 1914, he became one of the first German painters to criticize the war in artistic terms.
As the signature in the lower left corner reveals, this print from Meidner’s "Krieg" series, titled "The Bomb", was created in October 1914. At the time, the overwhelming majority of Germans – including most intellectuals and artists – were infected by a euphoric enthusiasm for the war. In this cycle, Meidner showed its horrors.
In 1916, Meidner began working as an interpreter in a POW camp as part of his military service. During this time, his literary work played an increasingly important role in his artistic activities. He wrote the hymn-like prose poems that were later published in the collections “Im Nacken das Sternemeer” (The Sea of Stars at My Back) and “Septemberschrei” (September Cry).
In his engagement with religion, Meidner vacillated between moments of great ecstasy and others in which he raged and railed against God for the horrors of war.
As Meidner drew closer to religion, days marked by a joyful confidence were followed by days of despondency and doubt. What he was looking for was not intellectual understanding of theological positions but intense experience of faith. This search is reflected in the dynamic figures in his religious images.
"For a long time, I, too, was desolate, shattered, godless, abandoned to all the errors and moods of the moment, as lonely and terrified as a heap of refuse... until one night an inner voice gave me wonderful comfort." (Ludwig Meidner, "Septemberschrei", 1920)
"Drawing and painting used to be the sole purpose of my days. Now that I pray, I recognize with clarity and certainty that it is only this prayer that has meaning and that everything else I do – even drawing and painting – is a questionable pastime. You godless ones may ridicule people at prayer and their facial expressions, but you do not know what is taking place in their hearts. And you overestimate the artist’s work, for you do not see that the person praying is a much greater artist." (Ludwig Meidner, "Von wahrer Kunst" [On True Art], 1925)
Meidner’s study of religion also found expression in a large number of portraits. These religious images are often self-portraits, even if only individual parts of the face – here, the eyes – bear a resemblance to Meidner’s physiognomy. The artist created other features, including the figures’ beards, from his imagination.
What all these portraits have in common is a basic rhetorical stance that is communicated to viewers from within the composition. Viewers are directly addressed by a look or a gesture.
Initially these portraits were records of inner conflicts, but they became much more tranquil in the course of the 1920s. Later, Meidner painted ideal-typical likenesses of devout Jews at prayer and at worship services
In marked contrast to his earlier portraits, many of which have a theatrical effect, Meidner now began portraying his subjects in a more realistic fashion. These portraits were also idealized, of course, and many incorporated his own features. Devout Jews came to replace the costumed, dramatically portrayed prophets, zealots and skeptics of his earlier works.
For example, the cloak that Meidner had previously used as a historicizing element was now replaced by the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. In this drawing, we can see that the garment is indeed a tallit by the ornamented trim (atarah) on the neckband.
Ludwig Meidner also began presenting groups of devout Jews praying together and at worship services, as shown by this double portrait.
Meidner regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath and holidays, but individual encounters with God and inner devotion remained the reference point of his religious practice.
Prayer was central to Meidner’s religious identity, and he explored it in several texts, including his 1937 essay "Vom richtigen Beten" (On the Proper Way to Pray).
"When they pray, people can be joyful or sullen, disheartened or grateful, rushed or collected, despairing or contrite, naive or deliberate ... But the manner that pleases the Eternal One the most is obviously the joyful one, as many verses from our Holy Scriptures show."
Meidner was initially an adherent of the conservative branch of Judaism and vehemently opposed its liberal currents, regarding them as a dilution of tradition. In his view, the strict observance of the commandments and the preservation of traditional rituals were a key pillar of Jewish religiosity. It was only in British exile that he turned toward Orthodox Judaism – after mixing with orthodox circles for a considerable time during his internment on the Isle of Man.
In 1959, at the age of seventy-five, Meidner described the central role the Jewish faith played for his art:
"The holy and the eternal became my favorite subjects, and although I am primarily a portraitist, my love and all my devotion remained focused on the religious themes that I had always wanted to distill into a simple, clear and dignified visual form. Artists, too, should sanctify their profession, and they do so whenever they address God and his world in their images."
This still life is an exception among Meidner’s religious images, which consist primarily of drawings and mostly portray human figures. However, it is illuminating insofar as it underscores the main theme of Meidner’s religious art. The tallit (prayer shawl), the tefillin (phylacteries on the right and in the open velvet pouch) and the prayer book (a Siddur for the weekdays or a Machzor for the high holy days) illustrate the central importance of prayer for devout Jews.
The Hebrew inscription in the upper right corner reproduces the opening of Psalm 104: "Praise the Lord, my soul. Lord my God, you are very great." The initial verses of this psalm (known as "Barchi Nafshi" in Hebrew) are used in the Sabbath liturgy in winter and are also recited at the beginning of Torah readings in the yearly cycle.
Beneath the inscription is the Hebrew monogram “Mem” for Meidner, painted in red, which the artist used from the late 1920s on when signing many of his religious works. The year 5697 in the Jewish calendar corresponds to 1936/37 in the Gregorian calendar.
Based on his understanding of religious experience as a personal encounter with the Creator, Meidner mainly used individual figures – as opposed to crowded genre scenes – to portray the Jewish holidays.
In this work the artist presents a devout Jew with the "arba minim" ("four species" in Hebrew) – the etrog (a citrus fruit) and the branches of palm, myrtle and willow trees. These branches are used to make the traditional bouquet for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles.
This portrait shows a shofar player. The shofar is a ritual wind instrument that is usually made from a ram’s horn. Among other things, it is used in the liturgy on both Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's festival, and at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
When a trumpet is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it is usually a shofar that is meant. One example is the well-known story about the conquest of Jericho, in which the blasts of seven trumpets cause the city walls to collapse.
This drawing focuses on a special prayer during the ceremony of Havdalah ("separation" in Hebrew). Havdalah begins at nightfall on Saturday and marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week. The drawing shows the ritual objects required for the various blessings.
On the right we see a so-called kiddush cup, which is required for the blessing recited over wine before meals on both the Sabbath and Jewish holidays ("kiddush" means "sanctification" in Hebrew). Wine is poured into the cup until it overflows as a symbol of abundance. The overflowing wine runs down into the Havdalah saucer.
Next, a blessing is recited over spices and everyone smells the fragrant spices stored in a besamim box (besamim means "spices" in Hebrew). These boxes are usually richly decorated and in the shape of a tower.
The Havdalah candle, which is braided from several strands of wax, is lit at the start of the ceremony and extinguished with wine at the end. The candle is needed for the blessing of light, which is the final blessing in the Havdalah ceremony.
While the blessing of light is recited, everyone looks at their hands and the light reflected in their fingernails.
For pious Jews, the Sabbath is the high point of the week. Observing the day of rest is one of the Ten Commandments. The specialness of this day is emphasized by festive rituals that mark both the beginning and the end of the Sabbath.
This watercolored drawing is a clear example of Meidner’s distinctive approach to rendering biblical themes. On the back of the drawing the artist has written the title "Dawid Hamelech (King David)." "Hamelech" is Hebrew for "the king".
Without the help of the title it would be all but impossible to identify the depicted scene. The symbolic attributes usually associated with David in artistic images – a crown and a harp – are absent here.
The first clue pointing to the actual passage in the Bible Meidner is referring to here is the fact that the figure is portrayed with his hands raised in the so-called orans position, a gesture made during prayer. This suggests that the figure is the praying King David.
The second clue is provided by a detail in the background, where we can see a fire from which smoke is rising.
This fire is a reference to a ritual sacrifice, which in biblical times took the form of a burnt offering. Taken together, these references point to a verse from Psalm 141:
"Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."
In Meidner’s depiction, David is thus shown not as a hero of biblical stories but as an author of the psalms that have a particular significance for Jewish prayer and worship services.
This drawing is a further example of the artist’s highly individual choice of themes for his biblical depictions. It shows the sacrifice of Manoah, a scene very rarely depicted in art history.
Manoah and his wife are visited by an angel, who announces the coming birth of their son Simson (Shimshon), whereupon Manoah sacrifices a baby goat as thanks to God. "As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground." (Judges 13:20)
Also illuminating is this depiction of the rescue of the prophet Elijah by an angel, in which the angel’s legs are combined into a single, tube-like extremity. Here Meidner refers to a characteristic of angels derived from a Bible verse in the Shulchan Aruch.
Here, in the instructions for the morning prayer, it says:
"One places the feet together as if they were but one foot in order to be more like the angels, of whom it is said (Ezek 1:7), their feet a straight foot, meaning their feet appear as one foot."
There are no precursors in art for this depiction of the angel with one foot, which means that Meidner adopted the motif directly from post-biblical rabbinical writings.
Many of Meidner’s biblical images deal with the prophets, with whom the artist identified. After all, Meidner, too, was particularly attuned to the upheavals and convulsions of his time.
The scene depicted here shows the prophet Jeremiah, who is promised rescue from his imprisonment. Meidner produced the drawing in 1935, when as a Jewish artist in Nazi Germany he was facing increased repression and was pursuing different plans for emigration.
This drawing was produced after Meidner had already reached England and is based on a verse from the prophet Isaiah.
"Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood … the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll …" (Isaiah 34: 3–4)
Meidner’s portrayal of the prophesied devastation is clearly informed by the initial reports of the systematic mass murder of European Jews.
This water-colored charcoal drawing is another example of Meidner’s use of a religious motif to address the theme of the Holocaust. However, the biblical text he refers to is not found in the story of Jacob and Rachel but in a verse from the prophet Jeremiah. Here Rachel is presented as one of the matriarchs of the tribes of Israel, who laments the suffering of her people:
"A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15)
In early 1943, writing from London to friends in South America, Ludwig Meidner described the motivation for his Holocaust cycle:
"For weeks now I have been working on a cycle of watercolors titled 'Suffering of the Jews in Poland'. This work has compelled me to think constantly about the fate of my brothers."
Meidner initially titled the cycle "Suffering of the Jews in Poland" and later "Massacres in Poland," describing it in one instance as made up of 42 images, in another 45, and later even referring to a total of 50 images. The cycle is not a homogenous series with a unified structure or a clear order but is instead composed of images done in a range of techniques that address the theme of genocide in different ways. Along with images that show the persecution more indirectly there are extremely dramatic depictions – for example, of mass shootings and gas chambers.
In contrast to depictions of the Holocaust by many Jewish artists who, as survivors of the ghettos and camps, wanted to attest to their experience, Meidner’s images do not represent documentation by a historical witness in the strict sense. Meidner’s experience of the Holocaust was, of course, based on information published in England and he was thus not a direct witness to the events involved. Using the press reports and photos that reached him, he attempted to capture the horror pictorially and imagine the unimaginable.
This watercolor shows two rows of corpses stretching to the left-hand edge of the image. The dead are lying in a forest clearing, and the birch in the foreground can be interpreted as a reference to the location of this gruesome scene. In Russia, Finland and Poland the birch is regarded as a national symbol. The pool of blood in which the dead are lying suggests that they are victims of a mass shooting. In 1941 reports of mass shootings already circulated in the Allied press and German-language newspapers published abroad.
Meidner’s charcoal drawing of a gas chamber was probably produced prior to the spring of 1945. Following the liberation of the extermination camps, numerous photos and eyewitness accounts circulated documenting the fact that in the majority of the death camps the gas chambers were disguised as shower blocks, complete with shower heads, in order to prevent panic among those being sent to their deaths. This detail, intriguing in its perfidy, does not appear in Meidner’s depiction, suggesting that the drawing was produced before such photos and accounts were published.
In 1953 Meidner returned to Germany for good. This decision was influenced by the artistic recognition he again found in his homeland, his rootedness in German culture, in particular the language, and the prospect of a life free of daily financial worries.
Meidner initially moved into Frankfurt’s Jewish retirement home, where numerous Holocaust survivors were living. To a friend in the United States, he wrote: "My financial situation is good, but here in Germany I feel I am something of an orphan. For people like us this is no longer a real homeland in the wake of everything that has happened."
In 1955, he moved to the village of Marxheim north of Frankfurt, which today is a suburb of Hofheim. In 1963, he moved to Darmstadt, where he died in 1966.
While in England, Meidner had almost exclusively produced drawings, but now back in Germany he was again able to paint. In England he had simply been unable to afford oil paints and canvas. The last decades of his life were marked by a keen urge to create and by artistic vitality.
Ludwig Meidner was one of the very few Jewish emigrants to return to Germany. He continued to openly embrace Judaism, which was remarkable given the village environment in which he was living.
In this uncompleted self-portrait, Ludwig Meidner depicts himself as a praying Jew with a tallit, kippah and prayer book. It is one of the last paintings Meidner worked on prior to his death on 14 May 1966.
Objects and photos:
Jewish Museum Frankfurt, Ludwig Meidner Archive
Text and curation:
Editing and implementation:
"Ludwig und Else Meidner" (exhibition catalogue in German and English) Frankfurt a. M. Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt, Ben Uri Gallery, 2002