Not many scholars can claim to have created a whole new field of academic study in the United States. One of the few who can is Dr. Vivian B. Mann, director of the Master's Program in Jewish Art and Visual Culture at The Graduate School of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1999, Dr. Mann was honored with the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Jewish Thought from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, in part for her successful efforts in establishing, at JTS, the first academic program in Jewish art. She has also spearheaded the creation of JTS's new artist-in-residence program and The Graduate School's consortium with the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture.
A widely published author and scholar, Dr. Mann is the cofounder and editor of Images: A Journal in Jewish Art and Visual Culture, the first American journal in the field. For many years she held the Morris and Eva Feld Chair in Judaica at The Jewish Museum, and she has been a fellow or visiting faculty member at cultural and academic institutions around the world, including the Medieval Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Paidea Institute in Stockholm, and the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. Dr. Mann is a past fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and in 2009 was elected a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR), the oldest professional organization of Judaica scholars in North America. Nominated and elected by their peers, AAJR fellows constitute the most distinguished and most senior scholars teaching Judaic studies at American universities.
How did Jewish Art come to be an academic subject at JTS?
I was a curator at The Jewish Museum, and in 1981 or 1982 I realized that nobody was training anybody to be curators of Jewish museums. So I came to JTS and I met with then-provost Ismar Schorsch [now chancellor emeritus], Menahem Schmelzer [then the librarian of JTS, now professor emeritus], and a couple of other people about the notion of establishing a program that would train curators. And they said, "Well, we don't know what Jewish art is, we don't understand the field." So I applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities and got a grant to establish a seminar whose purpose was to define the field and to see whether or not it would be feasible to set up a master's program for Jewish art.
How did you go about defining a field that didn't exist yet?
I matched each of the periods of Jewish art with a historian at JTS, and then I invited art historians who were expert in those periods, and that was the seminar. We met for a year, and at the end the members concluded that we could, mostly with available resources, put together a master's program, and then I applied again to the NEH for implementation. We received $250,000, and then JTS raised some money and that's how it got started. I actually began teaching courses here in 1981, but I started on a regular basis in 1984 and then ten years later we formed an official master's program.
And now undergraduate students can participate as well.
Yes. The undergraduate major was the initiative of a former student, a graduate named Rebecca Sandler, who asked that there be a major in Jewish Art. This year there are four undergraduates, and they take courses at Columbia in art history so they are very well-trained and able to be integrated with the graduate students.
Of course, JTS is no longer the only institution with a department focused on Jewish art. How is the program here different than what's available at other schools?
There is no other program in the world that develops students who can put Jewish art in the perspective of world art. It's also the only master's program that requires not just the reading knowledge of Hebrew: our students have to pass an exam in German, which is unusual, and that is because German was the first language in which art history was written about Jewish art. Since the Shoah, the Germans have been very busy creating Jewish museums and publishing, and they're very well-trained art historians.
What are you up to besides directing the program and teaching?
Well, right now I have a rather full plate. I'm curating an exhibition at MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art), the title is Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and Altarpieces in Medieval Spain and it examines the role of Jews as painters of altarpieces in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews as the subject matter for many altarpieces, and the mixed workshops that resulted in a transfer of subject matter and style between Christians and Jews. I'm doing a book with three curators in London, one at the British Library, two at the Victoria and Albert, on outstanding Judaica in Britain. I'm the editor and I'm also going to write an essay on the history of Judaica collecting in England.
And then I'm involved in the development of a Jewish studies center in the south of Spain in a town called Lorca, where a medieval synagogue was found, quite by accident. In the course of building a hotel, they found medieval walls and it turned out to be a synagogue, which is quite exciting because we only have three full standing synagogues left in Spain.
Is there anything especially significant about this archeological site?
What is most intriguing is that there are stone benches all around the walls, there's the base of the tevah (reader's desk), which shows a long series of steps leading up to a raised tevah, which was the style in Spain, and there are the foundations of the Torah ark. And in a case of life imitating art—there is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum that will be in the exhibition that shows Jesus among the doctors, that is, Jesus when he goes to the Temple and has discussions with the rabbis. In Spanish altarpieces the Temple is usually shown as a synagogue, and in this one painting you have exactly what was found in Lorca: benches around the side and the long steps leading up to the tevah. One of the extraordinary aspects of the synagogue find was a whole cache of glass shards; glass was hard to make in the Middle Ages and it was very expensive, therefore if something broke you didn't throw it out, you kept it as raw material from which you might make another glass lamp, such as those that hung in synagogues and mosques. Using these shards the excavators were able to put together some thirty lamps that incorporate the fragments, and this will allow us to see what these lamps actually looked like—we knew that they existed because they're depicted in the miniatures of the illuminated manuscripts of the period.