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Over the past year the researchers at the Center for Jewish Art have been dedicating much of their time to the Center's most ambitious and important project--the re-design of the computerized Index of Jewish Art. As reported in our last newsletter, it has long been our goal to update the Index by incorporating the latest computer technology. These changes will revitalize the Index, making it a user-friendly system with sophisticated cross-referencing functions, pictures, architectural plans and models.

With the explosion of information technology in the past decade and the recent mushrooming of the most vibrant new avenue of information--the Internet--we realized that it had presented a great opportunity for the dissemination of our research and documentation to readers all over the world. Thus, as our researchers are working on developing the Index, they are also preparing to open a home-page on the Internet as a prelude to publishing the Index on-line.

To date, the first stage of the project, the design of the system, has been completed. Of the 70,000 or more slides and photographs in the archives of the Index, some 20,000 of these have been scanned onto CD-ROM and they are now being converted from CD into the server of our system. Thus we have finally realized one of our fundamental goals--the incorporation of images with text. The incorporation of photographs into the database is the most important part of this project and the scanning onto CD-ROM has proven to be the most costly procedure. The images of the thousands of pieces of Jewish art documented during the past 18 years of the Center's existence, stored in the Center's archives as slides or photographs, will now be accessible to researchers on the computerized database of the Index.

Since the network for the new system is based on Windows NT it was necessary to bring up-to-date computer equipment into the office. Eight Pentium stations, including the server, one research station and one administrative station with 21-inch color monitors and five work stations were purchased.

The computer section of the project, headed by Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, is now busy with the task of developing the system. This work will culminate in the creation of a "test-run" database which will include the newly-incorporated visual material, new documentation and the text of previous documentation converted from the old ALEPH system used by the Index at the Hebrew University. The computer section is also working on the graphic design of the Index. A lecturer in graphic design, Ezri Terezi from the Bezalel School of Art and Design, now based on Mount Scopus, has been brought in as a consultant to help the team create an attractive and user-friendly interface within the Windows system. A well-designed interface will enable users both to exploit the Index to its best advantage and to enjoy its use.

Another of the important tasks facing the team is the creation of various standard forms in the computer, based on "Word" templates, which are being used for cataloging information on all the objects, and relevant accompanying information such as bibliographies and biographies. These templates serve as the basic framework for storing all the information gathered by the Center's researchers. At this stage some 10,000 documents will be recorded in the new system in the form of these templates.

The heads of the five sections at the Index: Archeology, Architecture, Ritual Objects, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts and Modern Art, have been working especially hard with the computer section to build the most important features of the Index--the thesaurus of terminology on Jewish art and the iconography and reference documents.

Working on new computer program

Prof. Bezalel Narkiss developing the new computer program together with sections heads, Heidi Bransom (left), Ariella Amar (2nd from right), and computer coordinator Heftibah Cohen-Montagu.

The thesaurus includes lists of terminology, arranged in hierarchical order, of all terms which are relevant to the art documented by the Center, ranging from lists of objects, techniques or historical periods to lists of the Jewish life cycle, biblical and other texts or events in the Jewish year. It is of utmost importance that the terminology used by all the sections be consistent, in order to highlight and clarify the Jewish symbols and sources which are common to the different media of art objects and to establish their shared meaning within Jewish religious and cultural life. The use of consistent terminology will also enable future catalogers and researchers at the Index to work with the database and to conduct research and documentation which conforms to the methodology employed by the Center.

The thesaurus serves as a central tool in comparative research, assisting users to understand the relationships between objects and thus fully utilize the information stored in the database. In essence it serves as a systematically organized table of contents of all the material stored in the Index. The iconography and reference libraries which form the heart of the Index, bring together all the textual references and iconographical gestures and motifs which appear on all the documented objects, monuments and buildings in the database. Variations of motif and subject are systematically listed in these libraries enabling users of the database to understand the extensive iconographical range of Jewish art. The system's hyper-links and cross-referencing functions will facilitate searches for different objects according to content and will enable users to identify which objects share common iconography. The section heads have been busy developing these libraries for the project, improving the material on current iconographical subjects as well as adding new subjects, while ensuring that consistent terminology is used for similar subjects which appear on various objects from different periods.

Important iconographical subjects in the Index include Sanctuary implements, zodiac signs, the four species, holy places, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Ten Plagues and the patriarchs. The researchers' work on iconography involves examining the subjects' iconographical components and analyzing the relationship between the visual expression of the subject and literary sources. For example, the subject of the four species has appeared in Jewish art ever since ancien times. The image of a palm branch, occurs in ancient Jewish art, on coins and mosaic floors of synagogues such as those at Beth Alpha and Hamath Tiberias in Israel. However it also appears on non-Jewish coins. While, at first glance, it is probable that the motif on the Jewish coins represents the lulav, one of the four species, the use of the same motif on non-Jewish coins makes it difficult to definitively identify it as such. However, since Jewish textual sources prove that the palm branch serves as the lulav we can positively identify this motif on the Jewish coins. Indeed, in most cases, the researchers must rely on Jewish sources to identify and understand the iconographical content of their subjects.

The four species are sometimes depicted alone or are depicted in the hands of a person. Such depictions may serve to signify the festival of Sukkot or, in illuminated manuscripts, the ceremony of waving the palm branch which takes place during the festival. They may also serve a general symbolic function, for example representing the Temple in Jerusalem or the union of four different kinds of Jews, symbolizing the Jewish nation. The researchers must determine whether the image serves a simple narrative function, for example illustrating the text of the prayers for Sukkot in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, or whether it has a more symbolic function as in the case of ancient mosaic floors or wall paintings of Eastern European synagogues where the four species appear in the context of Sanctuary implements. In other cases, such as the 18th century wooden synagogue of Horb from southern Germany, displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the four species are painted together with the city of Jerusalem, highlighting the centrality of Jerusalem as the pilgrimage destination during the festival of Sukkot.

Such analysis underlies the ambitious program of the computerized Index of Jewish Art to advance scholarly understanding of Jewish Art.

This project is being supported by the Israel Science Foundation, the Infrastructure Committee and the Faculty of Humanities of the Hebrew University, the Masto Fund, Robert and Toby Jesuram of Rye, NH, and Benjamin and Barbara Zucker of New York.


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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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