Doing Jewish Art in the GTA

by John Lewsen, October 31, 2022

During the summer, with a couple of hours to spare between appointments, I dropped into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I went without any specific exhibit in mind, and by chance chose the beautifully curated “Faith and Fortune” exhibition, which featured art from across the global Spanish Empire — and included many works that were on loan to the AGO from the Collection of the U.S. Hispanic Society Museum & Library. I found it fascinating, in part because I knew so little about the history and expanse of the Spanish Empire, and in part because of the exquisite works it featured including paintings by Goya and El Greco. So how does this relate to Jewish art?

The exhibition, which included paintings, sculptures, printed books, and textiles created by artisans and artists from Spain, Latin America and the Philippines, helped put into perspective the extent and lasting impact of four centuries of colonization, resource extraction and the spread of Catholicism on the part of Spain. It also underscored the influence and determination of the Catholic Church to ensure the spread of Christianity and the lasting and often destructive legacies this had on indigenous populations.

It is interesting to learn how prior to this area of expansion, Jews, Muslims and Christians had lived together in relative harmony in the various kingdoms within the Iberian Peninsula. This all changed when 1492 the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella claimed the whole peninsula. The exhibition included beautiful artifacts going back to when Spain was a multicultural, multifaith land. I was particularly struck by three ancient works created by Jewish artisans, artists, and scribes:

  • A tile with the Star of David was made for the Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo, Spain
  • Tur Yoreh de’ah, a Jewish legal text, dating back to 1487, and
  • A Hebrew bible dating back to the 1450s, comprising the five books of Moses scribed in manuscript form with each page decorated for its Jewish patrons with illuminated borders of ornate plants, flowers, and animals. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled Jews from the area in 1492, the owners of this Bible moved to Portugal. They had to move again in 1497, when King Manuel expelled the Jewish people from his kingdom. It’s fascinating to think about how these artifacts have survived for so long.

I ended up revisiting the exhibition with friends and family two more times, including a brief visit on the last day of the exhibit — one of the benefits of having an annual pass or AGO membership is the ability to make frequent short visits. For my next visit during the Hannukah, year-end holiday period, I am planning to see the AGO’s next feature exhibition, Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows which opens in December. If any members of Solel would care to join me at this exhibit, please drop me a line at and I will get back to you with some possible dates. It would be fun to go as a group and then have a chance to chat about Leonard Cohen over coffee or light lunch at the AGO Bistro.


Filed under: President's Message

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