The talented artist Levi David Van Gelder (1815-1878) produced the earliest examples of his beautifully engraved micrographic mizrah plaques during the 1840s while working as a printer and lithographer in his native Amsterdam. It was there that he developed his distinctive style by imaginatively combining minuscule Dutch texts with oversize decorative word panels and biblical imagery. After moving to Chicago, Van Gelder created two monumental lithographic masterpieces in English and Hebrew, each measuring nearly four feet in height. A copy of one of these, dated 1865, is currently housed in the collection of the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles (#39.30); the present lot is an exemplar of the other.
Ninety-four biblical vignettes and portraits, running the gamut from images of Adam and Eve to the prophets and kings of Israel, adorn this latter monumental engraving. Van Gelder surrounded these images with numerous biblical texts, as well as excerpts from the liturgy of the High Holidays, inscribed in fine micrographic lettering. Finally, twelve original red collage elements were affixed to the present copy, which was also elegantly hand-colored.
Van Gelder was a Freemason and served as the Captain General of the Siloam Masonic Lodge in Chicago. In this plaque, several Masonic symbols are depicted, including the pillars Jachin and Boaz from Solomon’s Temple, the mason’s compass, and the Eye of Providence. In addition to his artistic endeavors and Masonic proclivities, Van Gelder was a Jewish mystic or ba‘al shem (master of the Name) who made amulets to ward off disease, notably during the epidemic of yellow fever which swept Louisiana and Tennessee in 1878. In retrospect, this helps to explain his predilection towards large devotional plaques with clear kabbalistic antecedents.
Leila Avrin, Micrography as Art (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique; Jerusalem: Israel Museum, Department of Judaica, 1981).
Stanley Ferber, “Micrography: A Jewish Art Form,” Journal of Jewish Art 3-4 (1977): 12-24.
Alice M. Greenwald, “The Masonic Mizrah and Lamp: Jewish Ritual Art as a Reflection of Cultural Assimilation,” Journal of Jewish Art 10 (1984): 87-101.
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