Death of Professor Bezalel Narkiss, Founder of Center for Jewish Art
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, July 3, 2008
It is with deep sadness that I report the death last week of Professor Bezalel Narkiss, Nicholas Landau Professor Emeritus of Art History at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Professor Narkiss – or Tzali to generations of students and colleagues - was one of the world's foremost scholars and teachers of Jewish art, and the founder and former director of the Center for Jewish art at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Professor Narkiss was born in Jerusalem in 1926 and educated at The Hebrew University, and the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes at the University of London, from where he received his Ph.D. in 1962. His dissertation on the Golden Haggadah was just one of his many close examinations of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. That work began a lifetime commitment to the study and presentation of Hebrew Illuminated manuscripts in the British Isles.
In 1974 Tzali founded the Index of Jewish Art, modeled after the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University. From this effort grew the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University, founded in 1979, and since then the major research engine for the identification and study of Jewish art worldwide, and especially the iconography of Jewish art as found in illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings and a wide variety of ritual objects. In more recent years the Center has also turned its attention to documenting architecture, particularly synagogues. The Center, under Tzali's guidance, has produced several generations of scholars of Jewish art, curators of museums and activists in the field of documentation and protection of Jewish heritage. For many years, under Tzali's direction, the Center published The Journal of Jewish Art (Later Jewish Art).
Tzali Narkiss published scores of books and articles in his lifetime. He also served as illustration editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica in the 1960s. Through that important scholarly and popular vehicle, he helped introduce the diversity and richness of Jewish art to tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish users of the Encyclopedia around the world.
Tzali was indefatigable participant in scholarly conferences, including the many important congresses which he helped organize in Jerusalem over the years. He regularly attended the sessions of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments held at the College Art Association meetings. I last saw him in October, when he attended and presented (despite his illness) at the important conference "Jewish Architecture in Europe," held at the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany. It was a grand affair for Tzali, with many of his students and colleagues of several generations present. The conference celebrated the successful partnership between the Center for Jewish Art and the Technische Universität Braunschweig in the creation of Bet-Tfila, Research Unit for Jewish Architecture in Europe. For many of us, he knew and we knew that it would be our last meeting.
On behalf of the ISJM membership, I extend condolences to Tzali Narkiss's family and friends, and to all his associates at The Hebrew University.
Read more about Prof. Narkiss's work
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