Frieze of the Prophets (John Singer Sargent)


I thought this was going to be quick post about this frieze of rough and ghostly looking band of Hebrew prophets. John Singer Sargent is, of course, better known as a portraitist of rich and elegant Edwardian women. Here he looks more like a German Expressionist in this study from about 1892 for the more refined Frieze of the Prophets that forms part of The Triumph of Religion, his mural at the Boston Public Library. Heavy cloaks, the shadowy cast of the undeveloped face and the exposed powerful gesture of the naked arm define this group study.

The more refined and finished work are naturally more elegant. About the work as a whole and its reception you can read more here, including a long discussion of the sharp and negative reception to the artist’s decision to include “Synagogue” and “Church” in the scheme of the mural, the ideology of religious progress and education that animates this turn of the century work, and its collision with the hard realities of World War I. Perhaps not ironically, the Sermon on the Mount was never realized.

I’m not sure what I mean, but the whole thing feels kind of “French,” perhaps medieval and neoclassical at once . Red, gold, black, and cream dominate the design. The picture of God poring over the scroll of the law is of particular note. Surrounded in gold and the red flame of angelic wings, before the gold bar of the law and hovering over the child Israel, the hooded and mysterious figure of God remains faceless,  but again, we see the exposed and naked arm.

sargent frieze-of-prophets-1895sargent israelites oppressed and prophetssargent synagoguesargent lawsargent oppression

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Frieze of the Prophets (John Singer Sargent)

  1. dmf says:

    I like the first painting, brings the fear and trembling, yer collecting these together reminds me a bit of the old what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem line of inquiry

  2. Carol zemel says:

    Amazing picture! Who’s written about. It?

    • zjb says:

      the piece online that I found about the Triumph of Religion is by Sally M. Promey. There’s a link in blue which you can find if you squint.

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