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Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Religious Liberty

By Dr. Samantha Baskind
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Religious Liberty, 1876, marble, 3.4 m high, Philadelphia (photo: Griffin Boyce, CC BY 2.0)
Moses Jacob Ezekiel was the first Jewish American artist of international repute. He executed the country’s largest monument to religious liberty, which now stands proudly in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, just steps from the Liberty Bell. The towering 24-foot, 13-ton marble statue was commissioned by the Jewish fraternal organization
(Sons of the Covenant), for the
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Religious Liberty, 1876, marble, 3.4 m high, Philadelphia (photo: Smallbones, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Religious Liberty

The figure of Liberty is represented as a ten-foot woman, wearing a coat of mail partly covered by a toga. She dons a Phrygian cap, which was bestowed on freed enslaved people in ancient Rome, with a border of thirteen golden-colored stars representing the original colonies. In her hand is a laurel wreath of victory, which also rests on fasces (a bundle of birch rods tied together with a ribbon, as a symbol of power and unified strength). The fasces are covered by an open book, meant to signal the U.S. Constitution.
Liberty extends her right arm protectively over an idealized, nude young boy standing at her right. This figure is a personification of religious Faith. The boy grasps a flaming lamp, and raises his other hand up to heaven. At Liberty’s feet is an eagle, a well-recognized emblem of America, attacking a serpent signifying Intolerance. The eagle’s sharp, oversized talons grip the serpent’s body, flipped on its back, as the bird attempts to quash its foe.
The sculpture's highly classical,
style was a bit outmoded for its time;
was a dominant mode a century earlier when sculptors such as Antonio Canova found inspiration in the art of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). Nonetheless, Ezekiel’s patrons were very pleased, and the enduring monument has since been celebrated by Jews and non-Jews alike.
For over forty years, Ezekiel, who was born in Richmond Virginia, lived as an expatriate in Rome. Ezekiel was well-respected in his lifetime, and consorted with celebrities, royalty, and political dignitaries. He held court with Queen Margherita of Italy and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and was the guest of presidents at the White House. Ezekiel also welcomed American patriots into his illustrious studio in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Taft. He was honored three times by European monarchs; King Victor-Emanuel III of Italy made the sculptor an officer of the crown of Italy.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Portrait Bust of Isaac Mayer Wise, marble bust after the bronze original, 1903 (Cincinnati Skirball Museum)
Ezekiel sculpted numerous portrait busts, much like his non-Jewish contemporaries. These include a bronze likeness of the pioneering rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1899), replicated in marble four years later. Wise was one of the chief early exponents of American Reform Judaism (a modernized form of Judaism that strove for unity among American Jews). Born in Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic), Wise immigrated to the United States in 1846. In 1854 he became the rabbi at B’nai Yeshurun (“Sons of Israel”) synagogue in Cincinnati and founded an English-language weekly, the Israelite (retitled the American Israelite two decades later and still a news source for Cincinnati’s Jews). The paper allowed Wise to circulate the principles of Reform Judaism to a wider national audience. B’nai Yeshurun advocated mixed gender seating, introduced organ music during worship, and instituted shorter services, using widespread English translations. Wise also was heavily involved in the creation of the earliest Reform
in America, Hebrew Union College (founded 1875) also based in Cincinnati, where he became its first president.
The bust, most likely the first sculpture modeled from life of any rabbi by a Jewish artist, shows Wise wearing a high buttoned vest, with one button undone, underneath a wide V-notched lapel outercoat accentuating his shoulders. Wise has a jaunty ascot tied around his neck, the right corner partially tucked into his vest and the left crossing over onto his coat. A bushy mustache spreads over his cheeks to his thick sideburns; his hair, long in the back, is tucked behind his ears and hangs a little past the bottom of his neck. In his hair and dress, the rabbi embodied contemporary fashion. The rabbi’s dress, like that of other Reform Jews, reveals how most assimilated Jews wanted to be perceived within the larger American population. Ezekiel’s family dressed in this fashion, as did the artist himself.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Jefferson Monument, 1901, bronze, 12 1/2 feet high, Louisville (photo: Brent Moore, CC BY-NC 2.0)
During Ezekiel’s lifetime he made several other monumental sculptures, among them a prominent sculpture of Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which guaranteed the separation between church and state, and became a model for the First Amendment. At 5 1/2-feet tall, Jefferson stands atop a replica of the Liberty Bell, seven-feet tall with a diameter of 6 1/4 feet. He appears as drafter of the Declaration of Independence, while holding the document outward.
Ezekiel depicted Jefferson in his thirties, an inventive approach, indicating the future president’s age at the time when he wrote the new nation’s charter. For Ezekiel, rendering Jefferson in this manner was a matter of authenticity: “Jefferson was a young man, able to stand unsupported by chair, cane, or column; I have shown him as such. Many have made him middle-aged, with a large Declaration in his hand, though, as a matter of fact, the Declaration was written on a small sheet, which I have measured.” [1]
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, 1914, bronze, 32 feet high (photo: Tim1965, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Two Jewish philanthropist brothers commissioned the monument in gratitude for the opportunities afforded them in America as immigrants who finally lived in freedom because of Jefferson’s good works. The monument stands in front of Louisville’s courthouse. A second version, in front of Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda at the University of Virginia, was dedicated nine years after the original. Ezekiel, a
veteran, also executed a number of Confederate monuments, including the controversial 32-foot monument in Arlington Cemetery.
For these artistic contributions and many more, Ezekiel was honored by a eulogy from President Warren Harding, read at his funeral, lauding him as “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American, and a great citizen of world fame.” [2]
[1]  Quoted in Katharine H. Wrenshall, “An American Sculptor in Rome,” The World’s Work 19, no. 1 (November 1909): pp. 122–56.
[2] “Lesson of Americanism Drawn By Harding From Monument Marking Ezekiel’s Grave,” Cincinnati Enquirer (March 31, 1921): p. 16.
Additional resources
Samantha Baskind, "Moses Jacob Ezekiel's Religious Liberty (1876) and the Nineteenth-Century Jewish American Experience," in A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Art, edited by Michelle Facos (Wiley Blackwell, 2018), pp. 1–16.
Samantha Baskind, "Moses Jacob Ezekiel: Eve Hearing the Voice," MAVCOR Journal 5.1 (2021).
Stan Cohen and Keith Gibson, Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor (Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 2007).
Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Moses Jacob Ezekiel: Memoirs from the Baths of Diocletian, eds. Joseph Gutmann and Stanley F. Chyet (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975).
Alice M. Greenwald, ed., Ezekiel's Vision: Moses Jacob Ezekiel and the Classical Tradition, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: National Museum of American Art, 1985).
David Philipson, "Moses Jacob Ezekiel," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 28 (1922): pp. 1–62.
Essay by Dr. Samantha Baskind

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