Representations of female deities were widespread in the polytheistic world of the ancient Near East and later factored into the evolution of biblical monotheism. In the period following the so-called Babylonian exile, however, they were increasingly suppressed. From this time on, the one God in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical interpretations acquires a female side as opposed to a divine female partner.
Goddesses in Ancient Israel
The exhibition’s point of departure consists of archaeological artifacts from the ancient Near East that give expression to concepts of female deities and the powers, properties, and desires attributed to them. The goddess Asherah, for example, appears both as a figure and a stylized tree. Images of her were found in the region surrounding Jerusalem in particular. As the doctrine of one God increasing prevailed, traces of Asherah and other female deities disappeared.
Woman’s Wisdom and God’s Presence
Biblical and extra-biblical texts contain a wealth of concepts concerning female aspects of the one God. These include wisdom, which is presented both as a female partner and as a child of God. The Shekinah, God’s dwelling on Earth, is another concept in the rabbinical scriptures that plays a key role, particularly in Jewish mysticism. The Shekinah is present wherever Jews pray or study the Torah. In her Maternal Torah, artist Jacqueline Nicholls draws and reflects on this idea by designing a protective Torah cloak in the form of a corset, suggesting the female form, that is draped over a Torah scroll.
Woman as Threat
The Hebrew Bible contains two stories of creation, one in which woman was created at the same time as man and one in which she was fashioned from his rib. According to rabbinical interpretation, these are two different women, the first of which is Adam’s first wife, Lilith. In Christian portrayals in particular, Lilith is the snake that commits the first sin against divine law and causes their subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden. In Jewish custom, amulets are generally used to ward off her supposedly evil powers. The second woman is Eve, who is created from Adam’s rib and yet seduces him to violate divine command. In artistic imagery, she is often depicted together with Lilith, who is represented as a snake.
Mothers of Faith
The idea of a mother goddess or Great Mother dates back to ancient cultures in which goddesses were worshiped as the givers of life and as fertility deities, or as the mothers of gods. One of these mother goddesses, whose cult originally comes from Egypt, is Isis. Images of her as a goddess nursing Horus the child on her lap are the iconographic forerunners of the later "Maria lactans," the nursing Madonna.
In this animated video, which can also be seen in the exhibition, Nina Paley humorously explores the theme of ancient female deities.
The exhibition’s historical excursus demonstrates that women, according to the current state of research, played an active role in the religious practices of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern era. This can be seen, for example, on the tombstone of a synagogue leader from the first or second century CE, or in one of the oldest known Esther roles, which was written by a woman in 1564. With her visions and ascetic way of life, Hildegard von Bingen, a charismatic polymath of the 12th century, founded her own religious doctrine, while in her illustrated book, the artist Ofri Cnaani recalls the story of an early 19th-century female Hasidic rebel. In the 20th century, women’s rights activist Bertha Pappenheim campaigned to reform the Orthodox religious service and composed her own prayers, and a short time later, Regina Jonas was ordained in Offenbach and became the world’s first female rabbi.
Towards its conclusion, the exhibition concentrates on rites and representations that give expression to a union of female and male principles, forces, and figures. The focus here is on mystical currents in the three monotheistic religions—on Gnosis, the Kabbalah, and Sufism—which repeatedly compare the relationship between God and humans with the wedding of bride and groom.
The Frankfurt exhibition adds to the presentation of the same name at the Jewish Museum Hohenems (Austria) from 2017, augmenting it with manuscripts and paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as contemporary art. In addition, a German–English publication titled Die weibliche Seite Gottes. Kunst und Ritual / The Female Side of God. Art and Ritual (ed. by Eva Atlan, Michaela Feurstein-Prasser, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, and Mirjam Wenzel) accompanies the show. The catalog comprises five essays largely based on lectures from the scientific symposium that took place in January 2020 as part of the “Religious Positions” research association at Goethe University in Frankfurt. The catalog also goes into detail about the works of art shown in the exhibition and presents them together with additional images and texts by well-known art historians.
The exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne and the Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain.
A cooperation with the Jewish Museum Hohenems.
The exhibition catalogue was funded by the foundation by the Georg und Franziska Speyer'schen Hochschulstiftung.