Bob Ryan

Sir Moses Jacob Ezekiel: One of the Greatest Sculptors of his Day

Sculpting human figures by religious Jews has been an ongoing process for thousands of years from being strictly forbidden to the allowance of features over time. Due to the graven image prohibition, “while the representation of human or animal figures on a plane surface was condoned or permitted most of the time during the periods in question, greater difficulties were constantly raised with regard to three-dimensional representations on medals and seals, and four-dimensional sculptures in the round.” The periods are the Biblical and Talmudic.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that religious Jews began using full human forms in their sculptures.

Virginian, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, who was born in 1844, entered the world at just the right time to pursue a career in sculpting while continuing to live as a religious Jew.

In 1869, he sailed to Europe with a desire to be accepted into the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. His talent got him into the school. It did not matter that he was an American Jew, since the only thing that mattered at the Academy was his talent to sculpt.

He had the talent to be accepted and first non-German to win the prestigious Michel Beer Prix de Rome with his Bas-Relief Israel. The Jewish influence of the work was clear in title and image.

Winning provided a stipend to live in and work in Rome for a year, which would help to mark his place in the world as one of the greatest of his day. His works can be seen in and out of Europe to this day. He was knighted in both Germany and Italy with no concern about him being an American Jew who never stopped thinking of himself as an American.

Prior to becoming one of the greatest artists of his day, he was a boy in Virginia who was caught up in the excitement of secession and war. He was not old enough to join the fight, but was old enough to attend the prestigious Virginia Military Institute. Ezekiel was the first Jewish boy to be accepted to the academy.

In 1864, Union General Sigel had been ordered to sweep the Shenandoah Valley in conjunction with Union General Grant’s Overland Campaign. Sigel’s failure would enable Confederate General Lee to be reinforced.

Confederate General Breckinridge lacked the manpower to handle the sweeping action, but did get a force together, which included approximately 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Academy. Ezekiel was one of those cadets.

From Encyclopedia Virginia :

“Sigel marched south from Winchester with 9,000 men… Breckinridge lacked formal military training but had acquitted himself well in the Western Theater at Shiloh in 1862 and Chickamauga in 1863. Now, however, he was outnumbered and forced to muster hastily whatever forces he could find. His skeletal army that spring numbered only about 5,300 troops, which included two brigades of infantry, 1,500 cavalrymen under General John D. Imboden, and 257 VMI cadets commanded by Colonel Scott Shipp.”

It should have been an easy victory for Sigel, but the battle went to the Confederate. 47 Cadets were wounded and 10 died.

Ezekiel, who was a cadet Sergeant, returned and graduated with a class of just 10 cadets.

Ezekiel had decided to pursue becoming a doctor, since he had been unable to do anything for the wounded or dying.

His study of anatomy helped to make him the great artist he would become.

While Ezekiel was in Europe, there were no monuments to the Confederates dead allowed. Not so much as a flower on the graves in places like Arlington. It was not until 1898 that President McKinley, in order to get the support of the Senate, promised to do anything with the Confederate graves.

Eventually, the prohibition against Confederate Memorials was lifted.

The Confederate monument at Arlington was created by Ezekiel, who had become so famous that it gave him the ability to do something unique. He had a completely free hand to build the monument he would create in Rome.

The memorial was dedicated in 1914.

Wikipedia gives an excellent description of the monument, which Ezekiel donated his labor.

“The topmost portion of the memorial consists of a larger-than-life figure of a woman representing the South. The orientation of the figure and its face is toward the south, in part to honor the Confederacy but also so that the sun may shine on the face of the figure at all times (which is symbolic of being favored). The figure’s head is crowned with an olive wreath, which is both sacred to Minerva (Roman goddess of war and wisdom) and a symbol of peace. The figure’s left hand extends a laurel wreath toward the south in acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by the South’s men in arms and as a symbol of the past. The figure holds a pruning hook in its right hand, which in turn rests on a plow. This represents peace and reconciliation as well as the hope that the labor of the South will lead to new glory.

The figure stands on a round pedestal decorated with palm branches and four cinerary urns. Low relief numbers on the urns refer to the four years of the American Civil War (1861, 1862, 1863, and “1864–65”). Beneath the round pedestal is a round plinth in the form of a wreath of wheat. Below the plinth is a round base on which is inscribed: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” It is a partial quotation from Isaiah 2:4.

Below the base is a frieze of 14 inwardly inclined shields, each of which depicts the coat of arms of one of the 11 Confederate states, as well as the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland.

Beneath lies life as it was. What made him great was capturing the truth in stone or bronze. One of the images is that of an unarmed slave following his soldier master.

When he died in 1917, Ezekiel could have been buried anywhere, including Rome or Virginia. He chose Arlington. Due to WWI, it would not be until 1921 in which his body was laid in its final resting place.

He is buried at the foot of his monument dedicated to an end of all wars.

Isaiah 2:4, from which part is inscribed on the monument, reads as follows:

“He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

About the Author
Bob Ryan is a novelist of the future via science-fiction, dystopian or a combination of the two, and blogger of the past with some present added in on occasion. He believes the key to understanding the future is to understand the past, since human nature is an unchanging force. As any writer can attest, he spends a great deal of time researching numerous subjects. He is someone who seeks to strip away emotion in search of reason, since emotion clouds judgement. Bob is an American with an MBA in Business Administration. He is a gentile who supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. He is a Christian Zionist who knows God is calling His chosen home as foretold in prophecy.
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