The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament (Exodus 20:2-17) are the creed of both Christians and Jews, but the Second Commandment posed a special dilemma for Jews in relation to the arts. This admonition states in part that no one shall make for themselves any . . . “carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.“ By the Middle Ages, representations of human and animal forms on a plane surface, such as illustrations in a book, were generally condoned, but the making of three dimensional figures was still considered heretical.
Over the ensuing centuries, the Jewish attitude in regard to statues and other carved images began to become a bit more relaxed, particularly after the onset of Reform Judaism in Germany during the late Eighteenth Century. It was still not until the Nineteenth Century, however, that Jewish sculptors began to make their appearance in the world of art, with the first to gain widespread recognition in America being a Virginian whose works include the Confederate Monument at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, who was born Richmond on October 28, 1844.
Ezekiel’s father Jacob had relocated to Richmond from Philadelphia in 1834 and started a dry-goods business there with his brothers-in-law. His mother, Catherine de Castro, was born in Richmond after her parents had immigrated there from the Netherlands, and it was there she met and married Jacob in 1835. Her parents were also in the dry-goods trade and their store was the only one which stocked clothing to dress slaves who were brought to Richmond for auction.
Young Ezekiel was always interested in art and made his first sculpture at age thirteen, a clay bust of his father. This was soon followed by two more ambitious projects in clay, the first he called “Cain Receiving the Curse of the Almighty.” His second such effort was called “Moses Receiving the Law on Mount Sinai” but this one collapsed during a heavy rainstorm, and his more orthodox grandmother told him it was an act of divine justice.
Three year later, when the opening shots of the War Between the States were fired, Ezekiel urged his parents to allow him to enter the Virginia Military Institute where he became that school’s first Jewish cadet. In May of 1863, while Ezekiel was at VMI, General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded during the battle of Chancellorsville and his body transported back to Lexington for burial. Jackson’s casket was first placed in his old VMI classroom prior to the funeral and Ezekiel served as corporal of the guard who stood watch over the casket.
The following May 10th, Ezekiel was among the two hundred fifty-seven cadets who marched over eighty miles to New Market where they served as an infantry and artillery battalion in Major General John Breckinridge’s division. In the battle on the 15th, a Union barrage had created a large gap in the Confederate lines and the VMI cadets were part of the troops rushed in to fill it. Their effort allowed the division to regroup and drive the Union forces from the field. In that engagement, ten of the cadets were killed and forty-seven others were wounded, including Ezekiel. After the battle, another cadet, Thomas Garland Jefferson, a nephew of President Jefferson, lay dying next to the wounded Ezekiel. In Jefferson’s last moments, Ezekiel read him passages from the Bible. Following his recovery, Sergeant Ezekiel was among the cadets sent to Richmond to train new recruits and in the final days of the War, he served in the trenches around the city.
Ezekiel retuned to VMI after the War to complete his studies and graduated the following year. It was during that period he wrote about his friendship with General Lee and his wife. In one letter he wrote that while out riding with Lee, the general said he hoped Ezekiel would become an artist but added that he should also . . . “earn a reputation in whatever profession you undertake.”
The young cadet later took Lee’s words to heart and traveled first to Ohio to study art in Cincinnati and then to Germany’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin where he became the first American to win the Prix de Rome for a bas-relief called “Israel.” The award allowed him to continue his study of sculpture in Rome, a city in which he finally resided for more than forty years.
In 1876, he returned to America after receiving a commission to produce a major work for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. His work was a marble, eight-foot statue of a female figure in chain-mail armor warding off the shaft of tyranny which he called “Religious Liberty.” After the exposition, the statue was placed in front of Philadelphia’s National Museum of Jewish History where it still stands today.
Continuing to work both in the United States and at his studio in Rome, Ezekiel produced over two hundred pieces which are now in various museums throughout Europe and America, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. Also in Washington is a marble bust of Thomas Jefferson which he made under a commission by the U. S. Senate in 1888 for placement in the Capitol.
Four years later. he received a major commission to produce a statue of Christopher Columbus for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to America. After the exposition, the statue was relocated to Arrigo Park in the city’s “Little Italy” district where it stood for well over a century. As part of today’s monument mania, however, the statue was taken down last June by order of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
At the start of the Twentieth Century, Ezekiel began to turn his efforts more towards the South, with his next work being a statue of Thomas Jefferson in 1901 for the Louisville Metro Hall in Kentucky. Nine years later, he replicated the statue for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The latter statue was vandalized in 2017 during the senseless riots in that city over the removal of statues of Generals Lee and Jackson.
In 1903, Ezekiel produced a work that was truly close to his heart, a statue for his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute, which is called “Virginia Mourning Her Dead.” This work memorialized the ten cadets who had died at the Battle of New Market. The statue was originally placed at the entrance of Jackson Memorial Hall but was moved to the VMI Museum in 1912, along with remains of the fallen cadets.
Then, in 1910, Ezekiel was asked to create the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier called “the Lookout” for placement in the Confederate Cemetery on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. The cemetery, which is on the site of an Ohio prison camp for Confederate officers and political prisoners, is now owned by the Federal government and maintained by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Even though “the Lookout” is still standing guard over the federally-owned facility, in view of the recent moves by Congress and the Department of Defense, the statue’s ultimate fate is now in doubt.
The year 1910 was also the one in which Ezekiel made two bronze statues of General Stonewall Jackson, one was for the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston and the other he donated two years later to the Virginia Military Institute. While the fate of the statue in West Virginia is still being debated, the one at VMI has now been relocated to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park even though there was strong opposition to the move. The explanation for the action was given by VMI’s interim superintendent, Major General Cedric Wins. In commenting on the school’s one hundred eighty-one year history, General Wins said that while “Stonewall Jackson’s ties to Lexington and the Institute as an instructor are part of that history . . . his story will continue to be told at this new location.” Wins further added what was perhaps the real reason for the action by saying that “VMI does not define itself by this statue and that is why this move is appropriate.”
Ezekiel’s greatest contribution to the South came in November of 1910 when the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned him to design and create the Confederate Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery. While the National Cemetery had been established in 1864, and by the end of the War several hundred Confederate dead were among the sixteen thousand graves, it was not until 1900 that Congress finally authorized a separate Confederate section.
Six years later, President William Howard Taft approved a request by the UDC to erect a memorial there that would serve as the new section’s centerpiece. Ezekiel had heard of the memorial prior to being offered the commission and had already sketched out some ideas for the monument. His acceptance of the commission, however, was based on the condition that he be given full control of the memorial’s design and construction and when the UDC women saw his plans, they readily agreed.
The memorial was completed in 1914 and unveiled on June 4th, the hundred sixth anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, with the dedication being made by President Woodrow Wilson. The monument has of a thirty-two foot carved pedestal topped by a bronze female figure holding a plow stock and a pruning hook with an inscription at her feet from the Book of Isaiah . . . “They shall beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
The pedestal displays shields bearing the coats of arms of the Confederate States and thirty-two life-size figures which includes both Confederate soldiers and civilians, along with urns and bronze eternal flames. The base also bears two inscriptions, one by the Roman poet Lucan . . . “The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods but the lost cause pleased Cato” and the other by a Confederate chaplain, Randolph McKim . . . “Not for fame or reward; not for place or for rank; not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity; but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it, these men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all and died.”
The sculptor’s last work for America prior to his death in Rome on March 27, 1917, was the seated statue of Edgar Allan Poe which had been commissioned in 1911 by Poe’s Memorial Association for placement in Baltimore’s Wyman Park. The statue’s delivery from Rome, however, was delayed until 1921 by a series of mishaps that included fires, an earthquake and World War One. Over the years, the statue suffered both vandalism and weather damage and after its repair in 1983, it was relocated to Gordon Plaza at the University of Baltimore.
While Ezekiel had achieved a high degree of fame in America during his lifetime, some of his greatest recognition came in Europe where he received many honors, as well as being knighted by both Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. After his death in 1917, his remains were returned to the United States in 1921 and his funeral was the first to be held in the newly constructed Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
During the ceremony at which a group of VMI cadets stood guard around the casket, a statement from President Warren Harding was read that called Ezekiel “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American and a great citizen of world fame.” His grave was placed at the base of the Confederate Memorial along with those of three fellow Confederates, Brigadier General Marcus Wright of Tennessee and two from Missouri, Navy Lieutenant Harry Marmaduke and Army Captain John Hickey. His headstone bears the simple inscription, “Moses J. Ezekiel Sergeant of Company C Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.”
Even though Ezekiel had been an outspoken proponent of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” during his lifetime and a strong defender of state’s rights, he was, like many Southerners of his time, opposed to slavery. In fact, he once wrote . . . “In reality, no one in the South would have raised an arm to fight for slavery. It was an evil that we had inherited and that we wanted to get rid of. Our struggle was simply a constitutional one based upon state’s rights and especially on free trade and no tariff.” Today, such sentiments are cast into the dust in the mad rush to erase from memory any vestige of the Confederacy or those who served it cause.
Included in the current cries to tear down all of the South’s monuments are ones to remove Ezekiel’s Arlington Memorial and all the Confederate graves around it. Joining in such calls regarding the Memorial itself are even a few members of the present Ezekiel family who seem to have far more regard for some radical “woke” cause than they have for their esteemed ancestor or the cause which he always held so dear.