Jewish artists have been designing and illustrating ketubahs for hundreds of years.
The processes witnessed in text development affected ketubah illustration as well; Here too an interesting incorporation of early artistic traditions into the influences of local art of the various communities took place. This fruitful interlacing gave illustrated ketubahs their distinct flavor and characteristic style which differed from community to community.
The earliest illustrated ketubahs were created in the region of Eretz Israel – Egypt between the tenth and twelfth centuries and are known to us through fragments from the Cairo Geniza. It was already customary at that time to read out the ketubah aloud and to display the dowry items to the wedding guests. An illustrated ketubah of many colors was very appropriate for such a festive occasion. The ketubah illustrations are essentially quite similar to those in manuscripts of the same geographical regions and they include architectural and floral motifs and micrographic ornamentations.
The only surviving Ashkenazi ketubah from Medieval Europe comes from the town of Krems, Austria, 1391-1392 CE. The upper margin of this ketubah presents a groom in typical Jewish garments handing a large ring to the bride facing him. The custom of illustrating the marriage contract however did not strike roots among Ashkenazi Jewry and the obligatory uniform wording that was insisted upon contributed to decline of the social significance of the ketubah in the wedding ceremony. Among Spanish Jews however ketubahs continued to be socially important personal documents, a fact that probably contributed to the proliferation of ketubah illustration. After the expulsion from Spain the custom was introduced to the various communities the exiles settled in.
The most important center flourished in Italy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish Jews and then those of the various other communities, have under the influence of Italian Baroque art commissioned and created the most elaborate ketubahs known to date. Italian ketubahs were written on large sheets of parchment and top artists from the various Jewish communities (sometimes even Catholic artists) were hired to illustrate them. Featured in them are abundant architectural elements combined with Biblical scenes, zodiac signs, allegorical figures, wedding and family symbols, emblems of the Tribes of Israel, Jerusalem landscapes, The Temple in Jerusalem, Tabernacle vessels etc. The various designs, even those borrowed from Gentile art were given distinct Jewish significance connected with marriage and the establishment of a new Jewish family.
In addition to Italy designed and illustrated ketubahs were prevalent in West European Sephardic communities – Holland, Germany, France, England and Austria, the Western parts of the Ottoman Empire – Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria Romania and in North Africa – Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
Dutch ketubahs were made from copper engravings containing allegorical wedding scenes and floral and vegetal decorations.
Ketubahs surviving from the Ottoman Empire are primarily from the 19th century and similarly to those from other Oriental countries were written on paper and not on parchment. Oriental influences are quite apparent in their designs which consist mainly of floral and architectural motifs with a few animal images but no human ones.
In North Africa the Spanish tradition of writing on parchment was preserved until the new era and the ketubahs the exiles from many Spanish cities brought along with them are of parchment and preserve characteristically Spanish ornamental motifs.
In the Moslem countries the most important center for ketubah illustration was Persia of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In the major cities of Persia new types of ketubahs of unique style were created. They are vividly and brightly colored and richly decorated with flowers and animals. The visual resources for these were varied and included carpets, coins and manuscripts such as Persian- Muslim marriage contracts. The influence of Persian ketubahs is visible also in communities outside of Persia such as Afganistan, Azarbijan and Georgia. The ketubahs of India and the Far East constitute a separate division. They abound with pictures of exotic animals and birds, lotus flowers and other endemic flora.
The ketubahs created in Eretz Israel, Syria Egypt and Lebanon combine oriental stylistic traditions with Sephardic traditions. Especially noteworthy are the Jerusalem ketubahs whose images are laden with symbolic significance associated with the Temple and Holy Places. This tradition continued later on with the introduction of printed ketubahs in which miniature pictures of the Holy Sites proliferated. These printed Jerusalem ketubahs reached many countries in the Orient and indirectly caused the decline of the tradition of hand written and hand illustrated ketubahs. Printed ketubahs gradually replaced them in almost all countries and this ancient tradition was abandoned.
The beginning of the Seventies saw a renewed interest in hand written and hand illustrated ketubahs. In an era of a "search for roots" and a renewed interest in the various aspects of Jewish art many Jewish couples, especially American ones are looking for de lux hand written illustrated ketubahs for their wedding ceremonies.