Moses Jacob Ezekiel was born in Richmond, Virginia to a Jewish family with many children. Due to financial difficulties, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents, and as a child he grew up with the slaves in the house, whom he taught to read. But his dream was to travel to Europe to study art.
He wanted to travel far, so when he was 18, Ezekiel convinced his grandparents to send him to the Virginia Military Institute where he became the first Jewish cadet. He fought in the famous Civil War battle of New Market, Virginia in 1864.
After the war, he moved with his parents to Ohio, in the North, where he began to study sculpture and then continued his studies in Berlin. At 29, he received an award that allowed him to study in Rome for two years. There he built the workshop in which he worked until the end of his life. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and produced many sculptures on Jewish and religious subjects.
His sculpture “Religious Liberty” was commissioned by B’nai B’rith (Children of the Covenant), an American Jewish humanitarian organization, which will be presented in Philadelphia in 1876 at the first American international art exhibition. Ezekiel’s play was to be dedicated to âreligious freedomâ enshrined in the US Constitution. When the nonprofit B’nai B’rith was unable to fund sculpture and boat transportation from Rome to Philadelphia, Ezekiel himself provided the necessary funding.
The main character of the sculpture is a female image of freedom. She wears a breastplate stamped with the American flag and on her headdress are 13 stars of pure gold. A hand holds a parchment covered with laurel leaves representing the Constitution of the United States. The other hand is extended as if to say to stay away from what I am doing. Below this hand is the image of a child, naked and representing faith, face and hand turned towards the sky. His other hand holds a bowl of the fires of faith.
At the foot of the sculpture stands the American bald eagle, its wings spread, its claws riveted and its neck stretched like a snake, impatient, monstrous ready to pounce.
The sculpture had a huge impact on religious groups in the United States and continues to be an inspiration regarding the need to protect the faith in America and the modern world.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel was the first American-born Jewish sculptor to achieve international fame. He died in Rome in 1917 after 40 years of artistic creation.