(Old-New Synagogue), the oldest building in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe. Originally called the New or Great Shul, it became known as Altneuschul after the establishment of other synagogues in the late sixteenth century. Today it is the oldest surviving Gothic medieval double-nave synagogue. The other examples of this type were the late twelfth-century synagogue in Worms (destroyed in 1938), the early thirteenth-century synagogue in Regensburg (destroyed in 1519), and the fourteenth-century Old Synagogue in Vienna (destroyed in 1420). Similar in layout is the early fifteenth-century Gothic Old Synagogue in Kraków.
The Altneuschul is a rectangular structure with a large saddle roof, decked with late Gothic brick gables. The thick outer walls (130 cm) are supported by buttresses and contain 12 narrow pointed windows. The main building is surrounded on three sides by low annexes dating from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and eighteenth centuries, which serve as a vestibule and the women’s section. In accordance with Psalms 130:1 (“Out of the depths I call you, O Lord”), the floor level of the vestibule and main hall is several steps below the surrounding terrain. The interior of the Altneuschul (measuring 8 x 14 m) is arched by six bays of five ribbed vaults supported by two large octagonal pillars. The brackets, capitals, and keystones feature ornamental plant motifs; the vine-leaf decoration of the tympanum above the Torah ark is the most ornate artistically. Based on the similarity of the stone ornamentation to that of other early Gothic buildings in Bohemia, the construction of the Altneuschul can be dated back to the last third of the thirteenth century (ca. 1270).
The Torah scrolls are kept in the holy ark (aron ha-kodesh) located on the eastern wall of the synagogue. The ark is covered by an embroidered valance (kaporet) and curtain (parokhet). In front of the ark hangs the eternal light (ner tamid), and to the right is the cantor’s desk (‘amud). In the center of the main hall is a raised platform (bimah, almemar) with a stone desk (shulḥan) that is separated from the surrounding space by a late Gothic grille. To this day, the Altneuschul has retained its original seating arrangement along the walls of the main hall. The interior ornamentation is complemented by brass sconces and bronze chandeliers dating from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The synagogue also contains the large banner of the Prague Jewish community, which was remade in 1716 following the design of the original sixteenth-century one. Unlike virtually any other European synagogue dating from this period, the Altneuschul has an impressive exterior.
The Altneuschul enjoyed tremendous prestige in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and was the subject of numerous legends and tales. Its structure has survived to this day without serious damage. The first major renovation was carried out in 1883 by Josef Mocker; additional repairs were made in 1921–1926, 1966–1967, and 1997–1999.
Richard Krautheimer, Mittelalterliche Synagogen (Berlin, 1927), pp. 199–212; Zdenka Münzer, “The Altneuschul in Prague: Its Architectural History,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. 2, pp. 520–546 (Philadelphia, 1971); Arno Pařík, Prague Synagogues (Prague, 2000), pp. 13–37; Milada Vilímková, “Seven Hundred Years of the Old-New Synagogue,” Judaica bohemiae 5.1 (1969): 72–83.
Translated from Czech by Stephen Hattersley