Spice container. Poland, 1810–1820. Silver: repoussé, cast, engraved, filigree, and parcel-gilt. The H. Ephraim and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection, JM 34-51. Photograph by John Parnell. The Jewish Museum, New York (© The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

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Ceremonial and Decorative Art

The earliest examples of Ashkenazic Judaica (art used in the service of Jewish ceremony in the home or synagogue) date only to the High Middle Ages. Although texts confirm the existence of some types in prior centuries, there are no extant examples before the fourteenth century when the first kiddush cups, Hanukkah lamps (menorahs), and wedding rings were found at various sites in the German lands. Two new types were added in the sixteenth century: the tower-form spice container (used for the Havdalah service) and the Torah shield.

This corpus of Rhenish Judaica developed by the sixteenth century when the great migrations eastward began, and became the basis of Jewish ceremonial art in Eastern Europe. Other German Torah ornaments, namely the crown and the finials, date only from the seventeenth century; their influence on East European Torah ornaments is evident from the eighteenth century.

Torah crown. L'viv, 1764-1773. Silver: repoussé, cast, pierced, engraved, parcel-gilt; semiprecious stones; glass. Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman, F 2585. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, Inc. The Jewish Museum, New York (© The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

In time, the types of Judaica arriving from German lands were transformed under the influence of East European art produced by both Christian and Jewish professionals (such as silversmiths and woodcarvers). Local folk art had its influence as well. Panels of cutout vines inhabited by animals and birds replaced the relatively simple repoussé decoration of German silversmiths. Flora and fauna similar to those on carved ark decorations and in paintings found on the ceilings and walls of wooden synagogues overwhelmed the traditional tower form of objects such as the spice container (see images at top right and in media related to this article), and often replaced them. Fruit-form metalwork was familiar from domestic copper alloy wares, such as coffeepots, that were decorated with images of fruit, flowers, animals, and birds. If spice containers were still shaped like towers, they were often made of filigree, a favorite technique of Russian silversmiths.

In addition, Torah crowns and finials became taller, with multiple stories similar to those of wooden churches and synagogues in Poland (see image at right). In the second decade of the nineteenth century, the upper sections of Torah crowns began to be furnished with a series of rampant cast animals, most often lions, with cast three-dimensional birds serving as finials. To accommodate a new taste for taller forms, additional stories were often set on older crowns, resulting in multiple dedicatory inscriptions that recorded the history of their fabrication.

Hanukkah lamp. Eastern Europe, ca. 1900. Copper alloy: cast and engraved. The Rose and Benjamin Mintz Collection, M 446. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, Inc. The Jewish Museum, New York (© The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

In Eastern Europe, Torah appurtenances were made of both silver and silvered copper alloy (because of economic considerations). Kiddush cups were usually fashioned of silver both because of its ceremonial use and to prevent impurities from leaching into the wine, but a copper alloy was the material most commonly used for Hanukkah menorahs. The bench-type lamp, so-called because it sat on a surface, was generally furnished with an openwork back plate and side panels. Paired animals such as deer and lions, together with geometric shapes, formed the openwork. A particularly elaborate example from the nineteenth century incorporated a veritable menagerie: pairs of the usual animals—lion and deer—but also a three-dimensional bear and a gorilla, the latter types probably known from the circus (see image at left). Large bronze menorahs, often five feet tall and five feet wide, were made for synagogues. These pieces were topped by cast birds with outspread wings; other animals such as deer appear between the arms. A common type of silver lamp is a bench form made of silver filigree with silver or gilt appliqués, popular techniques for Russian decorative objects. This menorah (see image in media related to this article) has been nicknamed the “Ba‘al Shem Tov” lamp, although there seems to be no evidence for an association with the Hasidic master who died in 1760, a half-century prior to the creation of this lamp type.

Torah ark curtain and valance. Poland. Inscription dates 1778–1789 (curtain) and 1785–1786 (valance). Silk; wool; appliquéd with metallic woven ribbon. The Jewish Museum, New York) (Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman, F 3678a, b. © The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

Filigree, however, had sacral associations dating to the sixteenth century, when it had been used to form the borders of Russian icons and the surfaces of other ecclesiastic objects, a factor that may have recommended the use of this technique for Jewish ritual objects (see image in media related to this article). In the synagogue, filigree overlay the forms of Torah crowns and finials whose basic structure was sometimes gilt to create color contrasts. These filigree works were imitated with coarser wires in American workshops after the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe in the 1880s.

As in synagogues all over the Jewish world, East European places of worship required textiles to protect Torah scrolls: binders, mantles, and covers for the reader’s desk and for the scroll between lections. Many of the largest textiles, the ark curtains, are folk art formed of a patchwork of valuable silks (see image at right). Their basic composition follows that of professionally made Central European examples: a rectangular field of a valuable textile, such as fragments of eighteenth-century silk, is set in the middle of a background cloth. Metallic ribbons and lace overlap both areas.

Since East European Jews specialized in making metallic textile ornaments, it is not surprising to find such items designed for use in synagogues. A particularly complex metallic embroidery form, which appears to be in relief, was known as shpanyer arbet (brocade work). It was used on Torah curtains and mantles, for yarmulkes, and on ‘atarot, the band that crowns the upper edges of prayer shawls to protect them from wear (see image in media related to this article). The inscriptions on many East European synagogue textiles are formed of prefabricated ribbon, rather than being embroidered; as a result, the letters form rectangular outlines.

Shivisi papercut. Galicia. 1845-1846. Paint and pencil on parchment: cut out. The Jewish Museum, New York. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, Inc. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George Sagan, JM 51-51. © The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

East European Jews also developed new types of ceremonial art out of the techniques and aesthetics of the larger culture around them. Artists often specialized in creating paper-cut wall plaques that indicated the direction of prayer (the mizraḥ), bore invocations stressing the need to concentrate on prayer, or were ‘omer calendars that tracked the days between Passover and Shavu‘ot. These densely designed plaques, cut from paper or parchment with scissors, contain many of the same iconographic elements found on synagogue silver, wall paintings, and carvings—birds, animals, flora and knotted forms—and are dominated by the same sense of horror vacui (see image at left).

The corpus of East European ceremonial art had roots in the Judaica of Ashkenaz, but became distinctive through contacts with East European art. New works including the paper cut, a predilection for the medium of copper alloy and for silver techniques such as filigree, together with an aesthetic that emphasized verticality and teeming compositions overlaid with the flora and fauna of the natural world defined a new branch of Jewish ceremonial art. In the 1880s, the emigration of great numbers of East European Jews led to the transmission of these artistic forms to the United States, where they are still copied today.

Suggested Reading

Susan L. Braunstein, Five Centuries of Hanukkah Lamps from The Jewish Museum: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven, 2004); Rafi Grafman, Crowning Glory: Silver Torah Ornaments of The Jewish Museum, New York, ed. Vivian B. Mann (New York, 1996); Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, The Jews of the Middle Ages (Speyer, Ger., 2004); Marilyn Koolik, Towers of Spice: The Tower Shaped Tradition in Havdalah Spiceboxes (Jerusalem, 1982); Vivian B. Mann, “‘New’ Examples of Jewish Ceremonial Art from Medieval Ashkenaz,” Artibus et Historiae 17(1988): 13–24; Cecil Roth, “Ritual Art,” in Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, pp. 118–131 (Greenwich, Conn., 1971).