European Day of Jewish Culture 2010
Subject Matter: Art and Judaism
Sunday, September 5th, 2010
Every year, a special subject matter is chosen, around which activities and events are being organized. The subject matter of this year, “Art and Judaism”, offers an especially wide field of topics to explore:
- Different kinds of art: paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, literature, music, films, theatre
- Different artists: painters, sculptors, writers, actors, composers and performers, directors
- Different periods: ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary
- Others: patrons of art, collections
- Art applied in religious ceremony or in everyday life
- Etc., etc.
This means that organizers from all participating countries will be able to come up with innumerable different kinds of activities to attract and surprise the visitors, who will be given an extraordinary opportunity to discover the artistic wealth of Jewish culture and heritage.
Please check this site for the detailed programmes of the different countries, which will be available within the next days and weeks.
Roll the cursor over the countries to learn more
11th edition of the EUROPEAN DAY OF JEWISH CULTURE
JEWISH ART AND CEREMONIAL OBJECTS by Annie Sacerdoti.
Books have always been important objects for the Jews, a people that has made study, writing, and literature the pillars of its existence. From the 13th century, manuscripts, and especially illuminated manuscripts, were one of their most interesting art forms. Jews usually had to commission them, however, from Christian artists. In addition to the illuminated books, some marriage contracts were real masterpieces (such as the illuminated ketuboth made at Lugo di Romagna), and the decorations and techniques evolved over time.
Resorting to Christian craftsmen was a constant feature in the whole of Italian Jewish art. In fact the Jews were not allowed to enroll in the medieval arts and crafts guilds and, therefore, could not work as craftsmen. Moreover, the fact that Jewish religion forbade representing human figures conditioned, but did not effectively limit, artistic production.
There was an art, however, which was typically the domain of all Jewish women: embroidery. It spread and developed among Jewish women out of necessity, since one of the few trades the men were allowed to practice during the ghetto centuries was that of second-hand clothes merchant. The women, therefore, had to wash and mend old clothes before they were put up for sale. Thus the art of mending became the very refined and professional art of embroidery. The embroidered fabrics were signed and dated and often particularly precious, because they had come from ceremonial clothes that the nobles frequently exchanged or threw out.
The embroidered fabrics became decorative elements in homes but especially in synagogues, as ornaments for the Scrolls of the Law, which are the books of the Pentateuch, the typical example of scriptures kept in the Holy Ark. Always made of silver, the ornaments embellishing the sacred texts were the real treasures of the synagogues. Conversely, the synagogue walls were bare and decorated only with biblical inscriptions and simple friezes.
The scrolls are covered by an ornamental cape called the meil, made of precious fabrics. The exteriors are embellished with three objects: a large crown or keter, resting on the upper section, and two large ferrules projecting from inside the crown. These ferrules are called the rimmonim and are shaped like towers or small bells. On the side is an ornamental tray called the tass. Adorned in this way, the scrolls are kept in the aron (Holy Ark).
The aron in turn is closed by a curtain or parocheth, finely embroidered with various motifs: the two columns from the Temple of Jerusalem, inscriptions, decorations of leaves and fruit, and often the date and name of the family which presented it to the synagogue.
The Jewish artistic heritage is also the outcome of a tradition, thousands of years old, whereby religious ceremonies were held in houses with the whole family reunited. These ceremonies required that the rite be honored with particularly valuable and beautiful objects, such as the two candelabra lit on Shabbat, the lamps with an oil vessel in the form of a star with seven or more branches, and other items, including the cup for Kiddush (the blessing over wine). The form of the cup is prescribed by tradition and is so old that it is even found in medieval manuscripts. In addition to the Kiddush cups, glasses in the form of goblets were also used. They had four "feet" and were decorated with Hebrew citations dictated by the rite. There are also some very original decorations, like those on the early 19th-century examples produced in Eastern Europe by Jewish goldsmiths: one cup of repoussé silver has a view of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall as well as Hebrew inscriptions.
To mark the end of the Sabbath, elegant scent-holders for besamim are used for the ceremony of Havdalah, when perfumed essences are scattered to bless the week about to begin. The scent-holders are usually made of silver and shaped like towers to remind of the Tower of David, described in the Song of Songs. But some Central European examples are shaped like small fish, symbols of fecundity, and others like birds alluding to the popular Yiddish song of the Sabbath evening in which birds sing the glory of the Lord.
The lamp of Hanukkah is what has most caught the imagination of artists, enabling them to create lamps with very varied forms and decorations: some are enhanced by biblical citations, others with vegetal or animal decorations, and some, violating for once the orthodox rules, with human figures. They all have one element in common: the number of branches. It must always be eight plus the shammash, called the "server," because it was used to light the individual candles in the eight days of the feast. There are also various dishes and objects used for the Passover meal or Seder, when the whole family sits at the table for the ritual dinner. The most interesting piece is the Seder plate with the symbols of the dinner, arranged in a pre-established order: the shank bone, bitter herbs, charoset, and karpas (vegetable).
A medallion called the shaddai is hung on a newborn baby´s cradle to protect it from Lilith, Eve´s rival, who might send evil spirits to kidnap the child. This is a lucky charm, usually made of silver, but also of tin or poorer alloys. The inscription shaddai, means the Almighty, one of God´s names.
On the doorposts of Jewish houses there is a small case, called a mezuzah, containing two passages from Deuteronomy on parchment, recalling the sacred nature of the house. Made of silver, brass, carved wood, or even poorer materials such as bamboo, the mezuzoth are always suitably decorated - some with the Holy Ark containing the Scrolls of the Law.
All of these objects have remained unchanged over time in terms of form and material. Only after emancipation did the Jews begin to express new artistic forms (such as monumental synagogue architecture) by following those artistic trends in painting and sculpture which they had previously ignored.
Today the Jewish artistic heritage is jealously guarded in museums and libraries as tangible evidence of their high artistic standards, often achieved even at the times of greatest hardship and discrimination. Many of the furnishings once in Italian synagogues now live on in Israeli temples, such as the Italian synagogue in Jerusalem, which was reconstructed in 1952 with original 18th-century furnishings from the temple of Conegliano Veneto. This is not an isolated example. In the postwar period many Italian communities, annihilated by deportation and emigration, could not revive normal community life. At that time the head of the Italian Jewish communities - with the memory of destruction still painfully fresh - chose to send to Israel the furnishings and objects from those places where there was no longer any community life. This seemed the best way to avoid losing them forever.