23 September 2016

"How Goodly Are Thy Tents, O Jacob…" • Wall Paintings in Bukovinian Synagogues

   The Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews

„How Goodly Are Thy Tents, O Jacob…“
Wall Paintings in Bukovinian Synagogues

Chernivtsi-Kyiv 2016

Synagogue wall paintings in Bukovina:
ORIGINALITY IN THE CONTEXT OF TRADITIONS

The history of Eastern European synagogue painting, which has left traces in Bukovinian synagogues, extends over four centuries. Originating in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late sixteenth century, it saw its heyday in the eighteenth century when it spread from the Dnieper River to the Rhine and from the Baltic Sea to the Danube [Fig. 1]. At the turn of the twentieth century, following the immigration of Jews to Palestine and America, it was introduced to other parts of the world. During the interwar and, especially, the post-war period, the physical elimination of the Jews, as well as the strengthening of political regimes professing militant atheism, together with a large-scale emigration, made it impossible for the remaining Jewish communities to return to their traditional ways, and the practice of wall painting came to an end. Nor did it take root in the New World as the transformations that were underway in the Eastern European Jewish immigrant communities came into conflict with the ideology and aesthetics embodied in traditional synagogue painting - art that became symbolic of the mentality of an Eastern European shtetl* [Transliteration of Hebrew terms and names conforms to modern Israeli phonology.] with its strong folklore and mystic core.

Today, it is difficult to appreciate the scale and forms of this artistic phenomenon, which is inseparable from Eastern European Yidishkait. Its special significance owes to its profoundly spiritual content and the combination of faith and liturgy, mysticism and folklore with the European experience. Synagogue wall painting became a vivid and original form of the visualization of the Jewish „picture of the world“. Magical symbols and representations of the biblical past and the Messianic future envelop the synagogue walls like a single artistic shroud turning the prayer hall into a visible Jewish Cosmos, where everything was as sacred as it was symbolic. It was there that the Almighty revealed himself to the Jews and they could lament their exile, galut, in their prayers, and dream about their return to Eretz Israel.
This artistic culture, though indisputably inspired by the Torah, cannot be viewed as either simply the product of religious institutions or something imposed on the local culture by rabbinic authorities, but rather it is the fruit of the religious spirit of common people. The wall paintings combined biblical tales, Messianic motifs, heraldic emblems, genre painting, symbols and ornaments. Quotations from the Torah, midrashim, and passages from prayers woven into an ornamental background made up a unified hierarchical pattern, which represented the two key vectors meeting the Jews’ basic aspirations. One of these was oriented towards the vault, which personified God’s abode, whereas the other was oriented towards the Eastern wall with the Torah ark facing in the direction of Jerusalem, the holiest site of the Promised Land. The program, in a full or abbreviated form, could vary from place to place, allowing for new themes and motifs, but in the Orthodox Jewish environment it remained unalterable. The traditional approach necessitated the canonization of form on the one hand, but left sufficient space for creativity, on the other. Only a few sources on the paintings have been preserved until now, namely, the rabbinical responsa (rabbinical decisions on issues related to religious practices), which considered the appropriateness of the imagery employed in synagogue interior decoration. The seemingly improvised approach to the tradition accounts for the difficulties in interpreting the semantics of synagogue murals. This becomes even more difficult alongside the fact that significant part of the murals has been destroyed over time.

The synagogue wall painting tradition developed alongside with other aspects of Jewish culture serving the religious life of the shtetl, such as carved tombstones, matzevot, synagogue woodwork, metalwork and textile embroidery, decorative inscriptions on memorial plaques, as well as the Mizrah, a plate marking the direction of prayer towards Jerusalem. The decoration was inspired by the hiddur mitzvah commandment, which demanded following the law to the highest aesthetic level possible, „Ascribe unto the Lord the glory due unto His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness“** [All the Bible quotations are to be found in the Jewish Publication Society edition of the Hebrew Bible in English, 1917.] (Psalm 29:2). The Jews sought to keep on their proper decorum in the place where during prayer, they could sense the Divine Presence, Shekhinah.

Beginning the mid-sixteenth century, quotations from the Bible were inscribed on the walls for the congregation to read during the service. Eventually there texts would be adorned with a painted frame with an vaulted arch, imitating Renaissance manuscript bordures [Fig. 1]. The ornament includes religious symbols, floral and zoomorphic motifs. This ornamentation concept produced the effect of an open scroll unfolding along the prayer hall. By the mid-eighteenth century an iconographic painting program took final shape, combining a number of concepts which reflected a hierarchy of time and space. One of these was conceived the convey the inner space of the Biblical Tabernacle of the Covenant and the Temple of Jerusalem, whose sacred objects were also duplicated in wall painting [Fig. 2]. Another concept, through the imagery of the walls and domes as metaphors of the worldly and the celestial, was meant to reproduce the Creation. A zodiac belt then separated the wall painting from that on the ceiling, which commonly featured Biblical and Messianic stories, such as those of Leviathan and Behemoth (in the Eastern European tradition also referred to as Ox), the two bears carrying a bunch of grapes, the lion fighting the unicorn, etc. The center of the vault represented the zenith of the entire visual cosmology. It incorporated an image of a flower and hares running in a circle, symbolic of the wellspring of life and the passing of time, and a double-headed eagle that symbolizes the dual nature of God’s Providence over the faithful: Divine mercy and justice. A third concept conveyed an artistic metaphor of the Garden of Eden. The painted curtains in the framing of the Torah ark symbolically separated the sacred space and were associated with the Jerusalem Temple curtain. The dedoration comprises architectural elements, floral images, vases with the Tree of Life, musical instruments, as well as zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs.  The strictures of Moses’ second commandment, „You shall not create for yourself a graven image,“ sometimes inhibited Jewish artists from producing images of people, thus compelling them to seek compromise between the dogmas of Judaism and their willingness to animate the prayer space. With this in mind, they might resort to hand motifs, headless, schematic or blurred human figures, and anthropomorphic images. Such an approach „visualizes the invisible,“ and evokes in the congregation a sense of experiencing Divine Presence during their worship in the synagogue.

Synagogue artists adapted wealth of motifs from the surrounding culture and introduced them into Jewish culture and liturgy. The paintings were produced by both professional and amateur artists, who sometimes signed their works. An important place in wall painting was reserved for inscriptions; except texts of prayers, which had become obsolete by the late nineteenth century. The inscriptions on inner walls included the titles of scenes and featured citations from the Torah and other sources. In contrast to rich zoomorphic and figurative decoration of east- and central European traditional synagogues, the Reform synagogues or Temples featured prevailingly geometric or vegetative ornaments.

Little remains of synagogue wall painting in Eastern Europe. As a result of the total loss of wooden synagogues and large-scale ruination of stone ones, many fine samples of traditional wall painting have been almost entirely lost. Today in Eastern Europe, only an estimated one hundred synagogues with wall paintings have survived the ravages of time. The majority of them are located in Poland and Romania. There are also a few in Belarus, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.

Bukovina’s synagogue wall painting occupies a unique place in this cultural heritage as far as its spread, state of preservation, and artistic originality is concerned. The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the peculiarities of local historic developments. Part of the Principality of Moldavia until 1774, Bukovina was then ceded to the Habsburg Monarchy. From 1918 to 1940, and 1941 to 1944 this territory was part of the Kingdom of Romania. Today’s Bukovina is divided by the Ukrainian-Romanian border into northern and southern parts. Northern Bukovina with its capital, Chernivtsi, has, for more than seventy years, been part of the Chernivtsi region in what was formerly the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and is now part of the independent Ukraine. Southern Bukovina remains part of Suceava County in Romania.

During World War II, Romania, allied with Nazi Germany, unleashed a policy of genocide against local Jews. Although thousands of Jews were removed to the concentration camps and ghettos in Transnistria, Jewish places of prayer survived not only the war, but also the Holocaust and so-called Sovietization. Thus examples of wall polychromic painting have been preserved for posterity. Most of these synagogues, including those shown in this catalogue, date to the turn of the twentieth century. In Ukrainian Bukovina wall paintings are still to be seen only in four synagogues. The best preserved are in Chernivtsi’s active synagogue Beit Tfilah Benyamin (Hebrew: „prayer house of Benyamin“) [Fig. 6], and in a recently rediscovered former synagogue in the regional center of Novoselytsia (Ger.: Nowosielitza; Rom.: Noua Suliță). Fragments of wall paintings can be seen in Chernivtsi’s two other synagogues, the Groise Shil (Yiddish: „Great Synagogue“) [Fig. 3] and the Chevra Tehilim (Hebrew: „Society of Psalms“). The rediscovery of the Novoselytsia synagogue wall painting, as well as that in the minor hall of the Groise Shil Synagogue in Chernovtsi significantly broadens our understanding of the typology repertoire and iconography of synagogue wall painting in this region in general. Unlike the much-sovietized Northern Bukovina, Jewish ritual architecture in Romania’s Southern Bukovina underwent no conversion for purposes other than religious and now are in a much better state than those in the north. The painting programs in four of them, namely Templul Mare (Romanian: „Great Temple“) in Siret, Templul Mare in Rădăuți, Khevra Gmilat Khasadim (Hebrew: „Society of Acts of Loving Kindness“) in Suceava and Sinagoga Mare („Romanian: „Great Synagogue“) in Gura Humorului, bear similarities to those in Chernivtsi-Novoselytsia. They also share common features with the synagogues in the neighboring parts of Romania [Fig. 4], formerly located in the Principality of Moldova, i. e. Bacău, Hârlău, Iași, Botoșani, Fălticeni, Piatra Neamț, and Târgu Neamț. Interestingly, some of the Bukovinian shrines mentioned above display several layers of wall painting dating to different time periods. Unfortunately, most of the religious architecture is in disrepair and in urgent need of restoration, as well as a new lease of life. Novotselytsia’s and Vatra Dornei’s synagogues require immediate action to be saved from dilapidation.

A particular feature of the majority of the local synagogues is an opulent decoration combining Jewish iconography with the traditional artistic decoration of European palaces. In Bukovina - at the crossroad of states and cultures - synagogue art was more open than elsewhere to the diversity of cultural influences. Other factors also contributed to the unprecedented development of local traditions. Starting in the mid-ninteenth century, Bukovina found itself under the strong influence of Hasidism represented by the prominent tsadikim of Sadhora (Ger.: Sadagora; Rom.: Sadagura, Yiddish: Sadigora or Sadiger) and Vyzhnytsia (Ger.: Wiznit or Wischnitz, Rom.: Vijnița or Vișnița.). The founder of the former Hasidic court was Rabbi Israel „Ruzhiner“ Friedmann, who, in 1842, relocated to Sadhora from Russian Ukraine. The other dynasty originated in the Galicia branch of Hasidism and was represented by the Hager family of Vyzhnytsia, who eventually intermarried with the Friedmanns. Over time, the influence of the two dynasties spread to outlaying territories. The Bukovinian tsadiks’ commitment to the so called „King’s way“ of rule, coupled with love of  luxury and mysticism, exerted a noticeable influence on the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish community in general and architectural and decorative styles in particular. The fact that numerous members of the two dynasties were involved in erecting new synagogues based on the Sadhora model gives sufficient ground for a certain degree of similarity in the interior decoration [Fig. 5]. Another important factor in the original basis for the local canon of synagogue painting was Zionism, which tended to give a new sense to the century-old religious-nostalgic feelings of the Jews concerning Zion, Jerusalem and Palestine.

Bukovinian synagogue wall painting can be viewed as a peculiar „boom“ of the original Eastern European synagogue tradition of decoration at the final stage of its evolution. It was an „outburst“ against the background of the eventual decadence of medieval iconography in the painting program, an ever-growing number of new themes in the repertoire, especially circulated by means of polygraphy and substitution of a symbolic idiom of folk art by the realistic genre painting. However, Bukovina resisted what seemed to be an inexorable degradation. In Bukovina even between the wars local artists managed to preserve the magical style of synagogue wall painting distinguished by a wealth of themes, profound emotional content and a distinct personal manner. All these testify to the religious devotion of Bukovinian Jews, who, might well have continued the tradition throught the present if it had not been for the tragic events of the war and post-war eras.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The book looks great. We had an advance "peek" when at the Museum last month!

Thanks for the post.