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Camera Sacra Beauty and the Book In the Beginning

The objects on display in the exhibition Sacred Beauty are recent acquisitions of the Judaica and Jewish Ethnography Wing of the Israel Museum. Some are gifts, others are on extended loan. By exhibiting this assemblage of Jewish art and ethnography, we are recreating the mosaic of Jewish community life in North Africa, Europe, and Asia. The items presented here include distinctive clothing and ornaments, ceremonial objects from the synagogue, and decorative household items. The oldest artifact in the exhibition is a rare manuscript, a Haggadah from the fifteenth century, and the most recent items -from the early twentieth century - are works of art that were produced here in Jerusalem at the old Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. When viewed as a whole, this diverse cultural array testifies that at all times, regardless of suffering and hardship, the Jewish author never stopped writing, the Jewish artist never stopped creating, and the Jewish craftsman never laid down his tools.

Among the chosen exhibits is the First Nuremberg Haggadah, created by the fifteenth-century Jewish scribe Joel ben Simeon, whose works included many other well-known manuscripts; eleven of them bear his signature. Ben Simeon was a dominant figure in his time, and he had a profound influence on the Ashkenazic illustrator-scribes from the Jewish community that settled in northern and central Italy in the late fifteenth century. He belonged to the "Florence School," whose members produced dozens of illustrated Hebrew manuscripts. The illustrations in the Nuremberg Haggadah afford us a rare opportunity to study the developments in the personal style of a medieval Jewish artist, insofar as the Haggadah was written and illustrated when Joel Ben Simeon was a young man, and it is probably his earliest work. The unpolished style at this point in his career is evident in the rendering of the images, and in the coloring of the background surrounding them. Biblical scenes are depicted in the Nuremberg Haggadah, as they are in other Haggadot, in addition to other illustrations relevant to the text of the Haggadah, to the seder ceremony, and to the Redemption which is mentioned towards the end of the Haggadah. The Nuremberg manuscript is concluded with an inscription apparently bearing a touch of humor: "I, the Scribe Joel son of R. Simeon the Righteous of Blessed Memory, wrote this Book of the Redemption for Nathan son of R. Shelomo the Righteous of Blessed Memory. May the Holy One blessed be He grant them the privilege of reading it and chanting from it... May the scribe be not harmed, neither today nor ever, till a donkey climbs a ladder."

The family of a "court Jew" from the small town of Kriegshaber in southern Germany dedicated an opulent Torah ark curtain (parokhet) for the local synagogue in 1724. The parokhet features raised embroidery in shades of deep green and gold on a crimson background. It is a fine example of the work of male embroiderers from the Jewish communities of central Europe. The elements on this parokhet make it typical of eighteenth-century Ashkenazic Torah ark curtains: the center is adorned with a large, majestically embroidered rectangle, flanked on either side by spiral columns, each surmounted by vases with flowers; dedications are inscribed above and below; and at the very top, a pair of rampant lions support a large crown.


Torah Ark Curtain (Parokhet)
Kriegshaber, Bavaria, Germany, 1723-24
Made by Elkana Schatz Naumberg of Furth
Silver and gilt thread embroidery on silk velvet,147x249 cm
Gift of the Moldovan family, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

The Sabbath oil lamp dedicated in 1763 to the synagogue of the small German town of Pfersee was made by a Christian silversmith from nearby Augsburg. This type of lamp, known in German as a Judenstern ("Jewish Star"), has oil fonts which are in fact arranged in the form of a star. All the parts - the star, the oil drip pan below, and the hanging device above - are repousse. The hanging device consists of spherical knobs, with chased twisted scrolls and with cast child-like images (putti) seated on railings. Each putto holds swags of flowers and leaves in its hands. The lamp's components are designed in such a way that the flames are reflected from the gleaming surface and multiplied. The Judenstern lamps were cast in brass over a period of hundreds of years, most often in Germany. They would typically include a long hook in the shape of a serrated knife. This particular silver lamp was made by a craftsman who designed it with elements borrowed from other utensils he produced, but unlike his other works, here he did not put wings on the shoulders of the putti to make them look like cherubim. Presumably the wings were eliminated to meet the request of his Jewish customer.


Women's Crown-like Headdress
Eastern Europe, 19th century
Shpanyer work, silk, pearls, and semiprecious stones, 26x13.5 cm
Gift of Ruth Pincus Bruhl de Schonthal, Montevideo, Uruguay

The pair of gilt Torah finials from Iraq is inscribed with a dedication forever prohibiting the finials from being sold or redeemed. Judging from the Hebrew date which appears in this inscription (Hebrew Year 5502, i.e. 1742 CE), these are the oldest known Torah finials from this region. Torah finials are often referred to in Hebrew as rimmonim ("pomegranates") and in eastern communities, also as tapuhim ("apples"). This particular pair is decorated with rows of tiny leaves, rows of pearl-like beads, and with little bells suspended from chains. Each finial is surmounted by a flat, hand-shaped plaque (hamsah). Along with the golden hue, the full array of decorations gives the finials the appearance of royal jewelry from the East.

The painted cloth panels in the exhibition adorned the walls of the sukkah of the chief rabbi of Denmark before the Second World War. In the course of the war the rabbi's wife escaped to Sweden, as did most of the Jews of Denmark. She gave the panels to the Ettlinger family as a token of gratitude for having sheltered her during the war, and the Ettlingers used them to decorate their own sukkah, which was one of the very few sukkot ever built in Stockholm.

The paintings on the panels create an illusion of one sukkah inside another; a framed picture appears in the middle of each panel, and each picture is surrounded by depictions of vines and other branches that appear to be climbing the walls. The paintings inside the frames - depicting events in the life of Moses, the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, and the days of the future Redemption - were actually copied from well-known works of art.

Personal accessories belonging to three nineteenth-century Jewish women are displayed one beside the other, each of them originating from a different community. One is from Turkey, from the period of the Ottoman Empire; another is from Eastern Europe (probably Poland); and the third is from North Africa, specifically Algeria.

The first of the three items is a gold necklace. Such a necklace would be the most expensive and important element in the jewelry ensemble of a Jewish bride from the Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire, most notably those of Izmir, Rhodes, and Jerusalem. The necklace is known in Ladino as an ogadero, a term which can be translated as either "neckband" or "hangman's noose." Necklaces of this type were so valuable that women would sometimes use them to purchase their own burial plots.

The second item is a crown-like head ornament, of the type apparently worn by Jewish women in eastern Europe during holidays and festivals. The ornament is adorned with pearls and semiprecious stones. It is frequently depicted in the art of the period, and is even mentioned by the French author Honore de Balzac, in his Letter from Kiev (1847):

Their women wear a distinctive headdress consisting of two cabbage hearts fashioned by a silversmith, positioned above the forehead and emerging from a tiara of pearls. This is the treasure trove of every Jewish household.

The ornament is interwoven with silver and gilt thread using a special type of lacework. This lacework was created using a technique known as Shpanyer, whose secrets were closely guarded by the few Jewish craftsmen who practiced it.


Wooden plaques bearing portrayalsof the life
of the Zionist pioneers
Bezalel, Jerusalem, 1906-29
Ink on wood, each plaque 13x13 cm
Extended loan from the Alan B. Slifka Collection, Jerusalem

The third item in the group is the jubah, an opulent dress worn by Jewish women in Algeria. In its style, the jubah is reminiscent of the garments of fifteenth-century European princesses. The long, sleeveless gown is made from sumptuous cloth, with chest embroidery and embroidery at the edges of the openings. Underneath it, a woman would wear an embroidered vest over an undergarment with thin, light-colored sleeves. The embroidery of the vest was rich and heavy; it was made from couched, twisted gilt thread. The practice of wearing (and thus hiding) the vest underneath the dress was most likely intended as a means of avoiding attention.

The Bezalel articles on display here are just part of a much larger collection of works that were created at the old Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts and its associated workshops and studios from 1906, the year the school was established, to 1929, the year it closed. The vision of the school's founder, Prof. Boris Schatz, was to establish a center in Jerusalem dedicated to the new Hebrew art, a center that would attract Jewish artists from around the world and students from the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. The selected articles shown here are on display for the first time. They include souvenirs of the Land of Israel, ritual objects, utensils, decorative items, and small wooden plaques bearing charming portrayals of the life of the Zionist pioneers.

The colorful woolen carpets feature Hebrew inscriptions, symbols associated with Zionism, and depictions of the holy sites. Most of the other objects were made of silver, copper, brass, and ivory, using techniques which included repousse, engraving, etching, filigree, and damascene. Altogether, the items were designed and decorated in the finest tradition and style of the Bezalel school, bringing East and West together. As such, they represent an important period in the history of arts and crafts in this region in the early twentieth century.

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