As the anonymous protagonist of Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady or the Tiger?” grew increasingly aware, what lies beyond a portal can make a huge difference. A long tradition of adorning doors with a variety of iconographies reflects artists’ understanding of what is at stake in an opaque entrance that obscures and protects what lies either within or without.
Examples of profoundly crafted gateways include the portals on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” at the Florence Baptistery, title pages of Soncino Press volumes, and Auguste Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (famous for its Thinker).
On the most basic level, synagogue ark doors symbolize Temple curtains, which separate the domains of the profane, the sacred and the Holy of Holies. Modern-day ark doors also secure costly Torah scroll troves, act as barriers that allow congregants to sit without disrespecting the Torahs and offer a directional prompt for worshippers to orient their prayers toward Jerusalem.
So powerful is the symbol of the opening and closing ark doors that High Holy Days services often invoke the “Gates of Heaven” as a metaphor for a diminishing window of opportunity to petition divine salvation. “Caution,” the heavenly gates seem to say, “the doors are closing.”
The ark door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in Egypt, is clearly part of an aesthetic tradition of Jewish portals, but this is about all that is certain regarding the mysterious door, which is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides (1135–1204) and the Cairo Geniza.
The door, owned jointly by The Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore, and the Yeshiva University Museum, in New York, is on exhibit at The Walters until May 26 in “Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue.” A version of the exhibit will be on display at the Y.U. museum from October 6 until February 10, 2014.