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Viewed up close with Amy Landau, The Walters’s associate curator of Islamic art and manuscripts, the ark door didn’t overwhelm initially. A wooden panel that measures about 30 inches by 15 inches, the door shows evidence of water damage in one of the bottom corners. “It’s a very interesting piece, but for an art museum it’s not a great masterpiece, obviously,” Landau admitted. “What we are looking at is a damaged piece of wood. The power of the object lies in its architectural history, its history of place.”
The panel — one of two ark doors whose companion piece is lost — contains several Hebrew inscriptions, as well as geometric panels. The quotation on the top, “Open for me the gates of justice,” derives from Psalm 118:19, and an inscription on the bottom comes from the verse that follows, “This is the gate of God.”
Presumably, the predicates of both verses would have appeared on the lost door. (The reverse side contains inscriptions of the priestly benedictions from Numbers 6:24–26, “May God bless and guard you” and “May the Lord lift his face up toward you.”)
However plain the door may appear to be at first, it might as well be St. Peter’s pearly gates once Landau has traced its complicated history. Through carbon dating commissioned by the Miami dentist who purchased the door for $37.50 in the early 1990s, and corroborated by tests by The Walters’s staff, the wood dates to the 11th century.
“For a general audience, there’s enough evidence to suggest that it’s coming from the Ben Ezra synagogue, and that has been agreed upon by a number of scholars in the field,” Landau said.
But even though the 11th century is a convenient date, since the synagogue, according to a Geniza document, underwent its first major reconstruction during that period, that’s anything but the end of the story. An Islamic art specialist, Landau says there’s no way the carving comes from the Fatimid period, which dates from the 11th century to the 13th.
Landau and colleagues she consulted, including Vivian Mann, director of the master’s program in Jewish art and visual culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, agree that the Islamic art-inspired geometric designs on the doors come from the Mamluk period and are at least post-1400.