Photo: Menachem Wecker
For the past three years, mid-March has meant for me a pilgrimage to the southern Dutch town of Maastricht to cover The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, the fair offers (for a hefty price) everything from Greco-Roman antiquities and Rembrandts to Warhols, photography and modern sculpture. The best metaphor I can think of for navigating the fair’s 275 galleries is an ice cream headache that comes from too thoroughly tantalizing the eye with too many artistic treasures.
I have also, for the past three years, walked several times from my hotel to the intersection of Maastricht’s Sint Pieterstraat and Achter De Oude Minderbroeders streets, the latter of which is Dutch for “Behind the Old Franciscans.” There, I thumbed through Jewish books at a former Franciscan monastery dating back to the 13th century.
The reading room of the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg, Limburg’s regional historic center, has the soaring, vaulted ceilings and stunning windows one would expect of a monastery. Like many in Holland, the building changed hands when Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, conquered the city in 1632. The church heads were beheaded, and the building became an orphanage, military hospital, jail and even sauerkraut factory.
A Hanukkah lamp that was recently given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam may have one of the most compelling provenances of any Jewish ritual object.
The lamp was created by a Christian (Dutch Reformed) silversmith, Harmanus Nieuwenhuys, for the Dutch Jewish community in 1751 — when Jews were still barred from guilds. (Harmanus’ son Hendrik also created ritual objects for Jewish patrons.)
By all accounts, it appears to have gotten a good deal of use, and a condition report from the museum identifies the object as “good (dent in back).” In 1907 Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands bought the lamp at auction and gave it as an Easter gift to her mother, Queen Emma (1858-1934).
Staff at the Jewish Historical Museum may have learned of the lamp’s existence following its inclusion in 1965 in the book “History of Dutch Silver,” according to Irene Faber, the head of collections at the museum. The lamp was given on short-term loan to the museum at some point in the 1980s, she adds. “We do not know what the occasion was, probably an exhibition on ceremonial objects or about history of the Jews in Holland.”
And now, the lamp, which this reporter recently viewed in a museum back room, has found its way to the Jewish community again through Christian hands.
While a bunch of musty old books may not, at first, sound like a diverting idea for an exhibition, Columbia University has succeeded in bringing to life an illuminating collection of Judaic manuscripts.
“The People in the Books: Judaic Manuscripts at Columbia University Libraries,” on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until January 25, is all about bringing to life the stories behind the manuscripts — who were the authors, owners and real people who handled these books, papers and letters hundreds of years ago? This is all about the “paratext” — the scribbled notes written in the margins of books, the changing ownership of a manuscript, the physical aspect of text. In other words, all the bibliographical clues that lead us to visualise the interaction real people had with a manuscript during its active life.
The exhibition, broken up into sections such as “Travellers,” “Congregants,” “Mystics,” “Doctors” and “Timekeepers,” gathers together diverse and rare manuscripts such as philosophical treatises, sefarim, letters, ketubot, and calendars, which are written in Hebrew, Dutch, Judeo-German and Spanish, among other languages, each giving its own vignette of Jewish community life in Europe and beyond.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
For the past year I’ve been curator of the Plastics Collection at Syracuse University, and while I have not given up my research and activism vis-a-vis Jewish art and architecture, I have launched into to a new work area. Usually, I just split my interests — plastics by day, and teaching “Art and Architecture of the Synagogue” at night. But occasionally I can bring these two seemingly disparate disciplines together.
One such occasion came last July, when I was in Cologne, Germany, to comment on the ongoing archaeological excavations of the medieval synagogue and Judengasse. I took the opportunity to visit the Amsterdam, and the Amsterdam Bakelite Collection of Reindert Groot, to discuss possibilities of collaboration. Besides showing me hundreds of notable plastic objects, mostly from the 1920s to 1940s, Reindert knew I would want to see the above pictured plastic yahrzeit “candles.” Today we are used to seeing plastic lights, including memorial lamps and Hanukkah menorahs, but these are very early examples.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
Bar-Ilan University professor Ilia Rodov has written an important and useful article on medieval Torah Arks, especially those tall tower types, well known from representations in many illuminated medieval manuscripts. The article, “Tower-like Torah Arks, the Tower of Strength and the Architecture of the Messianic Temple,” was recently published in the prestigious art historical Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.
Rodov’s article accomplishes three tasks. First, he has inventoried the number of occurrences and described the variety of known Spanish, Italian and Ashkenazic arks that meet a broad definition of “Tower-like Torah Arks.” These include examples shown in Spanish Haggadot, such as British Library Mss 2884, where the Aron HaKodesh is shown as a substantial fortified architectural element; to the tall ornate Gothic-style free-standing cabinet-type arks illustrated in Northern European manuscripts.
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