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YanivThe Cherubim on Torah Ark Valances

YanivThe Cherubim on Torah Ark Valances

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Published by: bgeller4936 on Aug 02, 2009
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155
THE CHERUBIM ON TORAH ARK VALANCES
The Cherubim on Torah Ark Valances
Bracha Yaniv
 Jewish Art Department, Bar-Ilan University
S
ince Antiquity, the design and content of the synagogue have been basedon the idea of the synagogue as a ‘little sanctuary’ (Heb.
mikdash me`at
), that is,a substitute for the Temple. Accordingly, the prayer service and the publicreading of the Torah come in place of the sacrificial rite, the
bema
on which theTorah scroll is placed substitute for the altar, the Torah ark for the Ark of theCovenant and the Torah scroll kept in it for the Tablets of the Law.
1
As a furthermanifestation of this overall conception, a new ritual object appeared in late17th-century Europe: the Torah ark valance, which came to be called in Hebrew
kapporet
and was seen as a substitute for the original
kapporet
in the Temple -the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.The valance is a short curtain hanging over the Torah ark above the Torahark curtain, either separate or attached to it. The valance and curtain fromHochberg, southern Germany (Fig. 1), provide an example of the formerpossibility. Sewn onto the center of the curtain is a rectangular central panel,upon which a dedicatory inscription is embroidered. Suspended over thecurtain is a basically rectangular valance, its lower edge cut into the shape of five scallops. This valance structure is typical of the 18th century.Most Torah ark valances, like other ritual objects in Europe, were lost duringWorld War II. The gap in our information about valance shapes is particularlyobvious with regard to Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, a general picture can bereconstructed on the basis of the few valances that have survived, as well asarchival photographs and pre-World War II publications.
2
In addition to thisincomplete information, we also have a comprehensive collection of valancesfrom Bohemia and Moravia, in the collection of the Prague Jewish Museum.Most of these valances were designed in Prague, and one can trace theirevolution over some two hundred years, until the decline of the Torah ark 
 
156
BRACHA YANIV
valance in general.
3
The pattern gained from these data reflects general,sometimes also local, developments; what is lacking, however, is the early stagein the development of these objects, that is, the situation in the first half of the17th century.On the basis of the available information, one can divide valances into threegroups, according to origin: valances from Germany, Central Europe andEastern Europe. All three groups have a common iconographic denominator,as they all feature three motifs. The first two are the motif of the cherubimabove the Ark of the Covenant and the motif of the Torah crown or the threecrowns described in the Mishnah (
Avot
4:13) both of these motifs appear in the
Fig. 1:Valance and Torah ark curtain, Hochberg, southernGermany, 1764; Harburger Collection, no. 496.
 
157
THE CHERUBIM ON TORAH ARK VALANCES
upper part of the valance. The third motif is that of the Temple implements,depicted on the scallops of the lower edge. The earliest, and most important,of the three motifs is that of the cherubim; analysis of its iconographic evolutionindicates that the other two motifs are based on it. In light of these observations,this study will concentrate on the iconographic aspect of the cherubim motif.The iconographic basis for the cherubim motif is the identification of theTorah ark valance in the synagogue with the cover of the biblical Ark of theCovenant: ‘You shall make a cover (Heb.
kapporet
) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit wide… Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositinginside the Ark the Covenant that I will give you’ (Exodus 25:17, 21). This biblicaldescription, however, is speaking of a golden
kapporet
(cover), while thesynagogue
kapporet
(valance) is made of fabric. Another difference is due tothe structure of the respective arks. While the Ark of the Covenant was shapedlike a relatively flat box, opening at the top, the Torah ark is a vertical structure,with doors opening in front. Hence, the biblical
kapporet
was a solid cover,while the synagogue
kapporet
is a curtain with no real function. It would seemthat only the location of the Torah ark valance, in the upper part of the ark,endowed it with some of the significance of the Torah ark as a substitute forthe Ark of the Covenant, thus pairing it with the Ark cover.
4
Synagogue-goers were quite aware of this identification, which is consistently
expressed in the dedicatory inscriptions embroidered on Torah ark valances.One example may be seen in a Polish valance, made in 1780/81, with thefollowing inscription in the center:
¤¤¤¤¤
 , ‘Place the coveron the Ark of the Covenant’
5
(Fig. 2). Now, if the Torah ark valance wascompared to the Biblical cover on the Ark of the Covenant, it should be natural
Fig. 2: Valance, Poland, 1780/81; Stieglitz Collection, Israel Museum, no. 152/246.

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