1910 Synagogue Mural Revealed in Burlington; Conservation Efforts to Begin
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) After almost three years of discussion and organization, plans are getting underway for the recovery and restoration of a rare surviving synagogue mural painted in 1910 by a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant artist Ben Zion Black for the East European Orthodox Chai Adam congregation in Burlington, Vermont. The mural, seen above, depicts the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) flanked by rampant lions and surmounted by a floating crown, all bathed with the rays of the sun, and framed by architectural elements and elaborate curtains. More photos can be seen here.
You can contribute online or by check to the costs of conservation and preservation here. Every contribution - no matter what size - helps the project directly and to secure matching funds.
This work is a survivor, a rare painting; one of only a small number of extant "East European" synagogue murals in this country. I am hesitant to call this work "folk art," though it is often described as such. Black, the Burlington painter who had emigrated from Kovno, Lithuania, was a trained professional, with a knowledge of perspective and tromp l'oeil. In Europe and American such painters found much work in religious buildings, but also decorating theaters, restaurants and other public venues. Read the artist's biography here.
In 2010 a committee from Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue was able to briefly open the wall concealing the mural to view the status of the mural which though deteriorated, was largely intact. Efforts to extract the mural began and last year, it was fully revealed by the building's owner, Offenhartz Inc., who has offered to donate the mural to Ohavi Zedek, whose congregation has now taken on the challenging task of conserving the mural and moving it to an accessible home. It is an expensive undertaking and the congregation has begun a international fund raising campaign to assist saving this rare example of Lithuanian-American Jewish synagogue art.
In 1986 members of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue’s archives committee were given access to take archival images of the mural prior to its being covered. These images will form the basis of the restoration effort. When the mural is stabilized and extracted it will be restored to match these images. The mural is flaking badly. The intent is to consolidate the original plaster and pigments and to avoid over-painting. The work must be cleaned, a very delicate operation, and then the empty spaces must be infilled by a skilled conservator. The congregation has stated that " We feel that it is our responsibility to protect and restore this artwork on behalf of the Jewish people and for the generations to come." Ohavi Zedek is taking this work very seriously and using the best conservation methods. A summary of the conservation/restoration plan can be read here.
Similar motifs appear in carved Torah arks and in paper cut decorations and other synagogue art, many examples of which were exhibited in the Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, From the Synagogue to the Carousel, curated at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007 by Prof. Zimiles. Indeed, a carved example can also be seen in Burlington, at the Ahavath Gerim synagogue built in 1908.
Related paintings include the near contemporary Zodiac signs (mazoles) at the Stanton Street Shul in New York (1910), also the object of a conservation program, and the painted curtains above the elaborate art at Congegation Agudas Sholom in Chelsea (Boston), Massachusetts (1909). On painted curtains, see my earlier post about the restoration of the Kupa Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Another example is the excellent mural painting cycle in Knesset Israel Toronto (1911) which has been fully restored in situ and can be seen to good advantage in Louis Davidson's photography here.
A very small number of murals in this style - but mostly in fragmentary condition -have been rediscovered in former Jewish prayer halls in Poland and Ukraine. Recently, for example, a mural of lions flanking a crowned Decalogue was uncovered in a former prayer room in a basement in L'viv, Ukraine, and murals with scenes from Holy Land were recently revealed in the Groisse Shil in Cherivtsi, Ukraine. Fragments of other paintings that once adorned the Ark walls of synagogues have also been found, often under layers of whitewash, in several other places in Eastern Europe, but these are generally fragmentary and in poor condition.
Also in L'viv is the exceptional Tsori Gilod synagogue which until about a decade ago preserved intact its entire 1920s painted decoration. Unfortunately, instead of conserving that vividly colored and iconographically rich decoration by consolidating the plaster and maintained as much of the original paint as possible, many of the paintings were "refreshed" by massive over painting which maintained the general themes of the original, but also destroyed much of the original design and artistry, and compromised what had been the only intact painted interwar synagogue interior. In a place like L'viv this loss is especially great since the painted walls were not only religious and artistic creations, but also should have been seen as Holocaust survivors, and surrogates for so much art that was destroyed.
Each of these are original works drawing from a rich Eastern European Jewish iconographic tradition that symbolized the behaviors, expectations and aspirations of traditional (Orthodox) synagogue builders and congregations. Some elements can be found in ancient and medieval Jewish contexts (sun's rays, zodiac signs, Decalogue), others are more recent and freer combinations and interpretations (modern musical instruments, scenes from the Holy Land). The handful of surviving synagogue paintings of this type in America and in Europe is but a tiny fraction of what was destroyed in the Holocaust. Most of these paintings, and especially those found in small prayer halls in every town and city, were never photographed and rarely described, and will never be known. We must piece together the history of what was once a large and creative artistic and religious practice from scattered fragments.
Congregation members in Burlington do not have quite that heavy an historical burden and responsibility, but still they have been entrusted with a unique survivor of the Age of Immigration. The mural is a gift from the past that adds color, vitality and the immediacy of piety to, what we are usually forced to recall only through occasional black and white and often blurry photographs. As I have written before, there are few photos at all of the interiors of small immigrant synagogues, so for the most part, except on New York's Lower East Side, their existence has been mostly forgotten.
For more related to this subject, read my paper "Polish Influence on American Synagogue Architecture".