Sunday, November 30, 2008

Poland: Impressions of Krakow's Kupa Synagogue

Poland: Impressions of Krakow's Kupa Synagogue
By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Not long ago I posted an
historic photo of the Ark wall of the synagogue of Zhovkva (Ukraine) which showed an elaborate painting (c 1920) of Jerusalem. The image is interesting for many reasons, but I just want to point out the juxtaposition of the descriptive landscape (possibly derived from a postcard or Bonfils photo) and the symbolic elements of the ancient Temple, also represented near the Ark. The contrast demonstrates the long history of invoking the ancient Temple and Jerusalem in the synagogue, but also a shift in emphasis that began in the late 19th century and accelerated in the 20th, along with the spread of tourism and Zionism. When you start looking you’ll see all sorts of references to the temple, Jerusalem and Eretz Israel in synagogues. Some of symbolic, some are architectural, some are textual and some are representational. But after 1900 representational views become more common.

Some very vivid views of the Holy Land painted in 1929-30 in the Kupa Synagogue (see photos) in Krakow were restored a few years ago, and I had the opportunity to see them on my recent visit to Krakow a month ago (I want to thank my old friend Henry Halkowski for making it easy for me enter on short notice). The “restored” synagogue is difficult to understand since elements from different phases of its existence now co-exist, and because the essential elements that make a synagogue (bimah, seats, etc) are gone. The Kupa was seriously damaged during the German occupation in World War II. It was restored ca. 2000 and now serves as a lecture, concert and exhibition hall for community events and also can be rented for special occasions.

Located on a plot between Warszauera Street and Miadowa Street, the building is adjacent to the old walls of Kazimierz. It is thought that the synagogue name derives from the Hebrew world for "donation box" and that the synagogue was probably funded by donations. The Kupa was also known as the "Hospital" and "needy" synagogue because it cooperated with the Jewish hospitals and with the Jewish poorhouse.

Founded in 1643, the Kupa has been remodeled many times. The remains of the Baroque Ark can still be seen, but most other aspects of the interior date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including unusual Gothic arches in the women's gallery. The two-story annex was added with entrance hall and washrooms in 1830-1834 and the western wing was built in the 1860s. The synagogue was connected to the adjoining building at the end of the 19th century. These annex spaces now serve the Jewish community as guest rooms.

There is much to see in the small space, and I only a short time. Four elements are worth noting here, especially since they relate to others items I have posted, or about which I plan to write.

1. First, on the south wall under the women’s gallery , the conservators have revealed part of a large wall painting of the lower part of a Menorah, flanked by painted ewers, signs of the Levites. Again, we have the Temple reference, but here it is not near the Ark. Prof. Bracha Yaniv of Bar Ilan University, an expert on Krakow Synagogue wall decorations, is writing about this image, and she points out that the Menorah is in exactly the right place in the synagogue, against the south wall just as it was in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:35: Put the table outside the paroches, and the menorah opposite the table, toward the southern side of the mishkan. The table should be placed on the northern side). So actually this Tabernacle/Temple reference is stronger and more explicit than those synagogues which scatter images of Temple and festival implements along the East wall.

2. A second decorative element that interests me a lot is the painting around the Ark, which is a large and impressive Baroque construction. On the wall behind the projecting stone Ark is painted a large red curtain, drawn apart just above the apex of the Ark. Of course this too, can have Temple associations, since a curtain in the Temple hung before the entrance of the Holy of Holies. Here, though, the curtain is hung behind the Ark, and it is open. What does it mean? Is it an earthly curtain, intended to create the illusion of greater synagogue space? Is it a symbolic curtain, representing either Temple or perhaps the revelation of the Torah? Or perhaps is it a curtain allowing a glimpse from this world into another? It could be all these things, or none. I’m not going to decide. But since I’m looking I am seeing these curtains almost everywhere - and they are one of the favorite European (or Polish) synagogue decorative devices carried over by immigrant artists from the old world to the new. I'm still looking for some contemporary user - a rabbi or congregant - who commented on their position and use.

3. Another interesting feature of the Kupa Synagogue is a dedicatory inscription set into the introdos of the window just south of the Ark. This inscription in high relief (see photo) refers to the Society of Cohens and Levites in Krakow that donated the window in 1647. According to Eli Valley, the text reads: "This window was donated to the synagogue by the Holy Society of Cohens and Levites for the glory of God and the glory of the synagogue, for its enlightenment." The text then quotes Numbers 6:25-26, "May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance unto you and grant you peace." The letters highlighted indicate the Hebrew year 5407 (1647). I think this inscription is a very important one as it is an early textual source in which the functional role of the window is linked to God's light (his shining face), and a general sense of enlightenment beyond the strictly physical sensation. Prof. Yaniv tells me of a very different window inscription in the Shakh (after Shabtai ben Meir ha-Kohen, known as Shakh), Synagogue in Holesov, Moravia (Czech Republic). At Holesov, the patrons and painters employed an explicit biblical text that mentioned the Temple's windows (I Kings 6:4 וַיַּעַשׂ לַבָּיִת, חַלּוֹנֵי שְׁקֻפִים אֲטוּמִים / And for the house he made windows broad within, and narrow without), and inscribed this above the windows of the synagogue.

4. Most of the painted decorations - especially those on the ceiling - date from either the late 1920s or 1930s. These depict sites in the Holy Land: Hebron, Tiberias, Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, The Western Wall, Haifa, the terebinths (trees) of Mamre, the Flood, and the Temple Mount. The inclusion of these suggests a Zionist program, as I hinted above. The political and social situation for Jews was getting pretty bad in Poland in 1930. The Holy Land – as a spiritual and an actual retreat probably looked pretty good.

According to the Center for Jewish Art: "There are also Biblical scenes and illustrations to verses in Psalms, such as the painting showing people standing by the rivers of Babylon (Psalms 137:1-3), or musical instruments (Psalms 150:3-6). Another painting depicts Noah's ark including the figure of Noah – quite unusual since the use of human images was very rare in Jewish art. The signs of the Zodiac are painted over the women's gallery. The artist, although unidentified, was clearly professional.”

About the Restoration / Renewal

 I did not see these wall paintings before they were restored, so I cannot say how much of the work is original and how much is new painting. A comparison with published (black and white) photos from before the restoration suggest there is a lot of new work, including substantial new painting of scene or over painting of the earlier work. I have mixed feeling about this type of restoration (not conservation). On the one hand in continues (perhaps unwittingly) an old synagogue tradition of renewing wall painting by simply over painting earlier work, but often maintaining the basis of the earlier design. In some American synagogues where paint tests have been carried out as many as 2 dozen layers of paint have been found in buildings hardly more than a century old. Even in the Kupa, the older photos sow the patterns of an earlier design showing through some of the 1920s scenes. Still, with the Kupa (and with other synagogues in Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere) all normal traditions and patterns of maintenance have been broken. What remains of the pre-War years – even when in less than perfect condition takes of new meaning and added value. These are works of artist who quite likely met their deaths in the Holocaust. These are tangible remnants of a lost culture. Careful decisions need to be made about how to maintain them. Sometimes decaying plaster or flaking paint requires major new work. But more often it requires more serious thinking about what to preserve and why. The new work at Kupa is bright and vivid, perhaps as it was when first painted. A great deal of the history of the place, however is lost.

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