While the word "crown" figures prominently in medieval Jewish literature, it was not before the late sixteenth century that it assumed an independent role as a symbol in Jewish art. The crown that has become a central motif in Jewish art during recent centuries is similar in form to the crowns of the kings of Europe. It is extremely common on ceremonial objects related to the Torah scroll and is often portrayed as being borne by lions or hovering over them in the upper section of the embroidered curtains for the holy ark, or of the symbolic compositions on breastplates and holy arks in synagogues. The most common of all are the three-dimensional Torah crowns, usually made of precious metals, sometimes decorated with semi-precious and precious stones. Torah crowns of this type were used primarily in Central and Eastern Europe beginning in the seventeenth century.

Torah Crown, Poland 1695
Sir Isaac & Lady Wolfson Museum,
Heichal Shlomo, Jerusalem

The three-dimensional crown, designed to draw attention to the loftiness of the Torah and to crown it both physically and spiritually, includes a variety of formal designs of special symbolic significance, related to the values of the Torah itself. Many of these design compositions from the seventeenth century were influenced by the baroque style. Some of these are arranged in layers, with organic transitions from one shape to the next and strict attention to the harmonious integrity of the whole. The structures merge upwards into one another, giving the compositions a feeling of ascent from heavier elements near the base, to light airier ones at the top. The most common of the many formal and symbolic motifs in these layers are the eagle, the lion, the zodiac and botanical motifs such as the Tree of Life. The composition sometimes ends at the top with a bird next to a stream of running water. The decorative composition on the three-dimensional crowns also includes additional crowns which divide the design into registers.

Tree of Sefirot, illustration from manuscript of Pardes Rimmonim ("Orchard of Pomegranates") book of Kabbalah written by Rabbi Cordovero, Italy, 16th century.

The use of these decorative designs is undoubtedly based on more than merely aesthetic considerations or the desire to glorify the Torah. The expression "crown of Torah, crown of priesthood and crown of royalty," which sometimes appears alongside the visually portrayed crowns, hints at the deeper and broader symbolism of the crown motif. Rabbinic literature linked the crown to the Divine Presence. The verse, "When the crown arrives, all of the soldiers above shudder and roar like a lion,"[*] evokes associations of Godly power.

In the Kabbalah, the crown stands for the first sefirah (emanation of God's hidden essence). Scholars of the Kabbalah disagree on the meaning of this sefirah. Some believe sit headed the system of sefirot and approached infinity. Others regard it as infinity itself, devoid of any element of activity. According to this view, the first sefirah is the One, the Eternal, "which was, is and will be." The system of mystical hit'nozezuyot (sparks of light) mentioned in the Kabbalah sees wisdom as coming from the crown.

From the sixteenth century, Kabbalistic literature has made extensive use of the Tree of Sefirot, symbolizing divine activity, as a graphic device. Graphic depictions of the Tree of Sefirot became one of the fundamental components of practical and popular Kabbalism. Likened to the Tree of the World and the Tree of Life, which generate the divine powers needed by Creation, the roots of the Tree are planted in the uppermost sefirah, which is the crown. It appears then that the crown accrued heavy symbolism as a result of this status of proximity to the divine, to that which cannot be figuratively portrayed in monotheistic Judaism.

In summary, we may say that the diversity of the crown's symbolic associations can be explained by ideas which were influenced by Jewish mysticism and by its attempts to come to terms with the complex relationship between God and His creations.

[*] Pesikta Rabbati, Part 1, 20. [back]
From: Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition by Ida Huberman. Modan Publishers Ltd., 1996. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

CROWN Table of Contents



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