The Eagle in jewish Folkart with a closer look at the Double-Headed Eagle, Ida Huberman

In both general and Jewish folkart the eagle often appears as symbolic of the divine powers of deliverance and watchful protection… In a sense, the eagle is a counterpart of the lion: Just as the lion is commonly regarded in folklore as the king of the beasts, the eagle is regarded as the king of birds. In the Bible, an eagle often appears as an allegory of divine protection or as a symbol of height and security. In ancient synagogues, engravings of eagles were found over the doorposts at the entrance. A similar eagle motif had been popular in Middle Eastern pagan civilizations, where the eagle symbolized the sun and the sky. In recent centuries, Jewish artistic compositions depicted the eagle in a high position, with its wings spread as it towers over other motifs.

Double Headed Eagle

The mystical symbolism of animal motifs, chiefly of the eagle, was especially pronounced on holy arks, Torah breastplates, painted ceilings, Hanukkah menorahs and other objects whose design had become increasingly intricate under the influence of the Baroque style.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there flourished a school of Jewish painting which centered largely in southeastern Poland. The artists painted the walls and ceilings of the wooden synagogues with a colorful tapestry of motifs; all of these synagogues were burned down in World War II. The ceiling of the Hodorov synagogue (reconstructed and on view at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv) was decorated with rich motifs from the world of flora and fauna, with border designs incorporating written verses, and with all sorts of fantastic creatures.

We focus here on the eagle which appears in the center of the zodiac on the Hodorov ceiling.

The eagle, which for centuries has been associated with the sun, fire and sky, is here surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, forming a symbolic representation of both the celestial realm and the Jewish people (twelve zodiac signs standing for the twelve tribes). The eagle has two heads and a crown, a common portrayal in European art and heraldry due to Byzantine and oriental influences. In many civilizations, the dualism represented by the eagle's two-headedness stood for the spiritual ambivalence which strikes a balance between good and evil. In the Christian kingdoms it alluded to the duality of the throne: both royalty and divinity. In Jewish culture, the dual shape of the eagle was influenced by the idea of the dualism in Divine Providence, manifested by God's grace and judgment.

The Hodorov eagle is surrounded by a circle containing the following inscription, which hints at divine activity: "As an eagle stirs up her nest, flutters over her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her wings."* The crown above the eagle's heads hints not only at kingliness, but also at a leaning towards Infinity as an abstract value associated with divine sanctity.

* Deut. 32:11
From: Ida Huberman. Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition. Copyright © 1996 by Modan Publishers (Israel). By permission of the publisher.

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