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 latter.

The background of the entire ceiling is decorated with a rich interplay of plants and pairs of animals: a lioness sitting and chewing a flower; an elephant carrying a tower on its back, flanked by trees on and beside which are perched storks holding snake-like reptiles in their mouths; a hind grazing peacefully; an eagle gripping a hare in its beak and claws. On either side of the eagle are trees on which bears are climbing, and on the crest of one of the trees is a pot of honey. Large conches fan out downwards to span the angles between the four corners of the ceiling and the walls of the hall.

This painted ceiling is like a song of praise to the Creator, sung by his creations. The abundance of divine creation is presented in sharp lines and strong colors. The composition is a harmonious whole in which the colorful portrayal of the universe represents the perfection of Creation.

The period when this ceiling was painted coincides with the rise of mysticism and messianic movements throughout Poland. Kabbalistic symbolism and imagery were common among the Jews of the region, and their tidings of redemption are manifest in the paintings on the ceiling. The bear, for example, known in folklore as a restless animal, here sits peacefully in one of the arches resembling gates, the Tree of Life rising out of its lap.

Blossoming branches, which stem from a single source at the bear's feet, split in two on either side of the seated animals and reunite in a single flower over his head. The bear, encircled with flowers, evokes associations of the prophecy of the End of Days. The Tree of Life which splits in two and then comes together again perhaps symbolizes the mystical Kabbalistic dualism according to which the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge express different forces acting in the universe. The unification of the two symbolizes the messianic era.

The lion and the unicorn, painted opposite the bear and framed in a similar way, represent forces of great strength which reach a certain balance, thus making it possible for the forces of life and redemption to grow in them. These forces are symbolized by the Tree of Life. It is hard to tell whether the two animals, which possess supernatural strength, are embracing one another or wrestling.

The large, strong horn appears stuck in the lion's mouth, an image which calls to mind the blowing of the ram's horn. The blast of the horn is suggestive of victory, kingship and the coming of the Messiah.

Elsewhere on the ceiling is a painting of a lioness chewing a flower, a clear allusion to the End of Days. The hind, which in the Zohar is a symbol of the Divine Presence, can be seen here grazing peacefully. The elephant carrying a tower is a symbol of might which has known submission and forbearance. The eagle is generally symbolic of the divine powers of deliverance and watchful protection.

The eagle, which for centuries has been associated with the heights, the heavens and fire, 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.

Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition, by Ida Huberman (Modan Publishers, 1996)



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