Three New Judaic Acquisitions

In previous posts I reported on the Museum’s success at last April’s auction of the Steinhardt Judaica Collection. I then wrote about one of the three pieces acquired in that sale. The other two pieces deserve equal attention.

The first is an unusually large, elegantly proportioned and finely wrought silver filigree Spice Container in the form of a tower. Used in the Havdalah (or Separation) ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath, spice containers are among the most ubiquitous of Jewish ceremonial objects. Filled with sweet herbs and spices such as cloves, they are sniffed during the ritual, though like many Jewish traditions, the reason for this is debated. One commonly repeated explanation is that smelling the spices expresses the hope that the sweetness of the Sabbath might carry through the week to come. However, our curatorial consultant Gabriel Goldstein notes an alternative theory: that the fragrant spices “are akin to smelling salts used to invigorate the individual, as at the moment of Havdalah there is a loss of a special extra soul or spirit that inhabits the body during the Sabbath.” Whatever the reason for its use, the spice container traditionally has been an essential part of the Jewish home. Unconstrained by religious law, artisans have interpreted spice containers in a wide variety of fanciful forms.

This spice container conforms to a traditional type of filigreed tower thought to have originated in the German states in the early 17th century and little changed in basic design over the next 300 years. It is thus difficult to accurately date these pieces or to identify their place of origin. At present all that can be said about this particular example is that its high degree of craftsmanship argues for an 18th- or early 19th-century date, and that it was likely made in Poland. Filigree is a metalsmithing technique using wire to create shapes and forms of often dazzling complexity. A special feature of this piece is the selective use of gilding to accent the architecture of the tower. Its acquisition was made possible by Elaine Sandman of Raleigh, who gave it in memory of her parents, Louis and Ethel Elden.

The last acquisition from the Steinhardt sale is a magnificent, over-the-top, gilded silver Torah Shield from 18th-century Germany.

Among the most important types of Judaic objects is the Torah shield (tas in Hebrew), which, in the Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) tradition, is part of a decorative ensemble covering the Torah scroll when it is not in use. The Torah shield is hung by a chain from the protruding staves of the draped Torah scroll. Usually fashioned of silver or silver gilt, the shield is often richly worked with symbolic references to the majesty and authority of the word of God. In this example the “Crown of the Law (Torah)” surmounts the central plaque denoting the Torah reading. Originally the plaque was changeable. However, only one plaque survives, noting Pesach (Passover), and Sabbath on the reverse. Flanking the plaque are twin columns, symbolic of the pillars, Jachin and Boaz, that stood on either side of the entrance to Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 7:13–22, 41–42).  Standing rampant on the columns are “lions of Judah,” symbolic of strength and the Jewish people.

Stamped inconspicuously near the bottom of the shield are the city and maker’s marks. A pine cone (pyr) identifies the city of Augsburg, one of the great centers of European metal arts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the letter H signifies the year: 1747.  The stamped initials HM identify the maker as Hieronymus Mittnacht, a prominent Augsburg silversmith who specialized in Judaica. With its dense and swirling ornament, this shield is a masterpiece of exuberant rococo design. It was originally commissioned for a Bavarian village synagogue. The cartouche at the bottom carries the original Hebrew dedication by “the esteemed Kohen (priest) Samuel Joseph Ezekiel, of blessed memory, and his wife Feygl, may she remain among the living, in the year [5]509 [1749].” The central plaque indicates the Torah reading for Passover. This beautiful shield—one of the finest pieces in the Museum’s Judaic art collection—is the gift of the family of Michael and Lisa Sandman of Raleigh.

Photo captions:

Polish, Spice Container; 18th–19th century, silver, partly gilded, Gift of Elaine Sandman, in memory of her parents, Louis and Ethel Elden, 2013

Hieronymus Mittnacht, Torah Shield, 1747–49, silver, gilded, Gift of the family of Michael and Lisa Sandman, in loving memory of those who came before us, 2013

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