Judaica in Murano Glass

Yulia Lisenkova

Article: 
“GRANY” FOUNDATION PRESENTS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2019 (63)

At the end of 2018, the “GRANY” Foundation published the album “Judaica. Murano Glass. Private Collection”, featuring about 300 items of Jewish ceremonial glassware produced by Venetian glassmakers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A major project brought together over many years, the unique quality of the collection is that all its pieces, which were intended for use in synagogues or in ceremonies at home, are made of glass - a material not widely associated with Judaica (unlike metals such as copper, brass, bronze and silver). Given its fragility and the fact that a great amount of such Jewish ceremonial ware was destroyed during World War II, such objects are rare. This extensively illustrated publication is the first of its kind to bring together so many pieces of Jewish glassware, complete with full descriptive texts in three languages (English, Russian, Hebrew).

* “Judaica. Murano Glass. Private Collection”
General management of the project: Natella Voiskounski, Director of the “GRANY” Foundation;
Author-compiler Yulia Lisenkova, Ph.D. in History of Arts
Consultants: Arie Zilberstein; Anna Dobakhova, Expert, P.M. Tretyakov Independent Art Research & Expertise.

The album’s foreword features fragments of old maps of the Island of Murano, sketches and photographs of items of 16th century Venetian glassware, photographs of glassmaking workshops and glassmakers of the early 20th century, and Jewish greeting postcards designed by the Warsaw artist Haim Goldberg (18901943) depicting the feasts and rituals of the Jewish calendar. The catalogue element of the volume comprises several sections, with pieces grouped by colour of glass (transparent, colourless, smoked, green, red, blue, orange), allowing the reader to appreciate the full range of colour gradations. It features variously shaped bowls and goblets, jugs and ewers, twin candle holders, plates and trays, sculpted decorations and paperweights - tableware and household objects intended both for practical use and for decorating tables on feast days and fast days, such as Pesach,[1] Shavuot,[2] Sukkot,[3] Purim[4] and, of course, Shabbat.[5] All these items were manufactured on Murano, their production clearly defined by the specific nature of the commission.

Kiddush Jug with Images of Magen David
Kiddush Jug with Images of Magen David
Transparent turquoise green (aquamarine) glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of faceted beads; gold painting. Height - 26.5 сm

These ceremonial objects would differ in shape, decoration and material across the Jewish communities of different countries; all such elements were conditioned by the geographical locations concerned and did not reflect any divergence in the Jewish tradition as defined in the Torah and Halakha.[6] Traditionally, when choosing an artisan, clients preferred Jewish craftsmen, who were more knowledgeable about Jewish history, culture and philosophy and could apply the requisite inscriptions in Hebrew to the objects that they crafted. However in some European countries, especially in large cities, where Jews, by virtue of their social position, were barred from joining craftsmen's guilds, the services of highly skilled local non-Jewish artisans were often enlisted. Produced strictly to the client's specifications, such pieces, initially intended for domestic use and designed accordingly, would become ritual items, or “Judaica", when Hebrew inscriptions and/or religious symbols and images were added: the combination of Jewish and non-Jewish elements is evident in all the objects in the collection. The main symbols of Judaica are incorporated into the forms and intricate ornamentation of these pieces, which were created in the small glassmaking workshops of Murano (following bankruptcy in the wake of the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, such enterprises reappeared in the second half of the 19th century).

Kiddush Cup with Decorative Bells and Images of Hanukkiah, Torah Scroll and Magen David
Kiddush Cup with Decorative Bells and Images of Hanukkiah, Torah Scroll and Magen David
Transparent red (ruby) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 18.5 сm, diameter - 20.4 сm

Made of transparent stained glass, completed with opulent decoration in enamel, gold and platinum, all these objects of art are distinguished by their sumptuous execution and high artistic quality. Their diversity of form, colour and decorative technique makes them very much like Venetian glassware of the 15th-16th centuries, in accord with the era's predominantly historicist orientation. Ornamental patterns such as dotted flakes, white egg-and-dart, coloured “pecked" lines, and “reticulate" ornament, which were typical for Venetian artistic glassware of the 15th century, are in character with decorative motifs such as trailing verdure, five-petal flowers, and garlands made of leaves and grapes, and are complemented with traditional Jewish cultural motifs and symbols, as well as fragments of prayers and exhortations, which are applied in accordance with the canons of Judaism and intended to recall the Lost Temple. These elements include the Sefer Torah (the Torah scroll), a scroll with the hand-written text of the Pentateuch, mainly used for reciting the text at synagogue liturgies and other ceremonies; the Tables of the Law, the two tablets of stone that Moses received from God under the eyes of the people of Israel, that contain the laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments; two lions standing on their hind legs - traditional symbols of royalty; the Menorah (a seven-branched candelabra), an ancient halidom from Solomon's Temple evoking the Seven Days of Creation; the Ner Tamid (“eternal flame"), a small sanctuary lamp placed in a special container hung from the ceiling, recalling the lamp in the Temple where the fire was kept burning constantly by the Levite attendants; the ritual eight-branch candelabra, Hanukkah Menorah (Hanukkiah), lit on one of the most venerated Jewish holidays, that commemorating the victory over the Greek and Syrian invaders in the 2nd century BCE and the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem; the “kohen hands", with the arrangement of two hands symbolizing the ritual gesture with which the High Priest used to bless the People of Israel in the Temple; and the Ma- gen David (the six-pointed Star of David), the Jewish national and religious emblem which has become a widely accepted symbol of Judaism, like the cross in Christianity. The generous decorative glass additions recall the precious and ornamental stones (onyx, sapphire, turquoise, jasper, amethyst and emerald) mentioned in the Torah, which were widely used in the past for decorating items of Judaica. When the ceremonial objects are covered with gold or platinum, either partly or in full, the glass becomes like a precious metal and “alludes" to the Torah, in which it is said that many of the Jewish sacred objects, furnishings and plates held at the Temple were made of gold (Exodus 36:34).

Candlesticks with Decorative Bells and Images of Magen David
Candlesticks with Decorative Bells and Images of Magen David
Transparent red (ruby) glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; gold and platinum painting. Twin candlesticks. Height - 32.2 сm. Height - 31.5 сm

Almost all the compositional elements found in the forms and decorative motifs of the Judaica items in this album have an intentional, associated significance. The symbols, often accompanied with inscriptions and fragments of prayers, not only define the compositional centre of each particular object but also indicate its role. Thus, for instance, a ritual object shaped like a fish or decorated with the image of a fish was most probably intended for use in a ceremony performed in the blessed month of Adar - the 12th month of the Hebrew calendar, symbolized by the constellation of Pisces. An image of the “kohen hands" in a gesture of blessing usually suggested that the object's owner believed that he belonged to the kohanim caste, or was descended from the tribe of Levi. Kiddush cups[7] were decorated with images of the Menorah, the Star of David and twin lions, as well as inscriptions. Plates for challahs featured the image of two plaited loaves. The Passover Seder plates (ke'ara) were often decorated with a quotation from, or a fragment of the Haggadah,[8] including details, set on the rim or in the vessel's central section, of the necessary symbolic Passover dishes. Fragments of biblical texts from the traditional “seven blessings" from the wedding ceremony were used to adorn wedding cups (the “cup of blessing").

Pesach Bowl with a Painted Scene
Pesach Bowl with a Painted Scene
Transparent smokecoloured glass; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 22 сm, diameter - 18.8 сm

This collection of Judaica glassware therefore not only reveals a little-known form of decorative art but also encourages wider reconsideration of the cultural and artistic legacy of the Jewish people. The artisans who gave the objects that they crafted traditional shapes in keeping with their ceremonial function made use of materials, technologies and ornamental and decorative patterns that were popular, each at a particular period and in a specific country; this factor neither distorts nor runs counter to the “essence" of the ceremonial objects, instead it lends them a touch of particular local artistic individuality.

The great 19th century Russian art critic Vladimir Stasov was right when he wrote: “In our times, only altogether blinkered and ignorant persons can repeat the old nonsensical statements that the Jews lack artistry, that nature itself seems to have barred them from the common endeavour of all nations in the area of art. But the Jewish tribe is so talented and has such diverse capabilities that as soon as you unshackle these people they immediately break into a run, unstoppable and vehement, and introduce new, fresh, ardent elements into the mountain mass of European genius, knowledge and creativity."[9]

Bowl with Image of Magen David
Bowl with Image of Magen David
Transparent blue (cobalt) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 23.4 сm, diameter - 28.4 сm

Thus, the very fine quality of these items manufactured by generations of Murano glassmakers has helped to enrich and preserve the unique spiritual and artistic legacy of one of the world's oldest cultures.

 

  1. Pesach (from Hebrew “passing”, “passing over”) is the spring feast day in memory of the liberation of the Jews from their slavery in Egypt.
  2. The feast of Shavuot commemorates the day when God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel. The holiday takes place 50 days after Pesach.
  3. The feast of Sukkot is meant to remind Jews about the hardships suffered by the Israelites in the course of their Exodus from Egypt.
  4. The feast of Purim commemorates the day when the plans of Haman, the courtier of the king of Persia Artaxerxes, to kill all Jews living in the Achaemenid Empire were foiled.
  5. Shabbat is Saturday, the seventh day of the week - the Torah requires refraining from work on that day.
  6. Halakha is the totality of laws and rules governing religious and family life and civic activities of Jews.
  7. Kiddush (“sanctification”) is a ritual blessing (prayer) over wine during the Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
  8. A Passover Haggadah includes a narrative about liberation from Egyptian slavery and a reference to Pesach commandments.
  9. Quoted from: Kandetsikas, Alexander. Traditional Jewish Art. Moscow: 2003. P. 5.

 

Illustrations

Kiddush Cup with Decorative Bells, Images of Magen David and Pomegranate. Detail
Kiddush Cup with Decorative Bells, Images of Magen David and Pomegranate
Transparent turquoise green (aquamarine) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of cabochons; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Detail
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David and Ner Tamid
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David and Ner Tamid
Transparent blue (cobalt) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of cabochons; enamel and gold painting. Height - 23.4 сm, diameter - 10.6 сm
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Hanukkiah and Torah Scroll
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Hanukkiah and Torah Scroll
Transparent dark-green glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel and gold painting. Height - 27.3 сm, diameter - 8.7 сm
Kiddush Set: Decanter, Tray and Six Glasses with Images of Magen David
Kiddush Set: Decanter, Tray and Six Glasses with Images of Magen David
Transparent colourless, golden-smoke-coloured and light green glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of faceted beads; enamel and gold painting. Decanter: height - 31.2 сm. Glasses: height - 8.3 сm, diameter - 6 сm. Plate: diameter - 37.1 сm
Dish with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Grapes and Vine Leaves
Dish with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Grapes and Vine Leaves
Transparent blue (cobalt) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and oval beads; enamel and gold painting. Diameter - 30.7 сm
Passover Seder Dish with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Ten Commandments on the Tables of the Law
Passover Seder Dish with Images of Magen David, Menorah, Ten Commandments on the Tables of the Law
Transparent colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Diameter - 32.3 сm
Kiddush Set: Decanter, Tray and Six Glasses with Images of Magen David
Kiddush Set: Decanter, Tray and Six Glasses with Images of Magen David
Transparent red (ruby) and red-orange glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of curly handles, round and faceted beads; white enamel, gold and platinum dashed painting. Decanter: height - 21.4 сm. Glasses: height - 11.4 сm. Plate: diameter - 27.8 сm
Bowl with Fish-Shaped Stem and Images of Magen David
Bowl with Fish-Shaped Stem and Images of Magen David
Transparent colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 27.1 сm, diameter - 22.4 сm. The fish is a symbol of sinlessness; during the flood, it was under water
Decanter with Images of Magen David and “Birkat Kohanim” Gesture
Decanter with Images of Magen David and “Birkat Kohanim” Gesture
Transparent yellow (amber) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round, oval and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 36.4 сm. “Birkat-kohanim” gesture – the Kohanim Blessing (Priestly Blessing)
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David and Menorah
Kiddush Glass with Images of Magen David and Menorah
Transparent blue (cobalt) and colourless glass; filigree, colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; gold and platinum painting. Height - 29.7 сm, diameter - 8.5 сm
Kiddush Glass with Image of Ner Tamid
Kiddush Glass with Image of Ner Tamid
Transparent blue (cobalt and azure) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 25 сm, diameter - 8.2 сm
Decanter with Images of Magen David and “Birkat Kohanim” Gesture
Decanter with Images of Magen David and “Birkat Kohanim” Gesture
Transparent yellow (amber) and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round, oval and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 36.4 сm. “Birkat-kohanim” gesture – the Kohanim Blessing (Priestly Blessing)
Paperweight with Images of Torah Scroll and Magen David
Paperweight with Images of Torah Scroll and Magen David
Transparent orange-coloured glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 4.8 сm, diameter - 9.6 сm
Vessel with Image of Magen David
Vessel with Image of Magen David
Transparent orange-coloured and colourless glass; colour glass mouldings in the shape of round and faceted beads; enamel, gold and platinum painting. Height - 20.1 сm. This was used as an Incense vessel

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