Antecedents and Comparisons
The Chai Adam mural by Ben Zion Black is part of a long tradition of synagogue wall painting that was particularly advanced in Eastern Europe between the early 18th and mid 20th centuries. Many of the great examples existed in wooden synagogues which were almost all set fire during the Holocaust, so that only fragments of these holy decorations are known from old photographs and occasional documentary watercolor paintings. Certain elements of the Burlington mural, such as the rampant lions and the elaborate draperies, recall these older works. For example, compare the paired lions of Mogilev, Belarus, painted in the early 1700s with those made in Burlington in 1910.
Today, nothing quite like the Burlington mural survives in Europe, there are no other examples in the United States, and only one synagogue mural, at Congregation Knesseth Israel in Toronto, Canada (recently restored), equals this one in size, scope, completeness and Jewish meaning. In Montreal, a city with close connections to Burlington, the Bagg Street Shul has a set of painted lions over the Ark, added some time after 1920, which like Chai Adam, are accompanied with the inscribed words of the Ma Tovu prayer.
Only a few much damaged fragments of wall painting survive from all the synagogues of Lithuania, most notably from Čekiškė, the town of origin for many of Burlington’s Jews. Today, in all of Eastern Europe only a handful of surviving painted synagogue decorations can compare with the Lost Mural in the preservation and completeness of their design, although more fragments continue to be discovered.
The recently conserved paintings of Pinczow (Poland) and Boskovice (Czech Republic) are mostly pure decoration, not Ark adornments rich in the Jewish symbolism that carried deep meaning for their communities. Remains of paintings from smaller urban prayer houses painted in the early 20th century, such as those in Bedzin and Krakow (Poland) and Chernivtsi (Ukraine), are closer in spirit to the Burlington mural, though quite different in content. Perhaps the closest correspondence can be seen in the fragmentary mural located in the former Beth Midrash in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland, which was probably painted in the 1930s.
Some sense of the original painted type of ceiling can still be seen in the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and in the Tsori Gilod Synagogue, in L’viv, Ukraine, painted in the 1930s.
Read more about other former synagogues where wall painting have been discovered, or about synagogues still in use where the decoration is part of this tradition:
CLICK HERE to read about the destroyed wooden synagogue and painting of Mogilev, Belarus
CLICK HERE to read about the former synagogue of Čekiškė, Lithuania.
CLICK HERE to read more about Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland.