In Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, there were hundreds of these synagogues and probably scores of synagogue painters, too. today, we know the names of only a few but scholars are slowly piecing together more and more information about this rich Jewish art tradition.
Wooden synagogues were mostly found in what is now Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, but there were also painted wooden synagogues in Germany. Not all of these were documented before their destruction, but many were. Jewish ethnographic and architectural expeditions visited many of these sites and made photos and drawings. The most important series of wall and vault paintings were inside the synagogues of Chodorow and Gwozdziec, Ukraine and Mogilev on the Dnieper, Belarus.
Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Ben Zion Black was coming of age, scholars and artists were beginning to rediscover and document examples of 17th and 18th-century Jewish wall painting. In 1916 the young artist El (Eleazar) Lissitzy (later to gain great fame in Russia and abroad) was part of an expedition to document and describe some of these places.
Thanks to often prominent inscriptions with which artists signed their works, we know the names of some painters. Here are a few of the most celebrated:
Isaac Ber and his son painted the walls of Gwozdziec in the mid-17th century. Isaac son of Yehuda Leib ha-Kohen and Israel son of Mordechai Lisnicki from Jaryczow completed this work by painting the cupola in 1729. Isaac son of Yehuda Leib ha-Kohen’s contribution is recorded in an inscription in a medallion on the left-hand side of the cupola: “Behold all this that was carried out for the glory of God and the praise of men, signed by the painter Isaac son of rebbe Yehuda Leib Kohen from the holy community of Jaryczow […] and this work of the hands [came into being in the year] 490 according to the abbreviated calendar [i.e. 1728/29].
Israel son of Mordechai Lisnicki , worked in both Gwozdziec and Chodorow. He also painted an inscription in a medallion on the right hand side of the cupola of Gwozdziec “[Executed] by a craftsman employed in holy work, signed by the painter Israel son of the worthy rebbe Mordechai […] from the holy community of Jaryczow [belonging to] the holy province of the community of Lwow.” Today, the brilliant work of the Gwozdziec synagogue has been recreated in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
We know that the paintings in Mogilev, made ca. 1740 and were the work of Chaim, son of Isaac Segal from Slutsk. We know – because he tells us. Segal signed his work in bold fashion, in a Hebrew inscription held by two rampant lions – lions that look like ancestors of the lions painted in Burlington more than 150 years later. Segal’s inscription reads (in translation): “by the artisan who is engaged in sacred craft.”
Antoher prolific painter was Eliezer Zusman Sussman, who painted many synagogues in Germany: Bechhofen, Horb, Kirchheim, Ellricj, Colmberg and Unterlimpurg. Today, the paintings of Horb survive at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Notable is the pair of lions blowing trumpets holding an inscribed round tablet painted on the western wall. Opposite these lions on the east wall is painted fringed drapery drawn open, revealing the blank wall. The draperies painted by Ben Zion Black hark back to this tradition.
Other Jewish painters of the 18th century were Jakov Yehuda Leib, son of reb Isaac, who signed work in the synagogue of Przedborz, Poland around 1760. Leib wrote “…This [?] is the work of the hand of an old man, who spent all his days laboring on holy work: Jakov Yehuda Leib, son of reb Isaac…” Jakov Yehuda Leib is also thought to have painted some of the recently restored decoration in the vestibule of the masonry synagogue of Pinczow, Poland.
Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, the great experts on the art and architecture of Polish synagogues, have written that:
“The limited number of polychromies of which records have survived are the vestiges of a phenomenon whose scale and extent it is difficult to estimate. All we can conclude is that the decoration of the main halls of synagogues with painted images was common throughout the whole of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and even beyond its boundaries, where Jewish emigrants form these territories had built synagogues. The interiors of both wooden and masonry-built synagogues were painted. Even on the basis of a preliminary survey of the surviving documentation that is limited in both quantity and quality, we can conclude the inscriptions played the same role in masonry-built synagogues as in wooden ones, the same repertoire of images was utilized in the same manner, and as often as not the decorations were executed by the same artists.” (Piechotka, Heaven’s Gates, p. 155).