In the painted architecture of the Lost Shul Mural we see a conflation of Biblical architectural history where the Tents of Jacob, The Tabernacle, and Temple of Jerusalem are combined. Since painter Ben Zion Black was an avid advocate of Yiddishkeit, and an actor too, there may also be just a touch of Yiddish theater, too.
There is a long tradition of curtains painted on the Ark wall of synagogues, usually above and behind the Aron-ha Kodesh (Holy Ark). These painted curtains became increasingly common in East European synagogues in the 18th century and the motif continues well into the 20th-century. Often the curtains were painted in much older buildings, so it is hard to know exactly when they were added, especially since we know of many only from surviving photos, so we cannot tell if what we see are reworking of older curtains, or entirely new additions.
Painted curtains even appear to hang behind the painted rendition of a synagogue Ark found in the ancient Villa Torlonia catacombs in Rome (3rd-4th century CE). Thus from a very early time, curtains and Ark were strongly associated. Later, at an unknown time, it became customary to hang decorated curtains in front of the Ark itself as a parochet, an even more explicit reference to the curtain in the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple which hung before the Holy of Holies, the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant was stored.
We know, too, that curtains were often hung behind the thrones of royalty. We see this frequently in Renaissance and later portraits, and it may be a very ancient custom. Since in the synagogue the ark and Torah are often in a niche or apse similar to those which in royal basilica housed statues of the emperor, one can imagine this association. The Torah, as the gift and word of God the Sovereign, is the most venerated and decorated element of a synagogue and its placement is the visual focus of the liturgy, much as would have been the statue of an emperor or god in antiquity. Thus a royal curtain.
In Burlington, the curtains, which take up so much of the composition, probably refer mostly to the curtains of the Mishkhan (Tabernacle). The layers of hanging cloth also recall the entrance to a lavish tent – and these may relate directly to the words of the Ma Tovu prayer which was painted below which begins “How lovely are thy tents, O Jacob.” The curtains are drawn back to show the enthroned Ten Commandments, in a sense re-enacting the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Soon after, God commanded Bezalel to design and construct the Mishkhan (Tabernacle). There, the precious Tablets were kept, so it is likely the curtain also refers to the Mishkhan, the construction of which with rich blue and scarlet fabric is described in detail in the Book of Exodus. The use of blue and scarlet, colors described in the Book of Numbers as used in the Tabernacle, strengthen this association.
We have many examples of curtains from Europe, though now as elaborate and exuberantly colorful as what we find in Burlington. In North America, there are also some comparable examples, such as Congregation Agudas Sholom in Chelsea (Boston), Massachusetts (1909). Another example, almost contemporary with Burlington, is the excellent mural painting cycle in Knesset Israel, Toronto (1911). This has been fully restored in situ. Like Burlington, this great curtain seems to open into another world behind the Ark.
In referring to the curtain painted behind the Ark in the Kupa Synagogue in Krakow (Poland), I have previously written: “What does it mean? Is it an earthly curtain, intended to create the illusion of greater synagogue space? Is it a symbolic curtain, representing either Temple or perhaps the revelation of the Torah? Or perhaps is it a curtain allowing a glimpse from this world into another? It could be all these things, or none.” The same uncertainty – or ambiguity – applies to the Lost Shul mural, too.
(Samuel D. Gruber 11/2017)