Ben Zion Black, the painter of the Burlington mural, was the heir of a long tradition of East European synagogue wall painting, extending back several centuries. Many of the most brilliant examples of the practice of hiddur mitzvah (“visual holiness”) were in the wooden synagogues once found in towns across Greater Poland before their destruction in the Holocaust. There were hundreds of these synagogues and probably scores of synagogue painters, too.
Wooden synagogues were mostly located in what are now the countries of 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 in Mogilev on the Dnieper in Belarus.
We know that the paintings in Mogilev, made ca. 1740, were the work of Chaim, son of Isaac Segal from Slutsk. We know – because he tells us. Segal (whom Marc Chagall liked to claim as an ancestor), signed his work in bold fashion, in a Hebrew inscription held by two rampant lions – lions that look like forefathers 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.” Segal is one of a small number of synagogue painters we know by name.
The paired lions are only one small part of an extensive decorative program that covered all the walls of the Mogilev synagogue and all eight segments of the octagonal cupola. These triangular segments also recall in shape the panels that make up the Chai Adam mural. The painter El Lissitzky, who visited the synagogue in 1916 with painter Isaac Rybak as part of the so-called “An-Sky ethnographic expedition,” described the interior as giving the impression of a tent, and on its walls were tablets with texts and the “sacred vessels of the Temple of Solomon and all kinds of living creatures.” On the eastern surface of the cupola, against a background of drapery flowing around the Holy Ark, the Tablets of the Law were surmounted by a winged crown.
Based on photos of the synagogue and the painting, a virtual 3-D reconstruction of the synagogue interior was made, which you can view here.
Piechotka, Maria and Kazimierz, 2004. Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Warsaw: Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences / Wydawnictwo Krupski I S-ka, 2004).