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Building Types

Art & Symbolism

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Synagogues, Menorah

Symbols derived from the Biblical TabernacleGlossary Term and Temple are found in the art and architecture of the synagogue. Commonly encountered symbols include: -

The Menorah and Hanukiah

The Menorah is the seven-branched solid gold candelabrum of the TabernacleGlossary Term and Jerusalem Temple, first described in the Book of Exodus. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, it was forbidden to reproduce the Temple Menorah. This prohibition is still widely observed in synagogue art today. Instead, a nine-branch lamp is used - correctly called the Hanukiah.

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St Peter's, Rome

Yahin and Boaz

Yahin and Boaz are the pair of columns which stood at the entrance to Solomon's Temple as described in the Book of Kings (Kings 1, 7: 15-22). In synagogue architecture the columns can be treated in a number of ways. Often they have classicalGlossary Term CorinthianGlossary Term capitals and/or fluted shafts, are sometimes paired (i.e. two columns on each side) and topped by a broken BaroqueGlossary Term pedimentGlossary Term. In the synagogue such columns may be found in several locations:

  • Externally, flanking the main entrance - closest to the position described in Solomon's Temple
  • Externally, interpreted as turrets - especially on the facades of European synagogues from the mid 19th century onwards
  • Internally, flanking the ArkGlossary Term

The Star of David or Magen David

The six-pointed star or hexagram, correctly termed the Shield of David, popularly called the Star of David, is perhaps the most widely recognised Jewish symbol today. It is found in synagogue decoration worldwide. Nevertheless, the star is not an exclusively Jewish symbol and appears in Oriental, Islamic and Christian art.

The Jewish community of Prague adopted the star on their banner granted in the 14th century. But the widespread use of the Magen David by Jews in modern times is associated with the rise of political Zionism, the Jewish national movement, in the late 19th century. The Star of David was incorporated into the blue and white Zionist flag in the 1890s and today it adorns the flag of the State of Israel.

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Synagogues, The Ark (ehal)

The Luhot, "Tablets of the Law" or Decalogue

The symbol of the Luhot or round-headedGlossary Term "Tablets of the Law" expresses the Jewish attachment to the Law (Torah). The first firmly established appearance of the Luhot in a Jewish architectural context was on the ArkGlossary Term at the Spanish & Portuguese Great Synagogue in Amsterdam (1675). This was copied at London's Bevis Marks (1701) and in a great many later buildings. In the 19th century this symbol began to appear on the facades of synagogues where, on a church, you would expect to find a cross.

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London, St Martin Ludgate, reredos

In the 17th century, "Tablets of the Law" appeared on the reredosGlossary Term [altar screenGlossary Term] of churches built by Sir Christopher Wren in London after the Great Fire.

Ironically, as with the Star of David, the history of this symbol goes back to the Middle Ages. Jews in Medieval England were forced to wear a discriminatory badge in the shape of the Luhot rather than a circle, as on the Continent. This badge was called Tabula in Latin. The falling "Tablets of the Law" was one of the attributes of vanquished Synagoga in GothicGlossary Term art - in the allegorical pair of female figures known as Synagoga and Ecclesia (Latin for "Synagogue" and "Church"). Famous examples are at the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Bamberg. The only known example of a three-dimensional sculpture of "Synagoga and Ecclesia" in Britain is at Rochester Cathedral in Kent.


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