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Exhibit Reveals Architectural Splendor of 17th- and 18th-Century Synagogues

Sep 10, 2009

OBERLIN, OHIO – Those entering the main level of Oberlin College’s Mudd Center will see the majestic replica of a bimah, a synagogue platform for reading the Torah, stretching to the ceiling of Mudd’s spacious gallery.

 

Representing the bimah of the synagogue in Gwozdziec, Poland, the 13' replica is the centerpiece of a stunning new exhibition—Wooden Synagogues: Recovering History through Art and Architecture—in Mudd. The exhibit is made possible by a generous gift from the Ring family.

 

On view through November 20, the display illustrates the exceptional flowering of synagogues that took place in Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The synagogues, with elaborately painted interiors, are among the finest and most complete creations of Jewish art and architecture,” say curators Rick and Laura Brown, professors of sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and founding directors of Handshouse Studio. Their work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the PBS series Nova, English and French television, and in National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines.

 

The exhibition focuses on large-scale construction models of two synagogues built in the Jewish market towns Zabludow in 1637 and Gwozdziec in 1731. Both are outstanding examples of the hundreds of wooden synagogues constructed and remodeled in Poland from the 17th century until their destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Pride of place also is given to colorful elaborately painted ceiling panels and a full-scale model of the Zabludow synagogue log wall and entry door.

 

Two panels were completed under the Browns’ direction by a group of Oberlin students during winter term workshops at Oberlin in 2005 and 2009. They learned to use 18th-century processes and period tools and techniques, studied on-going academic research on the history of synagogue architecture of the period, and worked collaboratively with an expert staff of artists and architects to paint the panels. The panels depict zodiac symbols, arabesques, animal images, and floral designs divided by white strips inscribed with Hebrew text. The replicas of the entry door and the bimah were hand-made using traditional materials and techniques of carving, turning, joinery, and steam bending.

 

Wooden Synagogues: Recovering History through Art and Architecture also includes architectural drawings, historical photographs, diagrams, maps, and text descriptions. It is being coordinated in conjunction with the East European Jewry course taught by Shulamit Magnus, associate professor of history.

 

The Browns’ replica of the Zabludow synagogue was displayed in Mudd Center in 2005 along with photographs and drawings of the Gwozdziec synagogue. Handshouse Studio is a nonprofit organization that educates students in history, science, and the arts through innovative, hands-on reconstruction of lost historical objects. 

 

 


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