What we refer to as the lantern is the crowning cupola of the Gwozdzeic synagogue ceiling where the baroque interior curvature of the ceiling resolves at its highest point. Added in the early 1700’s, to a barrel vaulted ceiling, it was part of a renovation that inspired a stylistic trend that informed wooden synagogue architecture across the entirety of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (Hubka pg. 57). Now in our final workshop in Wroclaw it remains as the last unfinished element in our ceiling.
Above: Images and studies of the lanterns structure and interior painting.
Those familiar with Ottoman and Middle Eastern art and imagery might find the designs in the lantern surprising. The main design feature, which we refer to as the arabesque, has Ottoman roots. Below you can see a similar design in the repeating sections of an Ottoman tent as well as a similar design feature on wall tiles in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Polish Jews were not isolated. Communities such as Gwozdziec maintained cultural connections with Sephardic Jewish communities and were familiar with popular Ottoman motifs. The specific tent pictured below would have also been well known to Poles because of its existence as a symbol of Polish unity and nationalism after Poles captured it in Vienna from invading Turkish forces in 1683 (Hubka pg.37).
Above: Ottoman tent captured in Vienna.
Above: Breier’s color study of the lantern next to tiles from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Hubka, Thomas C. Resplendent Synagogue. Brandeis University Press. Lebanon NH. 2003
Sense of Order. A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (1979) is a book by E.H. Gombrich, published after he presented his investigations at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as part of a programme called Wrightsman Lectures. Gombrich was an Austrian art historian, probably one of the most significant figures of this discipline in 20th Century Europe. This book is a very broad and complex analysis of human’s natural tendency to search for regularity within disordered surroundings and, as a consequence, eagerness to create patterns, which later become ornaments. Gombrich performs a profound analysis focusing on aesthetic preferences present in various cultures, general aspects of the subconscious, physical perception and also the influence of constant interaction of nature and civilization on the forms of art.
Decorative art has existed since always but has not always been considered important. Centuries have passed before it was finally noticed not only as a valuable source of aesthetic heritage but also as a universe of symbols. Nowadays it is hard to believe that the craftsmanship of ornamental art used to be undervalued, understood just as the background to something greater. Today ornamental art is thought to be not only a discipline that requires skills of higher level but also deeper understanding of symbols and their meanings.
I recommend this publication by Gombrich to anyone who would like to investigate wider context of decorative art. Author traverses multiple locations, periods and cultures finding common paths that justify our need for organized beauty.
Sense of Order. A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art was published in English by Phaidon Press Ltd, London.
Since I didn’t manage to access an English version of the book, I decided to provide extract taken from polish edition (Universitas, Kraków 2009), translated by myself.
We shall refrain from the temptation of treating overall perception [of decorations] as an act of simply viewing without appropriate intensification of attention. Thanks to the rule of graduated complexity, we are able to absorb much more from the general character of decoration than we can actually analyze and describe. […] The ability and creativity of the decorations’ maker have an impact on more than just our conscious perception. A master of crafts knows from his own experience, that we can feel, without any specific investigations, this extremely significant difference between disorder and abundance. What is certain is the fact that when confronting all the orders within orders, our tendency to verify regularity without the feeling of losing any part of an infinite and inexhaustible variety, switches on. This process may demand our acceptance of this form of art, which used to be claimed to be of little importance. History shows that some great traditions of ornamental styles cross the borders of pure decoration and are actually able to transform overflow into a whole and undefined meaning- into a mystery.
-Post by Olga Micińska, a volunteer from Warsaw who has participated in both the Timber Framing workshop and the final painting workshop here in Wroclaw. Olga graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw with a Masters degree in Sculpture.
The final workshop has begun! It is taking place in the city of Wrocław in western Poland. The group is happy to be back here, having painted in Wrocław for three weeks last summer. The White Stork Synagogue is a beautiful place to work, and a perfect setting for the documentary film of the Gwozdziec reconstruction project, produced by Trillium Studios, which is currently being shot (thanks to many wonderful Kickstarter donors)!
The Synagogue was built originally in 1829, designed by the well-known Prussian architect Karl Ferdinand Langhans. It is three stories high with two interior balconies, previously used as the women’s galleries, overlooking the main prayer hall. The White Stork Synagogue, named for an inn that previously existed at the site, was not completely destroyed by the Nazis during the war. Although the interior was ruined during Kristallnacht, the building structure survived, and was used by the Jewish population for a time after the war. After many Jewish people were forced to leave Wrocław by the communist anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, the building continued to fall into disrepair. Finally, in 1996, the Synagogue was returned to the Wrocław Jewish population. At this point, renovations began which were later finished under the support and direction of the Bente Kahan Foundation. It is currently an active synagogue, concert venue and cultural center.
Aside from final details on panels that were painted in previous workshops, two main features of the ceiling remain to be completed in this workshop. Two more coves, just like the ones we developed and painted in Sejny, will be finished here. The lantern, which makes up the very top of the ceiling structure will also be painted. The lantern presents a unique challenge as it will remain assembled while it is painted.
My name hangs like a pendant in the necklace of generations. Link after link of h & n Helena is Hannah is Hebrew for Grace threaded through slavic cities washed anew in the mikvah to shine, a red squall between my mother’s legs. A name is heavy to carry down the wide hopeful avenue of tomorrow and light, after so many repetitions so many prayers.
It dodges the fluid borders of seven countries, collects the patina of a Polish song, "The Lovely Helena" is whistled on the corner, hands in pockets. In dangerous times it is a hiding place of a name.
Burn a hole in the map of Warsaw look through the ash circle you cannot see the flamed soul of Hannah my grandmother, wearing her grandmother’s name singing my name to me.
Everyday I cast off her hungry voice answer to my name, bear my light ablaze in the eye. My name is heave to carry, and light, after so many repetitions so many prayers.
-Helena Lipstadt October 5th 2010
The Necklace refers to the Jewish tradition of naming a child in honor of a deceased relative.
Helena Lipstadt is the author of two poetry chapbooks “Leave Me Signs” and “If My Heart Were a Desert.” She is named after both of her grandmothers, Hannah and Adel.
Currently, she is joining our group for the painting workshop in Szczebrzeszyn. A few days ago, she shared this poem with us during our morning gathering.
The method of mixing paint for the Gwozdziec Synagogue ceiling is as traditional as the synagogue itself. Since there were no tubes of paint, all the paint was made by hand. As many students flow in and out of different workshops we are all taught the traditional methods. Learning the process is interesting, fun and very rewarding at the end. After completing the process of mixing the pigments and mixing paint, everyone has a new found appreciation for the value of the paint and the entire project.
The process of mixing paint from start to finish is very precise in all the measurements and techniques. For any color that needs to be made there is a recipe that has been determined through studies over the last 10 years the project has been running. The process begins with measuring out how much of each pigment is required for the color. Measuring is a very careful task because the pigment must be as even and level as possible to ensure consistent colors are being made. Once all the pigments are measured out, the blending process begins with using a palette knife to mix together the dry pigments. After the colors are blended, water is added and the pigments get ground down with a muller on glass. Grinding is a crucial part of creating paint. It ensures that all the particles are broken down and blended together. The ideal consistency to have when mixing the pigments is tooth-paste like. The grinding process is usually gone through twice before the pigment is completed and then added to dish that holds that color.
Paint ground with a muller
Smoothing out the consistency of the paint
To create the paint, the pigment must be added to the rabbit skin glue, the traditional glue that was originally used which allowed the paint to stick to the boards. The rabbit skin glue is made from pellets that soak in water over night and then are heated to a warm bath temperature. Each color has a different ratio of pigment to glue that has been determined through the hard work of Rick, Laura and the painting leaders. By following the ratio and thoroughly mixing the glue and pigment you are ready to paint!
-Post by Emma Hauer, a student at Massachusetts College of Art.
The fourth workshop of the 2012 Gwozdziec Synagogue ceiling painting project is underway in a section of Poland known as the Lublin Uplands. This region of South Eastern Poland is characterized by gently rolling farmlands interspersed by large tracts of woodlands. The survival of much of the remaining natural beauty of this area can trace its roots back to 1589 when the founder of Zamosc, Jan Zamoyski created an enclosed game reserve where the indigenous species enjoyed life relatively free of human intervention. The area remained a reserve for over 350 years. In 1974 a National Park was created that presently covers over 32 square miles including many towns and villages.
The backbone of this area consists of limestone deposits divided by valleys filled with post glacial sands, it lies along the borders of the continental divisions defined by the sediments of the older Eastern European platform meeting the younger Western Europe formations. Still geologically active, it is rising by nearly 2mm per year.
The limestone perhaps plays an important part in the unique ecological diversity of the Roztocze Park. Over 750 species of vascular plants make up the vegetation covering the hills and valleys. Dominant plants include fir, spruce, pine, beech, oak and linden. Some of the largest Fir trees in Poland are to be found here as well as over 400 “nature monument” trees. The lessor flora are represented by hundreds of species of wild flowers, mosses and grasses filling a wide variety of biological niches. The animal kingdom is no less represented. Polish ponies have been reinstated in the park, grey wolves, red fox, Eurasian badger, wild boar and two species of deer abound, beaver have been reintroduced and there are around 190 species of birds.
Farmland in the Roztocze national park
Our own experiences in the park were highlighted by walks along meandering streams, a visit to a small skansen (open air ethnographic museum) and a very relaxing kayak trip down a small river running through lush meadows, interrupted only by a stop at a small riverside café offering piwo (cold Polish beer) and kielbasa. A back road led us past a wonderful yard spilling over with folk art sculptures of deer, storks and Jesus figures. The ensuing conversation with no common language made for a very entertaining afternoon hosted by an entire family of multiple generations.
Carving above a door in the Skansen
Traditional thatched roof wooden house from East Central Poland
This Thursday, we will travel to Warsaw to attend the opening of an exhibition of completed Gwozdziec Reconstruction panels in the Royal Castle. Two Domes and Zodiac panels that were painted during the workshops last summer will be on display over the next two weeks. Check out this review from JewishJournal.com!
The Kazimierz Dolny synagogue where we are working is just a few meters away from the main market square. Local legend claimed it had been built by Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370) at the behest of Estera, a Jewish beauty from KD who had apparently enjoyed the infatuation of the enlightened ruler. A perhaps more reliable story has the synagogue being built from limestone during the second half of the 18th century, although wooden and brick synagogues had likely existed in the town from at least the 11th century. It is a very fitting setting for our painting workshop, the interior having originally been painted in brilliant polychrome images of “horses, deer, castles, flowers, geese, scales, pigeons and a wide array of symbolism…” “…a warm and fantastic sunrise of color”. The Nazi occupation of Kazimierz Dolny saw the synagogue used as a horse stable and some of its priceless furnishings, including a curtain from the alter cupboard embroidered in gold thread by Estera, were lost. In July 1944, the night before the German forces withdrew from the town they destroyed part of the building. After the war, the ruins were further vandalized until 1953 when it was rebuilt as a cinema. The cinema closed in 2003 and the building now houses a museum of the Jewish history of the town downstairs and a hotel space upstairs in the former women’s gallery. There are many wonderful historic photos of the synagogue and the town in the old worship space.
The Group 2 HandsHouse students visited Bialystok which was a major cultural center along with Vilnius for the Jewish diaspora. The burning synagogue in the video on the handshousestudio.org web site is the one in Bialystok. We had heard there was a Memorial to the Synagogue and our bus driver took us to it. We were all walking and chatting away when we turned a corner and - boom - we were there and we could feel it.
Bialystok Synagogue Memorial I
Bialystok Synagogue. Memorial II
The sculpture was very moving and the bronze plaques minced no words. We had gone to Bialystok to see a Jewish Festival which was quite small but the organizer was very excited to see us. There was a booth where two women were putting some Kosher food together (so we were told by the Polish bus driver) and offering it around, but then there was some informal instruction in Jewish circle dancing with a loudspeaker for the music. It was very moving to be allied with the local Jewish community by learning Jewish dances in the center of Old Bialystok. It seemed that time was both moving forward AND standing still.
Jewish Festival Dancing in Street
The Group 2 students were also given a tour of Sejny including the Borderland offices and the cathedral. The monks who had built the Sejny cathedral had invited Jews to come to Sejny in the first place in the 18th century. These monks had helped build the synagogue and the bishop accompanied the new rabbi in bringing in the Torah to the new synagogue when it was first dedicated.
Here’s a story we were told by Michal, the Borderlands staff member who gave the tour. He was asked what had happened to the Sejny Jewish population of the town, Michael said that they were all gathered up on one day in 1940 and put on trains and shipped off to concentration or death camps. He said one man, a teen at the time, had been fighting with his father and had run away that day. He then heard what happened and somehow got to Warsaw and survived to get out, living in South America, the US and Israel vowing to never return to Poland. Michael said that this man’s children had insisted that he come back to Sejny. As the man and his children approached the synagogue preparing for the trauma of seeing the ruins of his childhood, the man heard the Borderlands’ Youth Theater Troupe rehearsing Dibbuk, a prominent Jewish play that included klezmer music. It was a miracle as the man walked into the middle of this music with young people in traditional rural Jewish clothing. The Borderlands folk had not known there were any survivors nor had they met anyone who knew what the synagogue looked like before the Holocaust and of course the man had never dreamed that history was being reclaimed right in his own town. The man has come back several times, and has shared much information with Borderlands. A picture of him with his family before the war is in the Borderlands offices.
-This post was written by Mary Russell, a painter and public health consultant from Roslindale, MA and a continuing education student at MassArt. Mary is joining the group for two sessions this summer, in Sejny and in Kazimierz Dolny.
After work last Wednesday, the students and painting leaders piled in buses and drove from ‘our’ manor house outside Sejny, around the lake, to another manor house at Krasnogruda. This site had been the home of the nobel prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz. Newly reconstructed, the manor house and surrounding buildings are dynamic, multifaceted spaces, perfectly suited to the energetic organization that works within them, our hosts here in Sejny, Fundacja Pogranicze/Borderlands.
Weronika Czyzewska from Borderlands greeted us at the manor house and spoke to us about the history of Sejny and and the recent revitalization of Krasnogruda. Some details from her talk:
-Baltic tribes lived in Sejny during the medieval times. These pagans were attacked and eventually defeated by the Teutonic knights (whose huge, brick castle we visited outside of Gdansk) in the 15th century. At this point Poles from the south and Lithuanians from the north began moving into the area.
- During the 17th century, this region belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, which comprised what is now Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and parts of Russia. She described this unique political situation as an early prototype for the European Union and also an early model for democracy.
-During and after the first World War, Sejny changed ownership 11 times. She told a story of a man who said: “I have lived in Poland, I have lived in Lithuania, I have lived in Belarus and Russia. I have lived in the same house my whole life.”
-Weronika talked about the diversity of the cultural heritage of Sejny. Even today, half of the population of Sejny is Lithuanian. Sejny is also home to a population of Russian Old believers. Once part of the Russian Orthodox Church, they refused to follow reforms made within the church and were therefore exiled from Russia. They have been referred to as the “Polish Amish,” living very traditional lifestyles.
The last major component of the cultural heritage of Sejny was the large Jewish population. Jewish people from Vilnius were invited to Sejny in the 18th century by Dominican Monks, who helped to build the first wooden synagogue. At one point in the 19th century, Jewish people comprised over half the population of the town. Next to the synagogue, a Yeshiva was build which became a major center of the Enlightenment movement in Lithuania. At the start of the second world war around 800 Jews lived in Sejny. Nearly all of them were killed by Nazis in the concentration camp of Majdanek during the war.
Several people who escaped have, in recent years, come back to visit Sejny. Weronika referred to them as “the returners.” One man who remembered having prayed in the synagogue as a child visited Sejny with his family, expecting that nothing would remain of the life he remembered there. He walked into the White synagogue during a Jewish performance put on by Borderlands and local people. By all accounts, the timing of this meeting was a miracle. He said Kaddish at the Jewish Cemetery and sang in the synagogue.
View of the Borderlands buildings and synagogue from the main street in Sejny
We are very lucky to have Charlie Roderick, a professor at Harper College, and Sara Black, a professor at Antioch College, joining us in Sejny as the group 2 faculty leaders. Charlie’s beautiful photos (below) document the group’s visit to Vilnius, Lithuania and our experience so far in Sejny, at the lake-side manor house and at the Synagogue where we are painting.
Making it all line up: problem solving the corners of the Coves
Here in Sejny we are working on the lowest section of the Gwozdziec ceiling known as the Cove. Four pieces, each approximately 30 feet long and 2 feet wide, this highly decorated section forms a curved transition from the log walls to the main sections of the dome and upper cupola. In the summer of 2011, during the tail end of the timber-framing portion of this project, the boards for the Cove were cut and placed then taken down at lighting speed in order to finish on schedule. Now these boards, like all the rest, are separated from the roof frame and assembled into flat panels. This system works well for painting and, given the itinerant nature of our workshops, for transport as well. However, all of these flat sections will eventually have to be reassembled into a three-dimensional object. Because most sections of the painting are divided by liner border elements there should be no problem registering imagery back together in the final installation. The one exception to this rule is the curved corners where the four sections of cove meet.
A large palm like image is painted onto each corner, half on one section, half on the other. Because we are dealing with a different set of logistics than the original painters (i.e. the artists most likely painted this image in place) we were concerned about our palms coming together and looking right in the end. So in true Handshouse fashion we investigated the problem by doing and decided to make a full-scale model of the corner. The model is of one corner translated into cardboard from templates taken from our actual boards. Onto this model I was able to sketch the two halves of the palm until we agreed it was as close a match to the archival photographs as possible. This process was both challenging and, as a maker, satisfying. The tracings will become the new template for our disjointed image so that when the boards are reassembled in Warsaw four beautiful palms will appear. Fingers crossed!
The painting team arrived in Sejny last week to set up the work site and put finishing touches on the pendentives before joining the second student group for a few days in Vilnius, Lithuania. The whole group has now returned to Sejny, where we are starting to learn the complex history of this small town and the space in which we are working.
We are joined this session by students from Antioch College, Chicago Art Institute and Harper College, chaperoned by Charlie Roderick and Sara Black. This morning, after presentations from Jan Stanisław Kap, the mayor of Sejny, Krzysztof Czyżewski, the director of Borderlands and Nitzan Reisner from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, everyone got busy mixing paints and gessoing the cove panels.
After work, we return to what we are starting to refer to as “summer camp.” Our residence is large manor house situated on one of the many lakes dotting the countryside around Sejny. Evenings are made up of soccer, bonfires, storytelling, swimming, fishing…. plus amazing catered food!
This week, painting leader Nick Farnham has been developing and painting the Leviathan. We wanted to share some information about the origins of this creature in Jewish legend.
Some scholars believe that the Leviathan is based upon similar legends that belonged to ancient peoples the Jews came into contact with. For instance, the Canaanite sea monster Lotan or the Babylonian sea goddess Tiamat.
Just as the Behemoth is an unconquerable monster of the land and the Ziz a giant of the air (both featured in the Gwozdziec synagoge mural as well), the Leviathan is said to be a primordial sea monster that can’t be defeated. Job 26 and 29 say that “the sword…has no effect” and that “he laughs at the rattling of the lance.” According to legend, the Leviathan will be an entree served at the messianic banquet in Olam Ha Ba (the World to Come). In this instance, Olam Ha-Ba is conceived of as a Kingdom of God that will exist after the Messiah comes. Talmud Baba Batra 75b states that the archangels Michael and Gabriel will be the ones who slay the Leviathan. Other legends say God will slay the beast, while yet another version of the story says that the Behemoth and the Leviathan will fight a mortal battle at the end of time before being served at the banquet.
The festival of Sukkot (Festival of Booths) concludes with a prayer recited upon leaving the sukkah (booth): “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan.”
This tradition has been carried over from last summer: every morning we meet to discuss the day and these meetings will end with a poem or a few words of reflection. This morning Rick shared a passage introduced and read by Bob Smith during the timber framing workshop last summer in Sanok, Poland:
While the sign there may say Gwozdiec Reconstruction, I think it is important to remember that we are not reconstructing an historic structure. We are reinterpreting it; we are creating a fiction. And in this, I am reminded of a book I recently read by Tim O’Brien titled The Things They Carried. While ostensibly a story about the Vietnam War, it was more truly a story about the power and truth of story. What we are doing here is both creating a story and participating in a story.
And so, some of what Tim O’Brien had to say:
A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand up on those mysteries And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.
As you work, remember your story. Remember that you are now part of someone else’s story, and that what we are doing here is more true than the truth.
Today was an exciting day! After a week of preparation and testing, paint is finally going on the boards! The background colors are on the four pendentives and the vines are being traced and painted. Students and painting leaders have been working on narrowing down color choices for borders and details. Our goal is to finish the pendentives by the end of this session. Everyone is working hard and there is a lot to be done!
The Gwozdziec Synagogue Reconstruction Project of summer 2012 has begun!!! We will be working for the next two weeks in a wonderful, active synagogue in Gdansk. This morning we met the four Polish and one Belarusian student that will be working with us during the first painting session. They were immediately tossed into the signature Handshouse “organized chaos” as the delivery truck pulled up carrying all of the painting supplies and panels from Warsaw and the unloading commenced.
In three busy hours, we transformed the synagogue into a worksite, with colorful test panels lining the walls and tables set up with brushes, pigments to be mixed and blank panels to be painted. This flurry of activity settled down, followed by a press conference, hosted by the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, and attended by the mayor of Gdansk!
Following this, Robert Supel and Piotr from the Museum gave a presentation about the mission of the exhibitions. Their statements were thoughtful and thought-provoking and gave us an important context in which to think about the work we are doing.
The day finished with more set up and everything in place to hit the ground running tomorrow, when we are joined by a group of students from MassArt.
Check out the pictures of the set-up and the press conference!