Jewish Studies Synagogue Art
Vivian B. Mann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0039


The first synagogues were established in the Diaspora, for example, at Delos, Greece, dated to the 1st century BCE. In the Land of Israel synagogues were built at Masada, Herodion, and other sites even before the destruction of the Temple. Some of these ancient houses of worship are known to have housed desks for reading the Torah, but centuries elapsed before a solution was found for the storage of Torah scrolls within the synagogue proper. The first incorporation of an ark or niche for the scrolls into the architectural fabric of the synagogue dates to the 3rd century and is found at the synagogue in Dura-Europos, Syria. Once permanent storage was established, the problem faced by builders of synagogues was the spatial relationship between the reader’s desk and the Torah ark. The different solutions to this problem in Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi synagogues affected the forms of ceremonial art created for the synagogue. An important facet of Jewish ceremonial art made to decorate the synagogue and the Torah scroll is its gradual development. Mantles, textile bags (tikim), and arks for protecting the scroll were known in Antiquity, as were the ark curtain and ornamental crowns, but the tik in the sense of a hard, cylindrical case for the Torah is first mentioned in a document dated 1059 from the Cairo Geniza. Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) wrote of silver finials as scroll ornaments; the Torah shield and the pointer appear later, as do other forms decorating the synagogue building. Catalogues on synagogue art and architecture emerged only in the first half of the 18th century in accounts of court and private collections. The first published for a Jewish collector accompanied Isaac Strauss’s exhibition of his Judaica at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was accompanied by a catalogue written by George Stenne. This was an isolated publication. Only in the last years of the century did a continuous series of scholarly works on synagogue architecture and Judaica appear with Mathias Bersohn’s three volumes on Polish synagogues (1895–1903) and the first volume of the Mittheilungen der Gesellschaft zur Erforschung jüdischen Kunstdenkmäler (1900), the journal sponsored by the Gesellschaft zur Erforschung jüdischen Kunstdenkmäler of Frankfurt that was organized by Heinrich Frauberger of the Düsseldorfer Kunstgewerbenmuseum. Scholarly interest in architecture and ceremonial art for Jewish communities increased dramatically after World War II. Since illustrations are crucial for understanding both architecture and artworks, the quality and number of plates in each volume is noted in the annotations.

Architectural Forms of the Synagogue

Synagogues in Antiquity, particularly in the Diaspora, were sometimes established in existing buildings that were modified to serve the rituals of Jewish worship. The interiors of these reused buildings vary according to the architecture and function of the original spaces. The interiors of structures built as synagogues, both within the Land of Israel and outside it, were remodeled beginning in the 3rd century CE to accommodate a permanently placed Torah ark. During the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues differed in their plans and in the form of their reader’s desks. In German-speaking lands the reader’s desk was raised above floor level by several steps and was placed in the center of the synagogue. In Spain and the Sephardi Diaspora, including North African countries, synagogues were often bipolar, the ark and the reader’s desk at opposite ends of the building. The Sephardi reader’s desk was reached by many stairs and in that respect was similar to the chair for the reader of the Qurʾan in contemporaneous mosques. In central Asian synagogues the ark was sometimes replaced with niches that housed hard, cylindrical tikim and their scrolls, a feature found in the 14th-century El Transito synagogue of Toledo. The early literature on synagogue architecture dates to 1895–1903 with the appearance of three volumes on Polish synagogues (Bersohn 1985) and Mayer 1967, the second issue of the pioneering journal on Jewish art and architecture published by the association for Jewish art in Frankfurt. After the discovery of ancient synagogues at Beit Alpha, Israel (1929), at Dura-Europos, Syria (excavated in 1932), and at other sites in both Israel and the Diaspora, the pace of publications on ancient synagogues steadily grew. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the number of volumes on synagogue architecture and related buildings, like ritual baths, has proliferated with the increasing interest in Jewish monuments of all periods by scholars, photographers, the public, and those promoting tourism.

  • Bersohn, Mathias. Kilka slów o dawniejszych bóżnicach drewnianych w Polsce. 3 vols. Warsaw: Wydawn. Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1985.

    Reprint of the original 1895 edition, one of earliest publications on synagogue architecture. The subject is a select series of Polish wooden synagogues.

  • Mayer, L. A. Bibliography of Jewish Art. Edited by Otto Kurz. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967.

    A comprehensive list of works on Jewish art until 1967. Organized by names of the authors with cross-references provided in the index. Includes works on synagogue architecture.

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