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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Early Dutch Torah Finials

Pair of Torah Finials, 1649, silver, parcel gilt, 42.5 cm high, made in Rotterdam (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). A conversation with Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Beth Harris. Part of a partnership with the Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA Boston and Smarthistory. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Beth] We're in the galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts. We're looking at a glass case filled with fabulously beautiful silver and gilt objects, and what stands out are the pair of Torah finials, objects that would've decorated the Torah. - [Simona] The Torah is a scroll hand-written on parchment. So you have to imagine a scroll that is rolled around two wooden staves and the Torah finials slot onto the top of those two staves. These were made in Rotterdam in the mid 17th century and this is what really makes these Torah finials exceptionally important. I cannot stress how rare Dutch 17th century Judaica is, - [Beth] In Hebrew, we would call them rimonim. - [Simona] It's Hebrew for pomegranates because some of them, especially early types, were round. - [Beth] So we have to imagine that the Torah in the synagogue is behind an ark. It's in a protected space. It's covered with, in many cases, a beautiful fabric covering. On top of that, these finials would cover the staves. Often there would also be a crown over the finials and so we have this idea of beautifying the Torah which is the central text of Judaism. There is nothing more sacred in the synagogue than the Torah itself, so it's treated in a way like a king, and it's dressed like a king. - [Lynn] The Torah is taken out regularly to be read from during the service, but of course it would be undressed before it was placed down for reading. And we have these conical shapes that go over the staves, and then we have this three part structure. - [Simona] We are looking at a certain type of Dutch Torah finials. They have an architectural form. They were probably looking at both local architecture in Dutch towns, but also at Christian objects like reliquaries that were themselves mimicking architectural forms like a bell tower or a church spire. And they're structured on three tiers that rise up and become successively smaller. They sit on these silver staves that are beautifully engraved with flowering plants. And from that, the core structure starts in the center with the largest section, with openings and gilded bells that would call the attention of the congregation during synagogue services as they were moved and paraded around the synagogue space. And then we have another smaller section with arches surrounded by little bricks. And on top of that there is another section also with six openings. Now the very top we see ewer and bud that is almost certainly a later replacement. - [Beth] So as we look closely, we see what look like animal heads. - [Simona] The silversmith, who's unknown to us, played with a range of decorative devices making this piece much more lively. Some of the decorative devices are brackets in the central section. We were wondering, are these fantastical beasts? Animals? Are they dragons? And then again, if you look at the section just above it there are other brackets and they seem to have heads of women or somehow alluding to grotesques. Other decorations are the pierced shapes of stars, quatrefoils, little roundels, and they make the Torah finials quite dynamic. - [Beth] So we know that these were made in Rotterdam but as for Jews all over Europe, things were not easy. - [Simona] The history of these Torah finials is very much part of this story. It's the story of the Spanish and Portuguese refugees. After the expulsion of 1492, for a few decades many of them lived as crypto-Jews, hiding their religion in secret while externally converting to Catholicism. And then they started to move to different countries including the Ottoman Empire and Italy, and then they went to north. In the 16th century, they went to Antwerp because it was an absolute international power. Then they moved to the Dutch Republic and they are recorded in Rotterdam as early as 1610. That's when we know that the City Fathers grant some Portuguese merchants authorization to trade, to deal in commerce in the city. But then two years later, church authorities rebel against these rights. Then 1647, a new wave of Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrive in Rotterdam. They're given new rights, even the building of a synagogue. - [Beth] So this type of rimonin with a structure like a tower becomes very popular in the Dutch Republic. - [Simona] These are actually the earliest known examples of this type, that we've said is three tiers, hexagonal in shape. They start in the Netherlands, and then they continue for about 200 years in many other communities like London and Hamburg and New York and even the Caribbeans. So these are the grandparents, as it were of many Torah finials around the world. (gentle piano music)