Wooden synagogues of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
Uniqueness as an artistic and architectural form
The wooden synagogue was "an original architectural genre" that drew on several models, including Poland's wooden building traditions and central plan, masonry synagogues in which four massive masonry pillars that define the Bimah rise to support the roof vaulting. Central pillars support the vaulting of only a handful of wooden synagogues. Instead, in wooden synagogues the vaulting and domes are suspended by elaborate roof trusses. Common features shared by wooden synagogues include the independence of the pitched roof from the design of the interior domed ceiling. The outside of a wooden synagogue gave no hint of the domes and multiple, Baroque vaults that would be found within. The exteriors were decidedly plain, giving no hint of the riot of carving, painting, domes, balconies and vaulting inside. The architectural interest of the exterior lay in the large scale of the buildings, the multiple, horizontal lines of the tiered roofs, and the carved corbels that supported them. The elaborate domed and vaulted ceilings were known as raki'a (Hebrew for sky or firmament) and were often painted blue sprinkled with stars. The Bimah was always placed in the center of the room. Wooden synagogues featured a single, large hall. In contrast to contemporary churches, there was no apse. Moreover, while contemporary churches featured imposing vestibules, the entry porches of the wooden synagogues was a low annex, usually with a simple lean-to roof. In these synagogues, the emphasis was on constructing a single, large, high-domed worship space.
According to art historian Stephen S. Kayser, the wooden synagogues of Poland with their painted and carved interiors were "a truly original and organic manifestation of artistic expression—the only real Jewish folk art in history".
According to Louis Lozowick, writing in 1947, the wooden synagogues were unique because, unlike all previous synagogues, they were not built in the architectural style of their region and era, but in a newly evolved and uniquely Jewish style, making them "a truly original folk expression", whose "originality does not lie alone in the exterior architecture, it lies equally in the beautiful and intricate wood carving of the interior".
Moreover, while in many parts of the world Jews were proscribed from entering the building trades and even from practicing the decorative arts of painting and woodcarving, the wooden synagogues were actually built by Jewish craftsmen. Other research points to certain synagogues being made by Christian master builders. For example, the early history of the Gwoździec Synagogue is unknown and portions of the structure date back to 1650. The original structure was built in a regional style exhibiting both Jewish and Polish vernacular architecture. In the 18th century there was a dramatic reconfiguration of the prayer hall ceiling. It is believed to be the first cupola of its kind. The timber framers are unknown but presumed to be Christian master builders since until the 19th century Jews were excluded from the trade. The liturgical paintings were made by Jewish artists. Isaac, son of Rabbi Judah Leib ha Cohen and Israel, son of Rabbi Mordecai, have inscribed their names on the paintings in the western ceiling.
The interior vaulting of the Wolpa Synagogue is described by art historians Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka as having been "the most magnificent of all known wooden ceilings" in Europe. Of course, since Christians were free to build with brick and stone, few European buildings of the scale of the Wolpa synagogue were ever built in wood. The walls of the main hall were 7.2 meters high. The vaulting, under a three-tiered roof, rose to a height of fourteen meters in three tiers marked by fancy balustrades. Each tier was made up of several curving sections faced in wooden paneling to form a graceful, tiered and vaulted dome. The vaulted ceiling was supported by the four wooden corner columns that rose form the bimah, and by trusses in the roof.
Art historian Ori Z. Soltes points out that the wooden synagogues, unusual for that period in being large, identifiably Jewish buildings not hidden in courtyards or behind walls, were built not only during a Jewish "intellectual golden age" but in a time and place where "the local Jewish population was equal to or even greater than the Christian population".
According to Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, the wooden synagogue style developed in the century between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, a period of peace and prosperity for the Polish-Lithuanian Jewish community. In addition to Poland and Lithuania, wooden synagogues are found in modern Belarus and the Ukraine.
Wood was abundant and inexpensive in the heavily forested commonwealth, but a large part of the motivation for building in wood rather than masonry was the great difficulty of obtaining government permission to erect masonry synagogues. The wooden synagogues, which featured multi-layered high roofs, multi-beamed domes, galleries, wooden balconies and arches were built to high standards of craftsmanship.
The intricate wooden decoration of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Przedbórz Synagogue was considered so beautiful that before the Second World War it drew tourists to the small village of Przedbórz.
Architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer has traced regional variations in wooden synagogue style. The interiors of the wooden synagogues of Lithuania were not as exuberantly painted as were synagogues of other regions. Instead, Lithuanian synagogues were notable for architectural details such as ceilings with the boards laid in decorative herringbone patterns. Several Lithuanian synagogues featured corner pavilions. The wooden synagogues of Galicia were notable for their elaborate wall paintings.
Influence on art and architecture
The Sons of Israel Synagogue, by architects Davis, Brody and Wisniewski, in Lakewood, New Jersey evokes Polish wooden synagogues in modern materials in the shape of its roof. The Temple B'rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York, by architect Pietro Belluschi is roofed with a domed wooden drum intended to evoke the wooden synagogues of Poland. The modern building of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut was designed by artist Sol LeWitt who conceptualized the "airy" synagogue building with its shallow dome supported by "exuberant wooden roof beams" as an homage to the Wooden synagogues of eastern Europe.
Surviving wooden synagogues
Although it was long thought that none of the wooden synagogues survived the destruction of the First and Second World Wars, it is now known that a number do survive, albeit only of the smaller type.
Surviving examples include:
- Alanta, built in the late 19th century, in deteriorating condition
- Kaltinėnai (in Commonwealth gmina Szyłele, Lithuanian: Šilalė)
- Kurkliai (Polish: Kurkle), in Soviet times used as barn, now in deteriorating condition
- Pakruojis (Polish: Pokrój), the largest of the wooden synagogues that survives in present-day Lithuania (built 1801), restored in 2017.
- Rozalimas (Polish: Rozalin), built in 19th century
- Subate (Latvia)
- Telšiai (Polish: Telsze), built in the 19th century, vacated around 1940
- Trakai (Polish: Troki), a Karaite synagogue called Kenesa built in the 18th century, with altar (Torah ark) and interior preserved in good condition
- Veisiejai (Polish: Wiejsieje)
- Žiežmariai (Polish: Żyżmory), under restoration since March 2016, exterior works completed in 2018
Destroyed in the 21st century:
- Plungė (Polish: Płungiany), brought down in 2007
- Seda (Polish: Siady), built in the early 20th century, collapsed in 2005
- History of the Jews in Poland
- History of the Jews in Lithuania
- History of the Jews in Galicia (Eastern Europe)
- History of the Jews in Ukraine
- Three hares
- Vernacular architecture of the Carpathians
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- Photograph of Alanta Synagogue
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- InterWiki: Synagoga w Kurklach
- InterWiki: Synagoga w Rozalinie
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- InterWiki: Kienesa w Trokach
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- Thomas C. Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community Brandeis University Press, 2003
- Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Heaven's Gate: Wooden Synagogues in the Territory of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences, Wydawnnictwo Krupski I S-ka, Warsaw, 2004
- Maria Piechotka, Wooden Synagogues, Kazimierz Piechotka, Politechnika Warszawska Zakład Architektury Polskiej, Published by Arkady, 1957 in Polish, 1959 in English