Dr. Sergey Kravtsov: ,,The Great Synagogue of Vilnius: Architecture, Meaning, and Memory”

9 May, 2018

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was an outstanding architectural monument, and it is still a place of memory, not only Jewish, since it was constructed in dialogue with non-Jewish counterparts. The present paper is dedicated to these two significances of the Great Synagogue.

The architectural significance of the Great Synagogue is stipulated by its place in the history of synagogue architecture. This synagogue should be discussed in the context of the “great” synagogues, which emerged in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Great Synagogue, built in 1633, featured a prayer hall, which was spanned by vaulting supported by four columns. The earliest firmly dated synagogue of similar type was constructed 1592–94 in the Ruthenian city of Przemyśl, supposedly by an Italian architect, a master of the Lviv masons’ guild, Andrea Pellegrino Bononi.  That hall had four columns placed at the four corners of the central bimah. These columns carried a cubic arched superstructure, supporting—together with the exterior walls—the barrel vaulting on the four sides of the prayer hall. The heavy round columns of the Przemyśl synagogue were crowned by Corinthian capitals, not corresponding to their squatty shafts, which demand Tuscan or Doric capitals in accordance with architectural theory. This discrepancy between proportions and decoration was probably underpinned by the architect’s desire to charge the synagogue’s interior with the decorum of the Temple, which was sometimes represented in Renaissance art by a sublime Corinthian order.  As a tectonic concept, in modern literature called the bimah-support hall, the Przemyśl interior employed the idea of perimeter barrel vaulting based on a single central pier. This concept was well known in Poland by the end of the sixteenth century: it was incorporated in the so-called Łokietek Hall at Wawel Castle in Kraków and in the refectory vestibule of the Benedictine Nuns in Lviv. The architect of the Przemyśl synagogue expanded this concept into an airy, festive central tabernacle, which replaced the opaque central pier.

The bimah-support scheme was transferred to the Volhynian capital Lutsk, where the Great Synagogue featuring an interior arrangement similar to Przemyśl was constructed in 1626–28. Probably, the transfer of the architectural idea occurred through mediation of Lviv: the supposed architect of the Przemyśl synagogue belonged to the Lviv guild, and two synagogues constructed in Volhynian Ostroh and Lutsk during the same decade bore certain similarities with the Great Suburban Synagogue of Lviv built in 1624–32. In Lutsk, the four octagonal piers were massive and bulky, decorated with moldings which resemble an Ionic entablature, and not a column capital. The interior of the Lutsk synagogue was more sober than its Przemyśl precursor, less festive and not allusive to the Temple.

The Lutsk pattern of a bimah-support prayer hall gained influence in the eastern areas of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: it was applied in Pinsk, Slonim, Tykocin and Navagrudak.

The meaning of the bimah-support can only be guessed in the earliest examples of this scheme. Probably, the bimah-support in Tykocin, which dates from 1642, may shed light on what this architectural element meant to the contemporaneous Jewish community. The inscription, which does not necessarily date from 1642, reads: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe”. It remains unclear to which extent this interpretation also relates to the synagogue of Lutsk, and to even more chronologically and artistically distant Przemyśl.

An important development in the synagogue architecture is discernable in the third decade of the seventeenth century: the upsurge of the earliest so-called nine-bay synagogues with four piers and nine equal vaulted bays. The first known were the Great Suburban Synagogue in Lviv  and the Great Maharsha Synagogue in Ostroh. Szymon Zajczyk, an early researcher of both edifices, mentioned that “the Lviv and Ostroh synagogues have some elements of almost identical shape, namely the column capitals, which are neither schematic nor common, eliminating any possibility of accidental likelihood”. These two edifices were apparently built by Jakub (Giacomo) Medleni , a Lviv guild master employed by Prince Aleksander Zasławski in his Volhynian domains. Both synagogues featured a hall layout with four octagonal piers, composite capitals bearing a Doric abacus above the Corinthian acanthus, and retaining arches supporting nine equal bays of vaults. The inverse (Doric over Corinthian) usage of the order, the nine-bay scheme of the ground plan, and the slanting buttresses of the Ostroh synagogue suggest that when developing his concept the architect employed a highly popular imagery published in a treatise by Jesuit theologian Juan Bautista Villalpando in 1604. The latter envisioned the Temple of Jerusalem as a nine-bay compound adorned with a specific order featuring Doric elements over the Corinthianesque ones and retained by slanting concave buttresses. This particular iconography was imported into Ruthenia by Jesuit architect Giacomo Briano (1598–1649) who used it in his design for the Lviv Jesuit church in 1617–21.

In Villalpando’s treatise, the nine-bay ground plan of the Temple compound was accompanied by an explanatory scheme ascribing cosmic meaning to the overall layout. The twelve outer nodes of the scheme represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel, while the four central nodes corresponded to the Levite families. Villalpando connected the Twelve Tribes to the signs of the zodiac and the Levites to the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. In addition, the seven planets known in his days were located in the spaces between the sixteen nodes of the scheme. Thus, the composition of the nine-bay synagogue could be charged with a messianic and cosmic meanings, at least in the eyes of the Christian architect who knew Villalpando’s imagery. It is unclear, however, to which extent the suggested architectural meaning was clear to the Jewish clients or beholders.

The first known four-pier synagogue in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the Great Synagogue of Vilnius built in 1633. This edifice featured high Tuscan columns standing close together and terminated underneath the spring of the central vault and the perimeter of the prayer hall spanned by barrel vaults, like in the bimah-support synagogues. However, unlike in the bimah-support  synagogues of Ruthenia and Volhynia, the columns of the Vilnius synagogue did not bear any articulated superstructure; instead, a vertical portion was seamlessly added to the barrel vaulting of the central bay, thus making it similar to that of the nine-bay vaults. Judging from this inventive combination of features pertinent to diverse architectural concepts—the bimah-support and nine-bay—we may regard the Great Synagogue of Vilnius as a daring attempt to develop the bimah-support synagogue in the direction of more spacious four-pier layout. The Vilnius Synagogue facilitated a grandiose design and an unprecedented span of the hall exceeding those of L’viv and Ostroh. Its composition was loosely repeated in the “great” synagogues of Druya and Orla (the second quarter of the seventeenth century, reconstructed ca. 1800. Moreover, the seminal role of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius as a model for the later four-pier synagogues should not be underestimated.

It is uncertain whether the architect of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius associated his design with Villalpando’s imagery. The synagogue’s design, including Tuscan columns in the place of more decorous, Corinthianesque ones in the synagogues of Lviv and Ostroh, witnesses about dismissal of this concept, rather than its acceptance. It should be mentioned that Villalpando’s iconography was well known in Vilnius in the early seventeenth century: its architectural motifs were applied—for the first time in eastern Europe—to the title page of the book Divi tutelaris patrii Casimiri insigne virtutum hieroglyphicis emblematum figuris adumbratum, published by Hieronymus Bildziukiewicz in Vilnius in 1610 . Thus, the synagogue’s architect, certainly a Christian since the access to the masons guilds was prohibited to the Jews in that period, was probably not aware of this meaningful iconography, or considered it unsuitable to a Jewish ritual building.

The knowledge of Villalpando’s iconography was reiterated in the eithteenth-century Vilnius: it was visually quoted in the murals of the Carmelite St. Teresa’s Church by the painter Maciej Słuszczański in 1760–64. Finally, an artistic depiction of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius  disclosed an artist’s intention to show the Great Synagogue of Vilnius as a reference to Villapando’s imagery, and thus as architectural heir of the Temple.  This is discernable in the sepia painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz, which shows the interior of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius in 1786. The painting depicts the synagogue’s bimah standing upon a proxy of an incense altar, about thirty steps high, surrounded by twelve Corinthian columns and topped by twelve slanting buttresses (similar to the buttresses in the mural by Słuszczański in St. Teresa’s Church). It is necessary to note that the actual bimah of the Great Vilnius Synagogue, unlike the incense altar of the Temple, was only five steps elevated above the floor of the prayer hall, it was surrounded by sixteen low Tuscan columns (eight of them were round and eight – square) and eight high Corinthian columns, and the shape of the crowning ribs was far removed form that depicted by Smuglewicz. The aforementioned painted elements and their meaningful quantities were borrowed from the drawings of Villapando and his artistic followers, including Jan Lyuken (1649–1712), a illustrator of Josephus Flavius. Thus, the eighteenth-century artwork by Smuglewicz distorted the actual design of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius so as to point to the re-emerging understanding of the synagogue’s architectural vocabulary as referring to the Temple.

The Tuscan order, chosen by the unknown synagogue’s architect in the seventeenth century, was of low decorum regarding the significance of the synagogue in the eyes of the worshipers. For this reason, the Great Synagogue was painted to represent a Corinthian order more appropriate for the Temple than the actual restrained masonry. Most probably, this work was done by Jewish painters .

The Great Synagogue in Vilnius, a magnificent and meaningful edifice, played an important role in the  transfer of the four-pier layout to the Western Europe. The wave of Jewish refugees, fleeing from Bohdan Kmelnytsky’s uprising and seeking for a shelter in Vilnius, left the city in 1655, since the Muscovites’ and Cossacks’ armies reached Lithuania. Arriving in Amsterdam, the Jews from Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth probably carried their memory of a worthy prayer house with them. It was only in 1670–71, after the years of Sabbatean controversy and messianic fervor,  that the  Ashkenazi Jews agreed to build their synagogue in Amsterdam. The community, headed by Joseph son of Abraham, alias Joseph Polak from the Podolian town Bar, commissioned a four-pier synagogue, the Great Ashkenazi Synagogue. For all good reasons, the synagogue’s architect Elias Bouwman and his supervisor Daniel Stalpaert decided to employ Villalpando’s iconography of the Temple—most obvious in the concave buttresses—in the synagogue’s design. This visual expression was already popular in Holland, in the architecture of Protestant churches. It was adopted by Christian millenaries and messianic Jews to express in printed graphics and solid model their expectations of the latter days. It is possible that the choice of these forms was also preferable for the Ashkenazi synagogue because of the experience and memory carried by the refugees arriving from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the Netherlands.

Vilnius became popularly referred to Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, when it acquired the name “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” One legend, explaining this name, holds that “When Napoleon went through Vilna in 1812, he was shown the Synagogue. Standing on the threshold, and looking down at the magnificent interior, with the impressive supporting pillars and attractive carvings, he is alleged to have been almost speechless with admiration, and exclaimed ‘This is the Jerusalem of Lithuania’” (Geoffrey L. Shisler). In another narration, “It is said that when Napoleon saw [the city’s] numerous synagogues and witnessed the devotion of the Jews, he exclaimed, ‘It’s the Jerusalem of Lithuania’” (Israelis Lempertas). In both narrations, the glorious, Biblical and universal denotation of the city is not invented by the locals, this honor is delegated to an external, non-Lithuanian and non-Jewish progenitor. Napoleon lends his authority to the Jews of Vilnius and their main synagogue.

To conclude, the Great Synagogue of Vilnius is an outstanding architectural monument, a nexus in the architectural history of European synagogues. Its artistic features were created and interpreted in a dialogue of Jewish and Christian cultures, where the representations of the Temple were meaningful. Vilnius and its Great Synagogue are the Jewish and non-Jewish places of memory, since the popular name “Jerusalem of the North” is related to the exterior non-Jewish protagonist, Napoleon, and to the sacred history and geography. This shared memory gives a hope and prospect for the commemoration of the synagogue’s site.


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