A Lost World Revisited

An 18th-century Eastern European synagogue became the focus of an intense, 10-day winter-term project designed to study and replicate what had been destroyed during World War I.

Wooden synagogues built in Eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries represented a high point in both Jewish architecture and liturgical art. Most, however, were destroyed during the two World Wars, primarily in the Nazi invasion of Poland, says Assistant Professor of Art Rian Brown-Orso. Of the lost architecture, particularly ornate was the ceiling (cupola) of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, adorned with intricate, vividly colored, painted designs reminiscent of an oriental carpet.

Creating a half-scale replica of the synagogue’s south ceiling was the task of nine winter-term students who become sleuths of architectural details, masters of mixing colors, and experts in 18th-century painting techniques. The project was led by guest instructors Rick and Laura Brown, professors of sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and founding directors of Handshouse Studio, a nonprofit that guides students through reconstruction projects of lost historical objects. Lectures about the synagogues and the meaning of the iconography were weaved in.

The students’ work is now part of the exhibition “Continuity–Traditions of Jewish Art and Architecture” at the Vilna Shul synagogue in Boston. It will then become part of an ongoing touring exhibition about the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe.

For more, visit www.handshouse.org/.

On the last day of an intense, 10-day winter-term project, students, professors, and guest instructors gather around their finished work—a half-size replica of a painted ceiling that graced a 1729 Polish synagogue. Pictured at center are Rick and Laura Brown. Pictured at right are project sponsors Rian Brown-Orso (in green) and Sarah Schuster (in sweater), associate professors of art.