Wooden synagogues in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

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Wooden synagogues are an original style of vernacular synagogue architecture that emerged in the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.[1][2] The style developed between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries, a period of peace and prosperity for the Polish-Lithuanian Jewish community. While many were destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, there are some that survive today in Lithuania.

Wolpa Synagogue
Cross section of a wooden synagogue


German soldiers observe burning wooden synagogue in Lithuania during World War II.

According to Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, wooden synagogues in Poland–Lithuania developed during the Renaissance, sometime from the mid-16th to mid-17th century. This period was described as a time of peace and prosperity for the Jewish community of the vast Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its peak occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. The style was particularly common in the eastern territories of the Commonwealth which now constitute Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Moreover, such synagogues were predominantly found in smaller townships, villages and shtetls rather than larger cities.[3]

Timber was abundant and inexpensive in the heavily forested Commonwealth, but a large part of the motivation for building in wood rather than stone or brick was the great difficulty of obtaining government permission to erect masonry synagogues.[4] The wooden synagogues, which featured multi-layered high roofs, multi-beamed domes, galleries, wooden balconies and arches were built to high standards of craftsmanship.[5]

The synagogues fell victim to obsolescence and neglect over the next centuries. During the Second World War, the Germans burned and destroyed nearly all of the wooden synagogues that were still standing. None remain in Poland today, however, some did survive in Lithuania.[6]

Uniqueness as an artistic and architectural form

Gwoździec Synagogue
Wooden synagogue in Jurbarkas

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.[7] 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.[1][2][7][8]

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".[9]

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".[10]

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.[11] 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.[12][13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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".[16]

Types of wooden synagogues


Wooden synagogues can be divided into three types by the plan of the building, according to an article by G.K. Lukomski.[17]

  • The first has a square plan and a pyramidal roof in one, two and even three stages with decorated cornices.
  • The second type, oblong in shape, has a roof decorated with arcading.
  • The third type, more simple, resembles Polish secular buildings used to store grain, hay, etc.

Wooden synagogues may also be divided into three groups according to the shape of the roof and the number of cornices which divide them into stages (of the Mansard type, called in Polish "podcienie"), i.e., roofs with one, two or three stages.[17]

  • The type with roofs of one stage with perceptibly curved and tilted eaves, are probably the oldest in date. This is a very simple construction resembling a secular building used for agricultural purposes rather than a religious temple - a barn or store-house for grain. Its construction is very logical, or rational; every beam, every pillar and every buttress is clearly visible.

Examples: synagogue at Lanckorona in Podolie; Polaniec; Pareczow; Orsza; Szkloff; Radoszyce; Pilica; Nowogradek; Przedborz; Zydaczew; Brzozdowice; Pieczenierzyn; Jablonow.

  • The type with two roofs are often very large. It is interesting to note that the facades of the two towers can differ in design. A characteristic detail is the covering of the walls with narrow planks which act as an outer lining.[17]

Examples: Gwozdziec; Grodno; Chodorow; Uzlany (Usljany); Kamyenyets; Nasielsk; Njaswisch; Mogilev.

  • The type with three stages or more.

Examples: Nowe-Miasto; Pohrebyszcze; Jedwabne; Narowla; Wolpa; Zabłudów.

Interior decoration


The interiors were decorated with wall and ceiling paintings that, in many cases, covered the walls and ceilings entirely, and with elaborately carved wooden Torah arks.[7][8][5]

Thomas Hubka has traced the style of decorative painting in the wooden synagogues to the medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts of Ashkenazi Jewry.[18]

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.[19]

Regional variations


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.[1]

Influence on art and architecture


In culture


Wooden synagogues were quite abundant, and several famous authors and artists include them in their works.

Adam Mickiewicz gives detailed description of wooden synagogues in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz, Or, the Last Foray in Lithuania; a Story of Life Among Polish Gentlefolk in the Years 1811 and 1812, first published in 1834.

The new inn made an uninspired impression;
The old one had been built in ancient fashion
Dreamed up by the carpenters of Tyre, and then
Spread through the world by the Jews—a style unknown
To architects in any other place.
The Jews it was who brought it here to us.
It's shaped like a ship in front, a temple behind;
The ship part is a Noah's Ark on land,
Or, as the vulgar say, a barn—a house
For sundry creatures (horses, oxen, cows,
Billy goats); while flocks of poultry dwell upstairs
With crawling insects too, and snakes in pairs.
The oddly formed rear section brings to mind
The Temple of Solomon on the Mount, designed
By Hiram's carpenters—who for their part
Had been the first to learn the builder's art.
Synagogues still are built this way; in turn,
Their shape is seen in that of inn and barn.
A roof of thatch and unplaned boards juts high,
Like a ragged Jewish hat, into the sky.
Above are long rows of wooden galleries
On moldering pillars that are mysteries
Of architecture—leaning to one side
Like Pisa's famous tower, still they abide,
Shunning, in fact, the models of Ancient Greece
For the pillars lack both capital and base.
They're topped with arches (also made of wood),
Half-rounded, copying the Gothic mode,
Formed not with burin or with chisel, but by
The carpenter's ax, deployed most artfully.
They curve like the arms of sabbath candlesticks.
At the end are knobs, a little like the box
That Jews strap to their foreheads when they pray,
Called "tzitzit" in their tongue.

— Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, Book IV (1834)[23]

Napoleon Orda, renowned Polish-Lithuanian artist, painted at least two wooden synagogues.

El Lissitzky wrote about the murals in Cold synagogue in Mogilev after his and Issachar Ber Ryback's expedition:

The centerpiece of the whole place is the ceiling. On the western side, by the entrance, there stand giant lions and, behind them, peacocks. The lions hold two shields with inscriptions, the lower one is a memorial by the master for himself. Then there are three northern and three southern panels like a kind of frieze upon which unfurls the lives of predators and prey. Below there is water, upon it the earth, above the earth a sky; in the sky, stars that blossom into flowers. In the water—fish; they are being caught by the birds. On the earth a fox carries a bird in its snout. A bear climbs a tree looking for honey. Birds carry snakes in their beaks. All these flying things and running things—are people. Through their four-footed or feathered masks they look with human eyes. This is a very significant trend in Jewish folk art. Is that not a rabbinical face in the lion’s head in the zodiac paintings of the Mogilev Shul?

— El Lissitzky, On the Mogilev Shul: Recollections (1924)[24]

"Jewish period" was very short in the art of El Lissitzky; on the contrary, for Issachar Ber Ryback everyday life of a Jewish shtetl became the foundation of his art. Ryback created several paintings of wooden synagogues, he probably was inspired for these works during the shtetl tour few years earlier.

Marc Chagall claimed that Chaim Segal, the artist who created murals in the Cold synagogue in Mogilev and several other synagogues, was his great-grandfather, and compares his own art to Segal's synagogue murals:

Jews, if they feel like it (I do), may cry that the painters of the shtetl wooden synagogues (why am I not with you in one grave) and the whittlers of the wooden synagogue rattles — "Hush!" (I saw it in An-sky's collection, got seared) are gone. But what is really the difference between my crippled Mohilev great-grandfather Segal who painted the Mohilev synagogue and me, who painted the Yiddish theater (a good theater) in Moscow? Believe me, no fewer lice visited both of us as we wallowed on the floor and in workshops. in synagogues and in theater. Furthermore, I am sure that, if I stop shaving, you would see his precise portrait...

By the way, my father [looked like him]. Believe me, I put quite a bit of effort, no less love (and what love!) have we both expended.

The difference is only that he [Segal] took orders for signs and I studied in Paris, about which he also heard something.

— Marc Chagall, Leaves from My Notebook (1920s)[25]

List of wooden synagogues


Surviving wooden synagogues

Surviving wooden synagogue in Kurkliai
Torah Ark in Trakai synagogue

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.[26][27]

Surviving examples include:

Destroyed in the 21st century:

Destroyed wooden synagogues

Interior of the synagogue in Gwoździec, partial reconstruction

Almost all wooden synagogues were destroyed in the 20th century. Some of them were documented during the ethnographic expeditions.


Replica of the Wołpa synagogue

There is a replica of the Wołpa Synagogue in Bilgoraj, and another replica of the synagogue (Połaniec) is in Sanok.

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw has a partial reconstruction of the Gwoździec Synagogue. The ceiling painting of the synagogue in Chodoriw was reconstructed for the ANU - Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatefusot) in Tel Aviv.

In the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) in Paris there are models of several wooden synagogues.

See also



  1. ^ a b c Wischnitzer, Rachel The Architecture of the European Synagogue. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1964, pp. 125-147
  2. ^ a b Krinsky, Carol Herselle Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985, Dover Publications, 1996, pp. 53-58 and in individual town sections
  3. ^ Czerwiński, Tomasz (2006). Budownictwo ludowe w Polsce. Warszawa (Warsaw): Sport i Turystyka-Muza SA. p. 159. ISBN 9788374950435.
  4. ^ Wischnitzer, 1964, p. 127
  5. ^ a b "Moshe Verbin: Wooden Synagogues of Poland in the 17th and the 18th Century". www.zchor.org. Retrieved 2019-05-24.
  6. ^ Prokopek, Marian (1996). Tradycyjne budownictwo drzewne W Polsce: Budownictwo sakralne. Warszawa (Warsaw): Neriton. p. 7. OCLC 456508434.
  7. ^ a b c Zimiles, Murray, et al. Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: the synagogue to the carousel. University Press of New England, 2007, p. 5
  8. ^ a b Piechotka, Maria & Kazimierz Heaven's Gate: wooden synagogues in the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Warsaw: Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences, 2004
  9. ^ Alfred "Wooden Synagogues", Commentary, July 1960
  10. ^ Cited in Mark Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 92
  11. ^ Godfrey, Mark Abstraction and the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 92
  12. ^ Brown, Rick and Laura (2014). Gwozdziec Reconstruction. Poland: Handshouse Studio. p. 11. ISBN 9788380100060.
  13. ^ Gruber, Ruth Ellen (2011-06-15). "A 300-Year-Old Synagogue Comes Back to Life in Poland". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  14. ^ Piechotka, Heaven's Gate 2004, p. 64
  15. ^ Piechotka, Heaven’s Gate 2004, pp. 362-69
  16. ^ Soltes, Ori Z. Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source. Boulder: Westview Press, 2005, p. 180
  17. ^ a b c The Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe G. K. Lukomski, Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 66, No. 382 (Jan., 1935), pp. 14-21
  18. ^ Hubka, Thomas C. "Medieval Themes in the Wall-Paintings of 17th and 18th-Century Polish Wooden Synagogues", in Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other, edited By Eva Frojmovic, Leiden: Brill, 2002; p. 213 ff.
  19. ^ Mason, Margie "Berkeley Congregation Plans to Re-Create 17th Century Temple", Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2002 [1]
  20. ^ a b c Gruber, Samuel D. The Blueprint: how a 1959 book changed the architecture of American synagogues, Nextbook, 01.07.09 [2]
  21. ^ Ivry, Benjamin "Sol LeWitt: A Jewish Artist’s Leap Into the Unknown", The Forward, May 8, 2009 [3]
  22. ^ Zimmer, William "Art Takes a Prominent Spot In Chester's New Synagogue", The New York Times, December 9, 2001 [4]
  23. ^ Mickiewicz, Adam (25 September 2018). Pan Tadeusz. Steerforth Press. ISBN 9781939810014. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
  24. ^ Lissitzky, El. "וועגן דער מאָהליווער שול: זכרונות" [On the Mogilev Shul: Recollections (Translated by Madeleine Cohen. In geveb (July 2019))]. Milgroym. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  25. ^ Chagall, Marc (1918). Marc Chagall on Art and Culture: Including the First Book on Chagall's Art by A. Efros and Ya. Tugendhold. Moscow. p. 40. ISBN 9780804748315. Retrieved 7 May 2021.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  26. ^ Weinstein, Joyce Ellen The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania, hagalil.com
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Center for Jewish Art (2004). "Preserved Wooden Synagogues in Lithuania". The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Archived from the original on August 5, 2007. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
  28. ^ "Photograph of Alanta Synagogue".
  29. ^ "Synagoga w Owancie", Wikipedia, wolna encyklopedia (in Polish), 2016-01-20, retrieved 2019-05-24
  30. ^ InterWiki: Synagoga w Kurklach
  31. ^ "PREFACE 1". kehilalinks.jewishgen.org.
  32. ^ "Lithuania: Restored wooden synagogue in Pakruojis reopens (see video)". 24 May 2017.
  33. ^ "Synagoga w Rozalinie", Wikipedia, wolna encyklopedia (in Polish), 2016-01-20, retrieved 2019-05-24
  34. ^ Kucharska, Jolanta, "Ilustrowany przewodnik po zabytkach na Wileńszczyźnie i Żmudzi", Warszawa, 2004, ISBN 83-87654-15-9 (InterWiki: Synagoga w Telszach)
  35. ^ "Kienesa w Trokach", Wikipedia, wolna encyklopedia (in Polish), 2016-04-06, retrieved 2019-05-24
  36. ^ "Lithuania: Watch video of restoration of wooden synagogue in Žiežmariai". Jewish Heritage Europe. 2017-10-01. Retrieved 2019-02-23.
  37. ^ "Jewish Scouts Hike to Synagogue in Žiežmariai". LŽB (Lithuanian Jewish Community). 2019-02-19. Retrieved 2019-02-23.
  38. ^ "Lithuania: Update on Žiežmariai wooden synagogue restoration". Jewish Heritage Europe. 2016-11-10. Retrieved 2019-02-23.
  39. ^ Kucharska, Jolanta, "Ilustrowany przewodnik po zabytkach na Wileńszczyźnie i Żmudzi", Warszawa 2004, ISBN 83-87654-15-9 (InterWiki: Synagoga w Siadach)

Further reading

  • 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 ISBN 978-8386117024, ISBN 978-8386117536
  • Maria Piechotka, Kazimierz Piechotka, Wooden Synagogues, Politechnika Warszawska Zakład Architektury Polskiej, Published by Arkady, 1957 in Polish, 1959 in English ASIN B0007IWWUG, ASIN B000R9DWV8