The construction of small synagogues in private dwellings was an extravagant custom of Europe's wealthiest devout Jews. Known especially from the 17th and 18th centuries, these domestic houses of worship were outfitted with splendid Torah arks whose diminutive size matched the intimate scale of the synagogues they occupied. Indeed, the small size of these precious vessels (ranging in height from 53cm.-75cm.) suggests that they were semi-permanent furnishings which served not only as the focal point of private synagogues, but also as portable objects that could accompany their owner on his travels, or as he moved between multiple residences.
While the vast majority of these miniature, portable arks are no longer extant, the few that remain are works not only of exceptional quality and ostentatious beauty, but of exalted provenance as well: of the four most extravagant examples known, three have belonged to members of the eminent Wertheimer, Rothschild and Sassoon families. Noticeably absent from each of these magnificent Torah arks, however, are the original Torah scroll and Torah ornaments that were its raison d'etre. In fact, not one complete set -- a miniature Torah ark with its scroll and ornaments -- seems to have survived from the 17th or 18th century.
The present Torah ark, Torah scroll and Torah ornaments is one of the earliest complete miniature Torah compendia in existence. Crafted in Galicia, circa 1815, it testifies to the continued practice among the Jewish elite of commissioning diminutive Torah sets for private use. At a height of only 23 cm., the set's silver gilt and filigree Torah ark is considerably smaller than those that remain from the previous century; quite likely, its primary purpose was as an easily transportable yet lavish container for Judaism's most sacred text.
The compendium's Torah scroll, which is still wrapped around its original silver parcel gilt staves, is itself an exquisite work of art. Measuring a mere 10.5cm. high, its text is written in such tiny letters that one can hardly believe how finely formed and legible they are. The fact that Torah scrolls are no longer produced on this small of a scale is due, in part, to the extraordinary time and effort required to create such a scribal tour de force.
The three ornaments -- crown, shield and pointer -- designed to embellish this magnificent miniature scroll are the most ornate elements of this compendium. Clearly conceived as a matching set, the three pieces are rendered, like the Torah ark they inhabit, in parcel-gilt silver overlaid with silver filigree. The splendid double crown, with its lion staves, hanging bells and flower and bird finial, clearly resembles a series of Torah crowns produced in 18th/19th Century Lvov. While several full-size examples of this type are known, only one other miniature version seems to have survived. Preserved in the Jewish Museum of New York (Grafman, no. 467), this nearly identical crown was inscribed in 1813/14, one year earlier than the present example. Significantly, the Jewish Museum crown struck with the same three hallmarks as the present Torah ark, confirming that the maker of the ark (AJ) was also responsible for the two crowns.
The present crown is unparalleled, however, in being accompanied by its original shield and pointer. These pieces too are modeled on full-scale Torah ornaments from 18th/19th Century Galicia. While arched-top Torah shields emblazoned with pillars, lions, crown and Decalogue were indeed popular, it is clear that miniature filigree versions of this type were far less common: the present shield appears to be the only extant example of its kind. The same may be said regarding the delicate Torah pointer, whose silver and gilt filigree stem was designed, somewhat unusually, without the customary upper knop.
The five pieces of this miniature Torah compendium thus represent, both individually and as a set, works of great rarity. That they have remained together and intact for nearly two hundred years, despite the many travels they have surely endured, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Kantsedikas, A. et al., Masterpieces of Jewish Art, vol. 3 Silver, Moscow, n.d., pls. 19 & 22.
Grafman, Rafi, Crowning Glory: Silver Torah Ornaments of the Jewish Museum, New York, 1996, no. 166, 182, 187, 189 (shields), 467 (crown), 761 (pointer).
Mann, Vivian B. and Cohen, Richard I., eds., From Court Jew to the Rothschilds, New York-Munich, 1996, no. 129