The 17th and 18th-century wooden synagogues that once dotted Poland in great numbers were marvelous structures indeed. Their most striking feature was the awesome dichotomy between their largely unadorned exteriors and their magnificently decorated interiors. Brightly colored paintings, laden with meandering foliage, real and imagined animals, and lengthy inscriptions covered many of their walls and ceilings like the richest of tapestries. Soaring Torah arks, carved into multiple tiers of columns, foliage, lions and birds occupied many eastern and southern walls, while monumental gazebo-like bimot marked the structure's center, sometimes beneath a complex interior dome. Not surprisingly, the synagogue's Torah scrolls were no less splendidly adorned, being "dressed" with embroidered mantels, silver and parcel-gilt crowns, finials, shields and pointers.
The crown was undoubtedly the most regal and elaborate of the Polish Torah's ornaments. By the mid-1700's it was often a towering structure of two or three crowns, stacked one atop the other. That this exquisite form was favored for more than one hundred and fifty years is well attested by the numerous Polish crowns that remain from the 1800's. Exceedingly rare, however, are examples from the early days of these crowns' production, for they have shared the same fate as the exquisite synagogues that housed them: numerous pogroms and two World Wars have rendered them nearly obsolete.
The magnificent Torah crown seen here is one of the precious few to survive from this period and region. Crafted in Poland, circa 1760 of parcel-gilt silver, its three tiers are embellished with delicate filigree work, ornate repousse reliefs, cut-out designs, and colorful stones emulating precious gems. A visual feast of patterns, textures and colors, the crown's ornament shares the complexity and richness of synagogue wall paintings in such towns as Kamionka Strumilova and Chodorow, and of the Torah arks in Kornik and Uzlany. More specifically, its overall structure -- a double crown topped by a cupola and finial -- bears striking similarities to synagogue bimot which were constructed as monumental, multi-tiered crowns (as, for example, in the synagogues of Snaidowo, Konskie, and Przedborz). This exquisite Torah ornament is, therefore, not only an exceedingly rare, early example of an important line of Polish Torah crowns: it also encapsulates the architectural forms, artistic ornaments and sumptuous flavor of those marvelous synagogue interiors that once graced 18th-century Poland.
The significance of this crown further derives from its recent American provenance, for it has belonged to two of the most well-known Judaica collectors of the past century. The first is the renown Polish-born industrialist Michael Zagayski (1895-1967), who emigrated to the United States in 1940 after his home and museum-quality art collection (including at least one thousand works of Judaica) were confiscated by the Nazis.
Amazingly enough, within twenty years of his arrival, he succeeded in building another world-class collection, portions of which were exhibited by the Jewish Museum in 1951 and 1963, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955. In addition to the present crown, Zagayski's Judaica holdings included two other Eastern European Torah crowns which were then believed to emanate from the 17th-18th century. Both of these important crowns, which have recently been reattributed to the late 18th-early 19th century, are now part of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum of New York (JM 17-64, Grafman no. 468, and F5636, Grafman no. 466). The present ornament is thus the only one of Zagayski's three crowns to retain its original, mid-18th-century attribution, and the only one to remain in private hands.
In 1955 the Polish crown was acquired by the financier and philanthropist Jacob Michael (1894-1979) at Zagayski's first landmark sale (Michael M. Zagayski, Parke-Bernet, November 23, 1955, lot 176 [illustrated p. 143 and cover]). Born in Frankfort, Michael came to the United States in 1939, a year before Zagayski's arrival. He too had a passion for Jewish ceremonial art, which he acquired with acumen and donated with generosity, often to Jerusalem's Israel Museum. A selection of his holdings, including the present crown, were offered for sale in 1982 (Jacob Michael, Christie's, New York, October 26, 1982, lot. 155)
The Jewish Museum, New York, Loan Exhibit of Antique Ceremonial Objects and Paintings from the Collection of Mr. M. Zagayski, May-July, 1951, no. 13 (illustrated)
Kantsedikas, A., Volkovinskaya, Y., and Romanovskaya, T., Masterpieces of Jewish Art, vol. 3 Silver, 1992, pp. 44ff, and illus nos. 1-5, 7, 12 13, et al
Benjamin, Chaya, The Stieglitz Collection, The Israel Museum Jerusalem, 1987, no. 2, pp. 22-23
Verbin, Moshe, Wooden Synagogues of Poland in the 17 and 18 Century, 1990, nos. 14, 17, 22, 26
Grafman, Rafi, Crowning Glory: Silver Torah Ornaments of the Jewish Museum, New York, 1996. p. 66-67
Yargina, Z., Masterpieces of Jewish Art, vol. 5 Wooden Synagogues, n.d., pp. 58-59, p. 55 illus. 53, and synagogue nos. 119, 122, 125
See frontcover illustration and illustrations