By the mid eighteenth century, Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) had a flourishing Jewish community, with important commercial ties to Western Galicia. The Breslau fairs had been centers of trade for centuries, attended by Jews throughout Eastern Europe.
The Rothschild Torah Ark well represents the wealth of Breslau, and its high baroque style relates to the elaborately decorated interiors of the wooden synagogues in the region. A distinctive style of synagogue architecture developed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, characterized by imposing but plain pitch-roofed exteriors which concealed contrastingly complex interiors. These interiors, of wooden truss construction, supported multiple vaults, domes, and profusely carved and painted decoration, much of it focused on the Torah Ark. The wooden synagogue interior is considered one of the most outstanding Jewish artistic achievements in Europe. Because the most significant of these synagogues were completely destroyed during the Second World War, carved wooden Torah Arks are almost unknown today. The survival of this example in silver, undoubtedly used for private services in a wealthy household, is phenomenal.
The only other silver Torah Arks of this type known are much later in date. A miniature example made in Vienna in 1783 is now in the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, and a Polish example of 1838 from the J. Kaufmann Collection in Frankfurt-am-Main was sold in 1955 (see J. Gutmann, The Jewish Sanctuary, Leiden, 1983, pl. xxxii and Parke-Bernet, New York, 17 March 1955, lot 124). The back plate of a silver Hanukkah Lamp made in Galicia in 1787 takes its form very literally from carved wooden Torah Arks in that region (illustrated in Vivian B. Mann and Norman L. Kleeblatt, Treasures of the Jewish Museum, New York 1986, p. 110).
Johann Christoph Müller (active 1721-1758), son of Breslau goldsmith Christoph Müller, became master in 1721. He married in the same year Henrietta Sophia, the daughter of Breslau goldsmith Gottfried Gideon Eberlein the Elder. Two silver and silver-gilt Torah Shields by Müller are known: one dated 1731-1737 in the Jewish Museum, New York, and another dated 1737-1745 recorded in the Stern Collection, New York (both cited in Rafi Grafman, Crowning Glory: Silver Torah Ornaments of the Jewish Museum, New York, 1996; the 1731-1737 Torah Shield is cat. no. 42 and illustrated on page 98). The Jewish Museum's Torah shield by Muller bears stylistic similarity to the Rothschild Torah Ark, both in the sheer profusion of ornament and in the details; for example the rendering of the lion figures is nearly identical. Of particular interest are the trelliswork panels in Regence style on the Torah Shield, as they relate to the decoration on the silver-gilt side mounts on the Rothschild Torah Ark, allowing us to conclude that these mounts were originally applied to a previous box, probably made of wood, and were simply reapplied by Hoensch to his silver box some fifty years later. Indeed the mounts show evidence of having originally been pinned or nailed where now they are soldered in place.
Gottfried Wilhelm Hoensch (active 1780-1811), son and apprentice of Breslau goldsmith Christian Hoensch, became master in 1780. Hoensch made a silver Torah Shield decorated with the Tablets of the Law for the Glogauer Synagogue in Breslau in 1804-1805 (Hintze, p. 88).
The identification of all the Breslau marks and the biographical information on the goldsmiths may be found in Erwin Hintze, Die Breslauer Goldschmiede: Eine Archivalische Studie, Kommissionsverlag von K.W. Hiersemann, Leipzig, 1906
Christie's is grateful to Melanie Aspey, Director of the Rothschild Archive, for providing the inventory of Nathaniel Charles Rothschild.
Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, oil on canvas, 1908, 61 1/8 in. x 39 ¼ in., given by the sitter’s daughter, Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild, 2004
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Breslau town mark c.1737 - c.1746 and date letter F for 1746-1758
Maker’s mark of Johann Christoph Müller of Breslau (w. 1721-58)
Breslau town mark and date letter F for 1746-1758 on reverse of apron
Torah Ark showing silver box applied with silver-gilt mounts
Top of box with Breslau town mark c. 1799-c. 1805, date letter M for 1796-1804, maker’s mark of Gottfried Wilhelm Hoensch, and Prussian tax mark