Torah Ark (Aron Kodesh)

Modena, 1472

Sculpted, inlaid and painted walnut, velvet and silk, 265 x 130 x 78 cm

On permanent loan from the Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Rothschild donation, Strauss donation

Torah Ark, Aron Kodesh, Modena, 1472

Torah Ark, Aron Kodesh, Modena, 1472

The Torah ark, containing the Torah scrolls and always placed against the synagogue’s east wall in the direction of Jerusalem, is, with the lectern (tevah), the principal piece of furniture in the synagogue.

This Torah ark in sculpted, painted and inlaid wood was offered to the synagogue in Modena in Italy in 1472 by Elhanan Rafael, son of Daniel. The centrepiece of the collection amassed in the mid-19th century by the composer and orchestra conductor Isaac Strauss (1806-1888), it was donated to the Musée de Cluny by Baroness Charlotte de Rothschild in 1890.

Although there are traces of Torah arks in the same style in the illuminations of contemporary Hebrew manuscripts, notably in a prayer book copied in Reggio Emilia in 1466 (British Library) and in a copy of Jacob ben Asher’s Tower executed in Mantua in 1436 (Vatican Library), this is the most ancient wooden Torah ark still in existence. 

Composed of two parts, it is surmounted by a crenelated cornice evoking a fortified tower, an allegory of divine protection: “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18, 10).

The ark’s purpose is recalled by Hebrew inscriptions on the front and sides of the upper part evoking the power of the Torah: “The statutes of the Lord  are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19, 8-9); and its symbolic link with sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2, 3) and “A glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17, 12). The Ark’s dedication refers to an “Ark of the Covenant” (aron ha-Brit) and the cable-moulded pillars evoke Yakhin and Boaz, the columns at the Temple’s entrance.

The fifty-six panels are sculpted with rose motifs and inlaid using the certosina technique. The removable tablet is similarly inlaid with a vase of flowers, an allusion to the Tree of Life, symbol of the Torah. Stylistically, although created quite late in the Quattrocento, it represents the transition between the dying embers of flamboyant late Gothic and the new art of the Renaissance.

This exceptional piece is attributed to Christoforo Canozzi da Lendinara (c. 1420 – before 1490), an artist renowned for the studioli (cabinets) he created for the Este family and an example of the remarkable integration of the Italian Jews at that time. There is a secular credenza or cabinet in the same style in the Cloisters Museum in New York.

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