Animals in the architecture
Backward Facing Deer
The figures of two identical deer were set in circular medallions on the north and south faces of the cupola. Each deer is painted with its head turning to look backward. Although the image of the deer has been used in Jewish art since antiquity and is a common motif in Eastern European folk art, the deer turning and looking backward is directly related to a group of popular stories from early-modern Ashkenazi literature, stories that were repeatedly emphasized in the Zohar. In a beautiful passage from the Zohar, beginning with a verse from the Song of Songs, the author dwells on the image of a fleeing, turning deer, using the deer as a metaphor for Divine mercy, comparing the love of God to a turning deer, constantly looking back at the Israelites who, by their sins, drive the deer away.
In a large medallion on the ceiling above the entrance, an eagle-like bird is shown landing on the top of a tree trunk, looking directly down at three eggs in its nest. The artist, uncharacteristically, labeled the figure as an “ostrich” in Hebrew. This figure is the only animal in the entire synagogue that was given a label. The artist painted other animals realistically, so the fact that he labeled the painting “ostrich” probably indicates that he did not know what an ostrich looked like. Most Polish Jews of the Early-Modern period would have been familiar with the term “ostrich” because it was used in legends and biblical stories, especially one about the ostrich’s practice of hatching her eggs by the power of her vision. Such stories emphasized the power of vision and the importance of looking at good things and refraining from looking at evil things.
An unusual Leopard-like creature was painted in a large medallion on the north side of the ceiling. The artist created a realistic leopard body but then inserted human facial features on to the leopard’s head. At first sight, this creature could be interpreted as a naïve example of primitive, anthropomorphic folk art from the shtetl. But there is nothing naïve about the more than twenty-five other realistically drawn animals that fill the Gwoździec Synagogue ceiling including the leopard’s body. Although the meaning of this leopard-like animal is unknown, a likely explanation is that it may have symbolized a human, perhaps a famous rabbi. Such symbolism occurs frequently in religious writings as in references to the “Ari” or lion. In any case, the prohibition of painting human figures may have motivated the artist to symbolize a particular person with an animal figure that references the form of a human face.
A turkey is prominently displayed in a large central medallion at the base of the cupola. The painting shows a zoologically correct North American turkey with particular attention given by the artist to its distinctive wattle. Such accuracy could not have been the product of the artist’s imagination. At first, it is difficult to imagine how the North American turkey could have been painted in an early-eighteenth-century Polish synagogue, but books depicting the exotic flora and fauna from beyond the European world were widely available at the time. One of the books, Zwi Hirsch Kaidanover’s popular Kave ha-Yasher, contains a collection of sayings, vocalized by exotic animals, emphasizing the wonder and incomprehensibility of God’s creations. Thus, the “exotic” turkey was an appropriate animal for depiction in the synagogue because it represented and confirmed the splendors of God’s creations. The turkey was to be contemplated by pious Jews as an example of the unfathomable variety of God’s creatures.
By Thomas Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteen-Century Polish Synagogue.
Prints of these animals are for sale HERE.