29 January 2019
During my visit to Prague last week, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.
Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.
The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery, the most remarkable of its kind in Europe.
The Old-New Synagogue or Altneuschul is the oldest landmark in the Jewish town in Prague, and the main house of prayer for the Jewish community in Prague to this day. It was built in the 13th century in the early Gothic style and is the oldest preserved and oldest active synagogue in Central Europe.
The Old New Synagogue was completed in 1270 in the Gothic style, and it is one of Prague’s first gothic buildings. A still older Prague synagogue, known as the Old Synagogue, was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue.
The synagogue was originally called the New and Great Shul or Synagogue. But after the establishment of other synagogues in the ghetto in the late 16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue.
Another explanation says the name comes from the Hebrew עַל תְּנַאי (al tnay), which means ‘on condition’ and sounds identical to the Yiddish alt-nay or ‘old-new.’
According to legend, angels brought stones from the Temple in Jerusalem to build the synagogue in Prague – ‘on condition’ that they are to be returned when the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt and the stones are needed.
Nine steps lead from the street into a vestibule, from which a door opens into a double-nave with six vaulted bays. This double-nave system was most likely adapted by the synagogue’s Christian architects from the plans of monasteries and chapels. It has been suggested that the synagogue was built by the same workshop that completed the nearby compound of Saint Agnes’s Convent.
The moulding on the tympanum of the synagogue’s entryway has a design that incorporates 12 vines and 12 bunches of grapes, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Two large pillars aligned east to west in the middle of the room each support the interior corner of four bays. The bays have two narrow Gothic windows on the sides, for a total of 12, again representing the 12 tribes.
The narrow windows are probably responsible for many older descriptions of the building as being dark. It is now brightly lit with several electric chandeliers.
The vaulting on the six bays has five ribs instead of the typical four or six. It has been suggested that this was an attempt to avoid associations with the Christian cross. However, many scholars dispute this theory, pointing to synagogues that have four-part ribs, and Christian buildings that have the unusual five rib design.
The almemor or bimah from which Torah scrolls are read is located between the two pillars. The base of the bimah repeats the 12-vine motif found on the tympanum. The Aron-ha-Kodesh where the Torah scrolls are kept is in the middle of the eastern wall. There are five steps leading up to the Ark and two round stained glass windows on each side above it. A lectern in front of the ark has a square well a few inches below the main floor for the service leader to stand in.
The stone pews along the longer walls have been preserved from the original mediaeval furnishings of the synagogue.
The 12 lancet windows in the synagogue – five each on the south and north wall and two on the west wall – are said to have inspired worshippers to compare the building with Solomon’s Temple.
The synagogue follows Orthodox custom, with separate seating for men and women during prayer services. Women sit in an outer room with small windows looking into the main sanctuary. The framework of the roof, the gable, and the party wall date from the Middle Ages.
An unusual feature in the nave of this synagogue is a large red flag near the west pillar. In the centre of the flag is a Star of David and in the centre of the star is a hat in the style typically worn by Jews of the 15th century. Both the hat and star, forming the emblem of the Jewish community in Prague, are stitched in gold. In gold stitching too is the text of Shema Yisrael, the basic Jewish confession of faith.
The synagogue was restored by the architect Joseph Mocker in 1883.
Local lore says the body of the Golem, created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, rests in the attic which is the genizah or storage space for worn-out Hebrew-language religious book and papers is kept.
A legend is told of a Nazi agent during World War II broaching the genizah, but who died instead. The Gestapo never entered the synagogue attic during World War II, and the building was spared during the Nazi destruction of synagogues.
The lowest three meters of the stairs leading to the attic from the outside have been removed and the attic is not open to the general public. But it is said no trace of the Golem was found when the attic was renovated in 1883, or when it was explored in 2014.
Next: The High Synagogue
I was in Saint Brigid’s Church, Castleknock, on Saturday afternoon [26 January 2019] for the funeral of my friend and colleague, the Revd Robert Lawson, who died earlier last week.
Robert and I were commissioned as diocesan readers on the same day 25 years ago in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by Archbishop Donald Caird, in 1994. Later he was my student prior to his ordination in 2009, and more recently we were priest colleagues in Christ Church Cathedral.
It was humbling when someone pointed out that his last posting on Facebook was a reposting of one of blog postings on the labyrinth in Christ Church Cathedral.
Many years ago, he had brought me to Castleknock one Sunday morning to preach in Saint Brigid’s when the rector was Canon Paul Colton (1990-1999). Today, Bishop Paul Colton is the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. They had remained good friends in the intervening years, and Bishop Paul was the preacher at Robert’s funeral, in that same pulpit, on Saturday afternoon.
The church stands on the site of an abbey of the Augustinian Canons Regular, who built a church here around 1220. Soon after, the church a prebendal church attached to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1227.
Two of the early Prebendaries of Castleknock in the 14th century were John de Tamworth, who was also a canon of Wolverhampton, a royal peculiar, in 1364, and his successor, William de Tamworth.
Other clergy associated with the parish include Richard Bancroft, who later became Bishop of London (1597) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1604).
A church was built in 1609 on the site of an Augustinian church of the Canons Regular. At the time the Archbishop of Dublin, Thomas Jones, was also Prebendary of Castleknock, holding both posts at the same time (1614-1619). A similar situation occurred with Archbishop Lancelot Bulkeley (1620-1650), perhaps giving the Archbishops of Dublin a certain proprietorial interest in Castleknock.
This is the church where Josiah Hort (ca 1674-1751) was consecrated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1722, controversially, after the Archbishop of Dublin, William King, had refused to consecrate him. Archbishop King protested that this ‘gentleman is the first that I ever heard of, that pretended to a bishoprick without any degree at all.’
Saint Brigid’s Church was rebuilt in 1806-1810, with by a loan of £1000 from the former Board of First Fruits and large subscriptions.
The church has a three-stage tower at the west gable. There are granite rubble walls with an ashlar granite plinth course, quoining, gable copings and three courses at the projecting nave elevation facing the street, and a blank granite panel on the tower.
The flanking side aisles, added around 1860, have three-bay side elevations with gabled terminating bays at the east forming side transepts.
The church has a double pitched slate roof flanked by subsidiary double pitched slate transept roofs, all with clay ridge tiles, and cast-iron rainwater goods.
The church has pointed arch openings with carved granite hood mouldings, irregular quoining, cills and geometric Gothic tracery. Each opening has figurative or lattice leaded stained glass. There are three pointed arch door openings, two to the street front and one at the tower with carved granite hood moulding. There are stepped soffit and reveals, and granite steps flanked by engaged stepped granite piers with triangular coping and recessed panel.
The surrounding timber plank doors have massive wrought iron hinges and furniture. There are late 19th century timber-panelled, double-leaf doors with central octagonal panels and there is a Gothic panelled tympanum to tower opening.
Welland and Gillespie designed the enlargement of the church in 1862-1864 to form rectangular church out of existing cruciform one. The chancel was being completed under the direction of the church architect Sir Thomas Drew (1838-1910), who also designed the Graduates’ Memorial Building in Trinity College Dublin, Rathmines Town Hall and Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. The contractors were the builders Thomas Hall and Sons.
Drew also designed the organ gallery in 1870 for a new organ by Forster and Co of Hull. This was placed in the gallery in October 1870.
The East Window, dating from the 1850s, is the work of the English stained glass-artist William Wailes (1808-1881), who supplied many stained-glass windows for churches in Ireland and England.
Wailes ran one of the largest and most prolific stained-glass workshops in Victorian England. He had studied with Mayer of Munich and later worked closely with AWN Pugin. His famous works include the windows of Gloucester Cathedral, the East Window in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, the Transfiguration East Window in Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church in Limerick, and many of the windows in Saint Mary’s Church, Killarney, Co Kerry.
A three-light stained-glass window (1928) in the south aisle depicting Saint Hubert, flanked by Saint George and Saint Luke, is the work of one of Ireland’s finest stained-glass artists, Harry Clarke. The window commemorates Sir George Frederick Brooke (1849-1926) of Summerton, Castleknock, High Sheriff of Co Wexford (1882) and Co Dublin (1898), and his family, including his second wife, Alma (Barton), and his son, Lieutenant George Brooke (1877-1914) of the Irish Guards, who was killed in World War I.
A stained-glass window placed in the tower in 1864 commemorates James Hans Hamilton (1810-1863), MP for Co Dublin (1841-1863).
The church has a number of memorials by Alexander Ballantine to members of the Hamilton family, including James Hans Hamilton and his wife Caroline Hamilton (1810-1845), and to Canon George O’Connell (1779-1842), who succeeded his father as Vicar of Castleknock in in 1809, and remained in the parish for over 30 years.
James Hans Hamilton and his wife Caroline Hamilton were the parents of Ion Hamlton, who became Lord HolmPatrick in 1897. The family took its title from Holmpatrick in Skerries, but lived at Abbotstown, near Castleknock.
Other members of the Hamilton family commemorated in the church include Hans Wellesley Hamilton (1886-1942), 2nd Lord HolmPatrick. His grandmother was a daughter of the Duke of Wellington and a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. The present Lord HolmPatrick is a Labour politician. The HolmPatrick family also has a prominent place in the churchyard.