31 January 2019

The Synagogues of Prague,
5, The Spanish Synagogue

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague is a Moorish-style synagogue and one of the most beautiful in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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 surviving synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

I visited the Spanish Synagogue in Dusni Street twice last week, once to see the synagogue itself, and later in the evening for a concert. Arabesques, gilt and polychrome motifs with a dazzling combination of rich green, blue and red hues make this Moorish-style synagogue one of the most beautiful in Europe. The interior of this 19th century creation is breath-taking, with its Torah ark and central dome as masterpieces of Spanish-inspired architecture.

Although the Spanish Synagogue is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Town, it stands on the site of the oldest synagogue in Prague, the ‘Old School’ or Altschule.

A small park with a statue by Jaroslav Róna of Prague’s best-known Jewish writer Franz Kafka lies between the synagogue and the neighbouring Church of Holy Spirit, first built in 1346 as part of a Benedictine convent.

The Old Synagogue or Altschule dated back to at least the 12th century, and its story was one of tragedy after tragedy. The victim of four fires, the synagogue was also damaged in the Easter pogrom in 1389. It was shut down by Emperor Leopold I in 1693 but opened its doors again in 1704, only to be pillaged in 1744.

During the 18th century, the Empress Maria Theresa let the synagogue fall into disrepair. But at the end of the 18th century, the Renaissance structure was transformed into a late Gothic style building.

The Old Synagogue was rebuilt five times from 1536 to 1837. When it was renovated in 1837, it became the first synagogue in Prague to offer reform services and the first in Bohemia to have an organ. Frantisek Skroup, who would later compose the Czechoslovak and now Czech national anthem, Where is my home?, was the organist and choirmaster there for almost 10 years, from 1836 to 1845.

Reticulated vaulting was added in the 1840s. But by then, the Altschule was too small for the needs of its congregation. They decided to demolish it in 1867 and replace with the new, Spanish Synagogue, built a year later.

The Spanish Synagogue was built in 1868 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

At first, the synagogue was known to German-speaking Jews in Prague as Geistgasse-Tempel, or ‘Temple in Holy Spirit Street,’ which seemed an incongruous combination of names until I stood by Kafka’s statue between the church and the synagogue.

Prague’s Jewish community has always been mainly Ashkenazic, so the name of the Spanish Synagogue does not refer to a Sephardic presence in Prague. Instead, the name refers to the Moorish revival style in its architectural design, inspired by the Alhambra and the art and architecture of the Arabic period in Spanish history.

A similar cultural influence shaped the design of the Neue Synagoge or ‘New Synagogue’ on Oranienburger Straße, the main synagogue of the Jewish community in Berlin, built in 1859-1866, with its domes and its exotic Moorish style that also reflect the Alhambra.

The Spanish Synagogue was designed by Vojtěch Ignác Ullmann, a renown architect of the Bohemian neo-renaissance, and the imposing interior and layout were created by Josef Niklas.

The interior of the Spanish synagogue was decorated in 1882-1893 to designs by Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogue is two storeys high, its ground plan is square and the main hall has a dome is surrounded by three built-in balconies, with an organ in the south balcony.

The synagogue is laid out in the Reform style. The bimah or reading platform is at the east end rather than the central space as in traditional synagogues or at the west wall as in Sephardic synagogues.

The monumental aron ha-kodesh or holy ark where the Torah scrolls are kept has no parochet or curtain today, and is designed in the style of a mihrab. Above, in the east wall, a great round stained-glass window with a central decoration of the six-sided Magen David (Star of David) was installed in 1882-1883.

The benches stand in rows, like pews in a church, instead of being arranged around the walls. They are not original, but come from a synagogue in Zruč nad Sázavou, a small town in Central Bohemia, south-east of Prague.

The most impressive decorative element in the synagogue is a gilded and multi-coloured parquet arabesque. The synagogue was decorated in 1882-1893 to the designs of Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger, who were inspired by Arabic architecture and art.

The overpowering internal decoration is formed by low stucco of stylised and coloured Islamic motifs. Decorative elements were also applied to the doors, the organ and the wall panelling, and the windows are filled with tinted glass.

In 1935, a functionalistic building, designed by Karel Pecánek, was added to the synagogue. Until World War II, it served the Jewish Community as a hospital. The synagogue also used the space of the new building, which provides a vestibule, a shop, a winter oratory and additional exhibition space.

Since 1935, the appearance of the synagogue has remained essentially unchanged.

The appearance of the Spanish Synagogue has remained unchanged since 1935 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Nazis used this synagogue during World War II to catalogue and store property stolen from the Czech Jewish communities, including furniture from other synagogues.

Ten years after the war, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish Museum, it was fully restored inside in 1958-1959, and an exhibition of synagogue textiles opened there in 1960. By the 1970s, however, the building was neglected and it remained closed after 1982.

Restoration work resumed after the ‘Velvet Revolution,’ and when the synagogue was completely restored to its former beauty it re-opened in 1998.

This beautiful synagogue used today by Conservative Jewish community Bejt Praha. Kabbalat Shabbat is at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., depending on the time of year, and welcomes all Jews, whether Reform, Orthodox or Secular.

The Spanish Synagogue is administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague. The exhibitions look at modern Jewish history in the Czech lands, from the reforms initiated by the Emperor Joseph II to the contribution of many Jewish people – including Franz Kafka – to Czech culture, literature, education, economy and science, as well as the traumatic events of the 20th century. It is also a regular venue for cultural events, including concerts and readings.

Previously: The Klausen Synagogue.

Next: The Pinkas Synagogue.

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