30 March 2020
Among all the coronas and
crowns, ‘the crown of a good
name outweighs them all’
I confused some colourful anemones outside the back door at the weekend with poppies. I grew up without learning the names of flowers and trees, and so a discussion followed on social media, with someone pointing out that Anemone Coronaria is the full name for the Poppy Anemone.
It is amazing how the name Corona seems to be popping up in so many conversations and news reports these days, from talking about anemones and poppies to reports about the relics in Aachen Cathedral of Saint Corona, the patron saint of resisting all epidemics.
The word corona means ‘crown’ – and the corona viruses, including Covid-19, get their name because of the crown-like spikes on their surface, or because scientists thought they resembled the corona of the sun in an eclipse.
In Jewish tradition, the Crown or Keter (כֶּתֶר) symbolises royalty, power and honour.
In Exodus Rabbah (שמות רבה, Shemot Rabbah), the midrash to Exodus, it says, ‘There are three crowns – the crown of royalty, the crown of priesthood and the crown of Torah. The crown of royalty – this is the shulhan (table) ... The crown of priesthood – this this is the mizbe’ah (altar) ... And the crown of Torah – this is the aron (ark) (Exodus Rabbah, Chapter 34).
The table represents abundance and wealth, and therefore the crown is considered a ‘crown of royalty.’ The altar represents the work in the Temple, and for this reason its crown is termed the ‘crown of priesthood.’ The crown on the ark that holds the Tablets of the Covenant – the Torah – is the ‘crown of Torah.’
A different Midrash teaches there is a fundamental difference between the first two crowns and the third. The first two – royalty and priesthood – are meant for a specific tribe. Not every person can be a king, and not everyone who wants to can serve as a priest. However, the third crown, the crown of Torah, is not earmarked for a specific group or tribe:
‘Three crowns are: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. The crown of priesthood – Aaron merited and took; the crown of royalty – David merited and took; the crown of Torah is there for the generations, and whoever merits the Torah, it is as though he merited all three’ (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, Chapter 7).
The Pirkei Avot or the Ethics of the Fathers says there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. ‘But the crown of a good name outweighs them all’ (Ethics of the Fathers 4: 13).
And so, the crown became a frequent motif in Jewish ritual art, particularly associated with the Torah and the Ark, but also on gravestones.
The crown is often flanked by a pair of lions or placed over a depiction of the Ten Commandments and is frequently seen decorating Torah scrolls in a synagogue, with crown on the mantles covering the Torah, including elaborate silver crowns and breastplates, decorative crowns in the symbolism of the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark holding the Torah scrolls and crowns on the parochet (פרוכת), symbolising the curtain that covered the Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 40: 21).
In the Tabernacle, the ark for the Tablets of the Covenant, the altar for incense and the table on which the lehem hapanim (showbread) was placed, were decorated with a crown-like golden design on their upper part.
To counter today’s negative association of the word corona with the Corona virus, Jewish Heritage Europe has started posting images from a number of countries showing uplifting ways in which the Crown is used in Jewish ritual art HERE.
JHE quotes Professor Ilia M Rodov of Bar Ilan University, who says the Torah crown symbolises ‘the Torah’s uppermost authority, glory and value.’ He identifies early use of images of the Crown with the Torah in the Ark of the Remu’h Synagogue in Krakow, which dates from the 1550s. He says this is ‘presumed to be the first Renaissance Ark in Poland.’
He says the earliest images of the crown in association with Torah come from Renaissance Italy, and says the first material testimony to a crown image in synagogue art comes from the ark dating from 1522 or 1523 from the Scuola Catalana synagogue in Rome, which no longer exists.
The image of a crown is also used on gravestones, declaring the dead person as honourable person or the head of a family. The crown on gravestones is often flanked by a pair of animals such as lions, or combined with other symbols such as the hands of blessing denoting a member of the priestly tribe of Cohanim.
In my visits to synagogues, museums and graveyards throughout these islands and across Europe, I have often photographed crowns on Holy Arks, Torah curtains and Torah mantles, and on graves and memorials.
This is my selection of a dozen of these photographs, from cities in over half a dozen countries (Dublin, Berlin, Bratislava, Corfu, Krakow, Porto, Prague, Thessaloniki, Venice and Vienna).
This Torah mantle, from the Adelaide Road Synagogue, is now in the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin.
The sculpture Block der Frauen (‘Women’s Block’), a memorial to the women’s uprising in Berlin 1943, was carved by Ingeborg Hunzinger and dedicated in 1995.
This memorial in a small park on Rosenstraße stands on the former site of the Old Synagogue, which was destroyed during World War II. Other symbols include the Menorah, the Lion of Judah, a bunch of grapes, and hands raised in the priestly blessing.
The Spanish Synagogue in Prague is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Town in the Czech capital. But it stands on the site of the oldest synagogue in Prague, the ‘Old School’ or Altschule.
The stories of Vienna’s Jewish communities are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.
The Monasterioton Synagogue on Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki in northern Greece.
The Ghetto in Venice the oldest and the original ghetto in Europe.
Today the Jewish Community in Venice numbers about 450. Few of these people actually live in the Ghetto, but many return to the Ghetto for religious services in the two synagogues that are still used – the other three synagogues are open for guided tours organised through the Jewish Community Museum.
Bratislava has been an important centre of Jewish life and education for centuries. The Museum of Jewish Culture is on Židovská Street.
The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in the northern suburbs of Porto, Portugal’s second city, was inaugurated in 1938. It is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe.
La Scuola Greca Synagogue, built in the 18th century and still standing in what was once the ‘Jewish Ghetto’ in Corfu, is the only surviving synagogue on this Greek island.
10, Chatam Sofer Memorial, Bratislava:
The Chatam Sofer Memorial is the sole remaining part of the centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a nearby tunnel was constructed.
Only the most important section of the cemetery, with 23 graves surrounding the Chatam Sofer’s tomb, was preserved as an underground compound.
The synagogues of Kraków represent virtually all the European architectural styles, including the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and the Modernist. Three of these synagogues are still active, some also serve as houses of prayer, and the district also has two Jewish cemeteries.
Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Kraków had a Jewish community of 60,000-80,000 people in a city with a population of 237,000, and at the time there were at least 90 Jewish prayer houses.
One of the many synagogues lost during the horrors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust following the Nazi annexation of Austria was the Sephardic synagogue in Vienna. With it, the story of the Sephardic community in Vienna and their unique traditions were destroyed.
All this set me to wondering again about the fate of the ‘Comerford Crown’ brought by Joseph Comerford from Co Tipperary to his chateau at Anglure in France and how it influenced Irish culture and symbolisms of Irish identity.
But more about that later this week, hopefully.