Wednesday, 16 December 2020

The Spanish Synagogue
in Prague reopens today
after 18-month redesign

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague … built in 1868, reopens today after 18 months of restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

the Spanish Synagogue in Prague reopens to the public today (16 December 2020) after being closed for 18 months for extensive repairs and restoration. The synagogue, which is part of the Prague Jewish Museum, is reopening with a newly designed permanent exhibition on Jewish history, using audio-visual material and interactive technology.

The new exhibition, ‘Jews in the Czech Lands in the 19th and 20th Centuries,’ offers to ‘take the visitor through the history of the immense upheavals that the Czech and Moravian Jewish community has gone through in the past two centuries,’ including the Holocaust and the post-World War II communist period, the Director of the Jewish Museum Director, Leo Pavlat, said when he announced today’s reopening.

The costs of the project amounted to ‘several tens of millions of crowns,’ the museum said. Besides the new exhibition, it entailed expanding the exhibition space, creating barrier-free access, and carrying out some physical reconstruction.

I visited the Spanish Synagogue twice during my visit to Prague last year, once to see the synagogue itself, and later that evening for a concert. It was built in 1868 for the Reform congregation in Prague on the site of the 12th-century Altschul (‘Old Shul’ or old synagogue).

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 Aron haKodesh or Torah ark and central dome as masterpieces of Spanish-inspired architecture.

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

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 was first built in 1346 as part of a Benedictine convent.

The Old Synagogue or Altschule dated back to the 12th century or earlier, and its story was one of tragedy piled on 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-style 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.

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 Alhambraand 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 Josef Niklas and Jan Bělský, and the sumptuous interiors, dating from 1882-1883, were designed by Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger.

The synagogue is two storeys high, its ground plan is square and the main hall has a dome 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 haKodesh 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 or facing each other. 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.

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

A functional building, designed by Karel Pecánek, was added to the synagogue in 1935. Until World War II, it served the Jewish Community in Prague 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 Holocaust caused the death of two-thirds of Jews living in the Czech lands. The Nazis used the Spanish Synagogue during World War II to catalogue and store property stolen from the Czech Jewish communities, including furniture from other synagogues.

Ten years after World War II, 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. ‘Hopes for a fresh start after the war were dashed by the anti-Semitic communist regime,’ Leo Pavlat said this week.

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

Some months after my visits last year, the Spanish Synagogue closed to the public on 1 June for repairs, restoration and the installation of the new permanent exhibition that features interactive elements and modern visitor facilities. The exhibition that opens in the synagogue today contains 58 professionally restored artistic metal elements and 13 types of joinery elements, with the installation of 24 new all-glass showcases and 26 audio-visual elements.

Similar recent work by the Jewish Museum in Prague includes the renovation of the Pinkas Synagogue (2018) and the Maisel Synagogue (2015) and the opening of the Information and Reservation Centre (2014).

The Spanish Synagogue is architecturally exceptional and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It will continue to be used for separate evening programmes, especially classical music concerts.

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

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