Jewish Museum in Prague
curator: Dana Veselska
From the beginning of the Museum's existence in 1906, the Museum's core collection of textiles comprised objects acquired from Prague synagogues (the Great Court and the Zigeuner), which were destroyed during the reconstruction of the Jewish Town. The precise form of the textile collection is not known, since the original inventory has not been preserved. It can be assumed, however, that it consisted primarily of large synagogue textiles, i.e. curtains, mantles and valances.
The textile collection was significantly extended in 1942-45 during the existence of the Central Jewish Museum. At the time, it was complemented not only by nearly all the synagogue textiles used in Jewish communities and prayer societies in the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but also by certain household textiles and unique personal textiles. The growth in the collection was quite unprecedented, reaching a peak in terms of sheer size. It is in its entirety that the Museum's textile collection is of particular interest and importance, for it affords (among other things) an insight into the sociological and ethnographic specifics of the Ashkenazi community in Bohemia and Moravia.
Between 1945-48 a portion of the synagogue textiles was handed over via the Council of Jewish Communities to re-established Jewish communities for liturgical use. This involved hundreds of mantles, curtains and covers, of which, however, only a fraction was returned to the Museum following the dissolution of several dozens of communities between 1949-1989. The removal of such pieces may be described as the greatest loss for the textile collection in its entire history. On the other hand, there were only sporadic acquisitions to the textile collection after 1945. The most significant set of textiles was acquired by the Museum between 1998-2000 as a result of its own independent research projects in synagogue genizot throughout Bohemia and Moravia.
The Museum's textile collection contains over 2,200 synagogue curtains, including 4,100 Torah mantles, 1,000 valances, 500 synagogue covers, over 160 synagogue cushions, approx. 1,650 Torah binders and about 60 canopies. The set of household and personal textiles includes over 450 tefillin bags, almost 100 prayer shawl bags, over 450 Sabbath, Pesach and other covers, almost 200 other head covers, an equal amount of assorted garments (rabbinic gowns, kittels, etc.) and 300 tallitot. In addition, there are a further 200 relatively diverse pieces such as flags, banners, fragments, and Masonic textiles etc. In total, therefore, the Museum's textile collection amounts to over 11,000 pieces.
The core collection comprises individually preserved and mostly unique textiles from the 16th and 17th centuries. This includes, above all, a set of curtains decorated with appliqués from the period of Rudolph II and a remarkable group of textiles decorated with appliqués of river pearls. Also unique are synagogue curtains made by Prague and Moravian embroidery schools from the very end of the 17th century. There are dozens of pieces from the period of the High Baroque; those dating from 1700-1750, in particular, are decorated with the most sophisticated fabrics and embroideries. Greater in number are textiles dating from the second half of the 18th century, which include the first distinct examples of works from rural and poorer communities. The most numerous group of textiles stems from the 19th century. This includes works whose decoration was inspired by early 19th century styles, as well as a distinct set of pieces showing the influence of historicism. The collection also includes isolated examples of extant textiles that reflect the influence of Art Nouveau ornamentation.
At present, individual pieces in the collection are being systematically treated and detailed, with great attention being paid to an assessment of their physical state and restoration requirements. The Museum is preparing an extensive exhibition of synagogue textiles from its collection which is to be held in the Prague Castle in 2003. This will be accompanied by the publication of the first major catalogue covering this part of the Museum's holdings.