Jewish Museum in Prague
The robe and flag of the messianic pretender Solomon Molcho
Today the Jewish Museum in Prague has opened a „vitrine safe“ for the display of rare historical exhibits from its collection. It is one of the first museums to have installed such a facility.
As part of the permanent exhibition in the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, History of the Jewish in Bohemia and Moravia – Part I – from the First Settlements until Emancipation, which informs visitors about the history of Jews in the Czech lands from the earliest times to the 18th century, the final part of the exhibition featuring the robe and flag of the messianic pretender Solomon Molcho opened today. Because these unique historical textiles place heightened demands on the comprehensive protection of collection items, it has been necessary to design a display case that will meet all parameters with regards to security, a stable micro-climate, optimum lighting, and UV and IR elimination. An area in the Maisel Synagogue was therefore set aside and, under the supervision of specialists, designed so as to secure the necessary parameters. Outside the vitrine we have installed heating devices for securing precise temperature regulation, Art-sorp absorption panels for securing optimum humidity, and special optic cables with IR and UV filters for channelling light. The walls of the exhibition space have been coated with a special paint that provides for a high degree of light absorption; this facilitates and improves viewing conditions by ensuring low intensity lighting. All heat from light sources is diverted away from the display area so that the micro-climatic conditions inside the exhibition are not influenced.
The overall solution represents the best variant with a view to the protection of these unique historical materials without the use of standard air-conditioning and lighting.
The robe and flag of the messianic pretender Solomon Molcho
The collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague contains the robe and flag (inventory nos. 32.754 and 32.755) that were once used by Solomon Molcho – the Kabbalist, religious heretic and devotee of David Reubeni’s messianic movement, born in Portugal around 1500 and burned at the stake in Mantua in 1532. These relics were housed for many years in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague (the earliest reference dated 1628), from where they were sent in a rather poor state of repair to the Jewish Museum. Although they were restored several times in the past, it has not previously been possible to put them on long-term display. Only now, after the completion of a specially secure vitrine that ensures stable humidity and temperature conditions, can these relics be properly preserved and exhibited.
The robe of Solomon Molcho is of fine linen and is a light sandstone colour. It has a shirt cut and the body is tailored from 28 parts that widen towards the ground. It is folded in small pleats on the back and on the breast. The sleeves are folded in a similar way and are almost as long as the robe itself. The neckline ends in a narrow tucked collar, which fits tightly around the neck. Around the neckline and on the sleeves are ball-shaped buttons, which are made from twisted silk. A new lining of uncoloured cotton twill was provided when the robe was last repaired.
Along the perimeter, on the sleeves and around the neckline, the robe is adorned with a hem consisting of heavy embroidery done with a loop and a back stitch using a golden yellow, now discoloured, silk thread. The embroidery pattern of the hems and breast comprise regular diamond shapes with lining material. The seams of the robe are also emphasized by similar embroidery. Other embroidery runs down the centre front and back of the robe. The decoration is very sparse and the ornamental features are simple.
The educated circles to which Solomon Molcho belonged used to wear a traditional type of clothing - long flowing cloaks, which were once the privilege of kings and which Renaissance fashion attributed to the most educated sections of the intelligentsia. The robe is evidently some kind of prayer cloak which may have been worn by Molcho on his entry to Rome. The style of the robe is close in character to the vestments worn by the clergy at the time – it resembles the cut of a 14th or 15th century alb or rochet, although it has wider and longer sleeves. The decoration of the robe was customary for the time and corresponds to late 15th century fashion. The decorative hems that end in seams represent the surviving influence of Byzantine fashion, which emphasized golden hems on the vestments of the royalty, clergy and higher social classes.
The banner-type flag has the shape of a cleft triangle and consists of two pieces of yellow silk fabric. It is adorned on both sides with seven- and eight-line (at the ends two-line) Hebrew inscriptions which are embroidered with a full stitch in two shades of red silk. Around the perimeter, the flag is bordered with tricolour silk fringes.
The inscriptions contain the following biblical quotations:
Ps. 43:1; Is. 40:2; Ps. 96:11; 46:8; 79:6; 83:10,11; Lam. 3:66; Ps. 83:2; 47:6; 94:1; 47:4; 9:21; 76:4; 90:15; 130:1; 140:4; 47:9; II Sam. 22:35; 22:38. Before Ps. 47:9 – The Lord is King, the Lord was King, the Lord shall be King and ever.
Messianism. Solomon Molcho
Belief in the coming of the Messiah – one of the basic articles of faith in Judaism – helped Jews overcome periods of persecution. According to Biblical prophecy, the Messiah (from Hebrew: mashiah anointed) is to be a descendant of King David who will redeem the Jews from exile, restore the Kingdom of Israel, and bring about the final salvation of humanity. In the messianic age, all nations will accept faith in the Lord and live in harmony and peace.
In the course of history there have been several charismatic figures who have aroused the false hope in the imminence of redemption. The earliest known reports of messianic expectations in the Czech lands date from the first half of the 13th century. Other sources confirm the influence of Asher Lemmlein, who preached about the Messiah in northern Italy and Istria at the very beginning of the 16th century. News about the messianic movement led by David Reubeni (who claimed to be a representative of the ten lost tribes of Israel) and the former Portuguese courtier Solomon Molcho (the son of Jews who had been forced to become Christians) were enthusiastically received in Prague. In 1525 the visionary Molcho returned to the faith of his fathers, later fleeing to the Ottoman Empire in order to escape persecution by the Inquisition. In 1529, after several months of studying the Kabbalah in Salonika, he left for Italy, where he preached about the redemption of Israel. In 1532 he accompanied Reubeni to Regensburg, Germany, to see Emperor Charles V in a vain attempt to persuade him to support a Christian-Jewish campaign against the Turks. Charles imprisoned them and turned them over to the Inquisition. Molcho was burned at the stake in Mantua at the end of 1532, while Reubeni died in a Spanish prison. Some of Molcho’s personal belongings – notably two banners and a robe – were transferred to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague where they were venerated as relics. Around the mid-17th century, there was a Czech Jew who claimed to be the Redeemer, but there are no records of his name and nothing is known of his life. The whole of the Diaspora was profoundly influenced by the mystical messianic movement in the Ottoman Empire which was led by Shabbetai Zevi and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza. In 1666 Shabbatai became converted to Islam, subsequently losing the vast majority of his followers. The most faithful disciples of the apostate messiah – Shabbetaians – created a sect which in certain areas survived until the beginning of the 19th century. A new wave of messianic enthusiasm among Ashkenazi Jews was prompted by a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1700 which sought to hasten the coming of the Redeemer through prayer and fasting.
Between May and June 1700, their leader, the ascetic preacher Judah Hasid, was also active in Prague and it was under his influence that the pilgrims were joined by Jews from Bohemia and Moravia. The pilgrims later established a colony in Jerusalem which disintegrated in 1720 after a prolonged material and spiritual crisis. Disillusionment over the smashing of their hopes led Czech Jews to view subsequent undertakings of this kind with scepticism. The activities of the false messiah, Jacob Frank ( in the Ottoman Empire, Ukraine, Poland and, in 1773–86, in Brno) therefore found little favour in the Czech lands, except among isolated groups of Shabbetaians.