Jewish Museum in Prague
Silver from Bohemia and Moravia
New Exhibition in the Spanish Synagogue Synagogue Silver from Bohemia and Moravia. The exhibition runs from 13 December, 2001, daily from 9 am to 5,30 pm, except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
Exhibition curator: Jaroslav Kuntos
The silver collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague comprises over 6,000 objects made by thirteen generations of goldsmiths and silversmiths from Central Europe. Its current form shows the influence of various historical events that left their mark on the amount and types of pieces in the collection. In the past, silver objects were appreciated not only for their artistic value, but primarily for the amount of precious metal that could be used for other purposes when required; hence, only a fraction of the early pieces has survived. For centuries Jewish participation in the trades and crafts was restricted, which is why a large portion of Jewish silver objects stems from the workshops of Christian manufacturers who were commissioned by the Jewish community and individuals. The first extant products of Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths date from around the mid-18th century, although much earlier works of this kind are documented in archival sources. A number of artefacts point to the commercial and personal contacts of the then owners and donors. Apart from the products of local workshops, which form the bulk of the Museum’s collection, there are also pieces that were fashioned in Germany, Austria, Silesia and other countries. All these objects formed part of the furnishings of synagogues, Jewish households and associations in the Czech lands before the outbreak of World War II. The majority of objects of Bohemian and Moravian origin were produced in the two largest cities, Prague and Brno; a smaller amount stems from other Moravian workshops in Mikulov, Znojmo, Jihlava and Olomouc. Objects acquired from abroad include outstanding work by goldsmiths and silversmiths from Augsburg, as well as certain products from Nuremburg and Breslau and a relatively large amount of more recent pieces from Vienna. Extant material suggests that certain local gold- and silversmith masters received a relatively large amount of orders from Jewish communities. Aside from genuinely first-rate producers such as Jan Kogler, Filip Oberholzer and Jan Jiri Brullus Jr from Prague, whose pieces intended for a Jewish environment were not large in quantity, there was a body of producers that worked almost exclusively for Jewish clients. These include, from the earlier period, Kristof Wild, and, from the early 19th century, Franz Kaltenmacher of Brno and the Prague masters Tomas Hoepfel and Karel Skremenec. It is difficult to specify more accurately the proportion of work by individual producers because, from 1810, objects made of precious metal that were used for religious purposes had to be handed over to the authorities to meet part of the State debt. Even though it was possible to buy these pieces back at overvalued amounts, the bulk of them was destroyed in this way. The scale of the loss is reflected by the amount of later works by the above-mentioned Karel Skremenec who, due to his experience, became one of the main suppliers of replicas of works that had been destroyed. The collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague includes over fifty Torah shields from the latter’s workshop from the years 1814-1820 alone.
A similar, if slightly less, amount of shields are the products of Tomas Hoepfel and the Brno silversmith Franz Kaltenmacher. Silver objects from Vienna started to appear in greater numbers in the Czech lands around the mid-19th century and dominated the market at the end of the century, by which stage they were being mass produced.
The types of objects in the collection cover all aspects of the religious, social and personal lives of Jewish community members. The collection contains sets of synagogue and association alms boxes, Burial Society objects (dinner sets, beakers, combs and implements for ritually cleansing the deceased, Kiddush cups), Levite lavers and basins for ritual handwashing, ritual spice boxes, Kiddush cups, Hanukkah lamps, trays for charitable gifts, and Sabbath candlesticks. There are many other sets of objects, the most extensive of which are Torah ornaments – Torah shields, pointers, finials and crowns, which have been given the largest exhibition space.
The earliest pieces in the collection are represented by Burial Society beakers and ceremonial cups from around 1600. There are relatively few objects from the 17th century, the bulk of the collection dating from the mid-18th and 19th centuries. Large numbers of synagogue silver, Torah shields, finials and pointers were produced in the first third of the 19th century, as Jewish communities sought to replace the losses incurred during the Napoleonic wars. A change in lifestyle at the end of the 19th century led to a decline in the number of orders for new silver objects. The most recent pieces in the collection date from the period just before the outbreak of World War II.