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Almemor

Almemor

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)
    Venice (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    1670-1699 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Linen embroidered with silk and metal thread, bordered with brocaded silk

  • Museum number:

    511A-1877

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The Torah contains the five books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - and the most dominant feature of a synagogue is the Ark of the Law in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Immediately in front of it is the reading-desk (or almemor) on which the scrolls of the Torah are placed to be read; the reading-desk is covered with a decorative cloth.

This almemor cloth is embroidered, and bordered with woven silk.Vases of flowers had no intentional symbolic meaning, although some people might see them as representations of fertility and abundance. But other images on this cloth were deliberately chosen for their symbolism. The central features are the tablets on which the first word of each of the Ten Commandments is written, and small hillocks represent Mount Sinai on which there are tongues of fire. Above everything is the cloud from which God spoke. Unleavened bread to the right is a symbol of the Passover and to the left are bitter herbs. The inscriptions are from the Book of Proverbs (chapter iii verses 16 and 18) and refer to the importance of the Torah scroll: "Length of days is in her right hand and in her left hand riches and honour. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her".

Physical description

A cloth made to hang at the front of a reading desk [almemor]. Linen embroidered with silk and metal thread. Borders pieced from patterned silk, satin ground with self-coloured pattern and brocading with silver and silver-gilt thread. Fringe of gilt thread on three sides.
In the middle, within an oval compartment, is a representation of the Tablets of the Law, with clouds above and a schematic rendering of Mount Sinai below. To the right of this central motif is a mazzah [portion of unleavened bread] and to the left are the bitter herbs of the Passover seder. Above the central section is the Keter Torah [Crown of the Law] and below are two shofarot [rams' horn trumpets]. Flanking these central devices are two vases of flowers, with three borders [sides and bottom] filled with floral scrollwork and three cartouches containing embroidered inscriptions from Proverbs 3, 16 and 18. "Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left riches and honour ... she [the Law] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her".

Place of Origin

Italy (made)
Venice (possibly, made)

Date

1670-1699 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Linen embroidered with silk and metal thread, bordered with brocaded silk

Dimensions

length: 148.5 cm, width: 145 cm, Height: 212 cm, Width: 185 cm

Descriptive line

embroidered, 1703, Italian; Jewish

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Jewish Ritual Art in the Victoria & Albert Museum by Michael E Keen [HMSO, London, 1991 p. 26]
Jennifer Wearden 'Beauty Enhances Ritual: two Italian 17th century embroidered synagogue textiles' in "Proceedings of The Textile Society of America 1996 Symposium" 1997 pp. 156-164.

Labels and date

The Torah, that is the five books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - and the Law they contain, emanate from God. This is the Word of God revealed to the Israelites and recorded in the Scriptures. The most dominant feature of a synagogue is the Ark of the Law in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Immediately in front of it is the reading-desk (or almemor) on which the scrolls of the Torah are placed to be read; the reading-desk is covered with a decorative cloth.

This almemor cloth has an embroidered panel 27" long by 48" wide. Although it is not dated, the woven silk surrounding dates from the late 17th century. The greater part of the embroidery is worked with floss silk in brick stitch on a plainweave linen ground which had been extensively pieced together before being embroidered. The black inscriptions and the outlines of the motifs are corroding. Technically the embroidery is relatively complex: there is metal thread in certain areas, some silk couched over white silk padding and French knots in the centre of flowers.

Vases of flowers had no intentional symbolic meaning, although some people might see them as representations of fertility and abundance. But other images on this cloth were deliberately chosen for their symbolism. The central features are the tablets on which the first word of each of the Ten Commandments is written, representing God's revelation to the Israelites, small hillocks represent Mount Sinai on which there are tongues of fire and above everything is the cloud from which God spoke. Unleavened bread to the right is a symbol of the Passover and to the left are bitter herbs. The inscriptions are from the Book of Proverbs (chapter iii verses 16 and 18) and refer, in this context, to the importance of the Torah scroll: "Length of days is in her right hand and in her left hand riches and honour. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her". The wooden rollers on which the scrolls were wound were called trees of life.

One striking features of Jewish embroideries from North Italy is that most were embroidered by women. There are many known examples - one Ark curtain in the Jewish Museum in New York is dated 1680; it is from Venice and was embroidered by Simah, wife of Manahem Levi Meshullami, a member of a wealthy and prosperous family. Another older curtain, dated 1630, was worked by the wife of the donor for a synagogue in Ancona and a binder for the Torah scrolls was embroidered by Rikah Polacco in 1662.

The Significance of Such Textiles:
What was the ceremonial significance of elaborately decorated synagogue hangings? Jews living under Christian rule were never secure enough to enable them to build large synagogues to rival cathedrals and churches. Their synagogues were modest and unassuming from the outside - although their location was discreet, the decoration of the inside of the building and its furnishings was often opulent, attesting to the prosperity of the worshippers. A reasonably prosperous synagogue would possess several Ark curtains and reading-desk covers and the ones used would be chosen to compliment the season, or the feast or the occasion, for example, a marriage.

This cover probably came from Venice. The city was a relatively secure place for Jews in the 17th century. In the previous century all Jews had been expelled from Southern Italy; Rome and Ancona were the only places within the Papal States where they could live; in Tuscany Jews could live only in Pisa. But in Northern Italy they were able to live in a number of places and, except for occasional incidents, the Jewish communities there possessed enough stability and security to enable them to create beautiful works of art.

Colourful embroideries fulfilled two distinct functions. They created a decorative background, much as painted and mosaic patterns did in churches and tile-work did in mosques. They were used primarily for aesthetic purposes to create a beautiful environment and by doing so they gave pleasure and joy to the people who had gathered for worship. They enhanced the rituals. In a more subtle way, by using images which recalled specific instances where God had helped his people - guiding them, giving them victory, forgiving them - the worshippers could re-live positive spiritual experiences of personal and national redemption.

They reinforced good feelings about themselves as Jews and as a community and they gave them hope. The congregation was reminded that "they were adopted as sons, they were given the glory and the covenants, the Law and the ritual were drawn up for them and the promises were made to them." In a world of discrimination and active persecution, this positive feedback was necessary for their continued survival. And so these beautiful embroideries were often more than decoration, they were a statement of identity, instilling confidence and hope when they were most needed. [08/08/2000]

Materials

Linen; Silk

Techniques

Weaving; Embroidering

Categories

Religion; Embroidery; Judaism

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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