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Dazzling, Old Lamps

A historical look at three special menorahs and hanukkiahs from Jewish history—17th century Italy, and 19th century Germany and Iraq

Nancy M. Berman
December 28, 2016

Workshop of Joseph de Levis (?)
Italy, late 16th or early 17th century

This rare and elaborate Hanukkiah and a similar one in the collection of Congregation Emanu-El in New York were probably made from the same mold. Small bronze decorative art objects were popular in the Renaissance, and among those made exclusively for Jewish use were lamps with the distinctively Jewish feature of containers for eight lights.

A scene illustrating a dramatic moment in the story of Judith and Holofernes is the focus of the bronze relief back panel of the lamp. Having just decapitated Holofernes, Judith holds the knife with her right hand as her left is about to drop his head into a sack held open by her kneeling maidservant. The fabric of Holofernes’s tent is draped above Judith’s head, and his bed linens fall in disheveled swirls, reflecting a similar composition in one of Botticelli’s two paintings of the subject.

This event is rendered in a fully dramatic and detailed scene just as it is described in the book of Judith from the postbiblical writings of Apocrypha. More frequently found in later lamps from Italy and Germany is Judith as a single iconic figure. Since the Middle Ages, Jews had associated Judith with courage and triumph of the Maccabean heroes of the Hanukkah story. The Italians of the Renaissance also idealized Judith as a figure emblematic of both justice and virtue. The statue at the top of the lamp, which may represent a Hasmonean priest of the lineage of Judah the Maccabee, may have been attached at a later time.

The style of this lamp is typical of the Renaissance. Characteristic artistic motifs include masks of both putti and bearded men, scrolls, angels, and family coats of arms. The two flanking figures near the top of the lamp are a clear reference to similar reclining statues by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. Scholars propose that the Joseph de Levis family workshop, which may have produced this lamp, was Jewish, which would confirm the existence of Jewish artists working in Italy during the Renaissance. The artist of this lamp was a particularly skilled metalsmith and sculptor whose innovative artistry enabled him to create one of the supreme aesthetic expressions of Jewish art for his own time as well as for centuries to come.

Johann Heinrich Philip Schott Sons
Frankfurt am Main, Germany, c. 1850

The Rothschild family crest is emblazoned on the base of this classic and formally beautiful silver candelabra. This definitive identification mark in the form of the family’s baronial escutcheon provides the provenance so rare in most objects of Judaica. The lamp’s ownership can be attributed to Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild and Baroness Hannah Mathilde von Rothschild, well-known German Jews. The coat of arms was granted to the Rothchilds, along with baronial status, by the imperial decree to the family in 1822. The quartered shield consists of: upper left, and eagle, in reference to the imperial coat of Austrian coat of arms; upper right and lower left, an arm grasping five arrows, a family symbol indicating the unity of the five Rothschild brothers; lower right, a lion rampant; center, another shield with the medieval funnel-like hat worn by Jews. The five roundels in the crest’s crown refer to the various branches of the family. The exquisitely cast silver unicorn and lion, which stand rampant to protect the family crest and its heritage, are fully sculptural forms representative of the British branch of the family.

The maker’s marks on the lamp are clearly stamped and easily readable: Schott indicates the workshop of Johann Heinrich Philip Schott Sons, and the hallmark has a 13 surmounted by a crown, a mark used in Frankfurt in the mid-nineteenth century.

The history of this object, which can be traced for over a hundred years (that itself is unusual in the collecting of Jewish ceremonial art), represents both the heights and the depths of the modern Jewish experience. This magnificent neoclassical Hanukkiah is thought to have been a wedding present from Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild to his wife. When Frankfurt’s Jewish museum was established in 1901, the year in which the baron died, it was named the Rothschild Museum. The lamp became a part of this museum’s collection, and it was included in an important article published in 1937 by art historians Hermann Gundersheimer and Guido Schoenberger, who worked at the Rothschild Museum after being discharged by the Nazis from their secular posts in the early 1930s.

During the war, the Frankfurt History Museum preserved collections of the Rothschild Museum and the Frankfurt synagogues, including this menorah. After the war, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., founded in 1947 to recover and redistribute Nazi-looted and heirless property, entrusted Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, among like institutions, with this and other museum-quality objects of Judaica. The menorah came west to Los Angeles when Hebrew Union College’s entire collection moved to the Skirball Museum in 1972. This piece stands as testimony to the value of the Jewish tradition for which it was made as well as the tenacity of that tradition, which preserves and transmits its values to future generation.

Artist unknown
Baghdad, Iraq, 19th century

This rare heirloom of Iraqi Jewish heritage is an exuberant work of folk art illustrative of the symbols and decorations utilized and adapted by Jews from the traditions of a country in which they had lived for centuries. When lit, this Hanukkiah would have had a dazzling presence, with a hot yellow glow from the brass and vigorous reflections of the flames contained in the glass cups, which would hang suspended from the brass collars. The cups were filled with water, and oil was floated on top to fuel the wicks. Flickering and mysterious shadows would be cast by this lamp because of its construction, materials, and the clear outlines of its shape and symbols. The lighting of this lamp could have produced a dramatic and emotional atmosphere conducive to spiritual and religious ritual.

The most striking features on this lamp are the hamsas, or hand shapes, (the term hamsa refers to both the Hebrew and Arabic words for “five”). Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the hand image was invested with amuletic power to ward off the evil eye—the forces of darkness and bad luck. The fact that five hamsas can be found here underscores the profound belief in the number’s potency.

Another practice Middle Eastern Jews employed to protect themselves from the evil eye was the use of a biblical quote. In Genesis 49:22 there is a play on the phrase “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain,” because the Hebrew word for “fountain” also means “eye.” That phrase is inscribed here on the large central hamsa.

The stylized birds and the crescent moons with stars are typical motifs for Hanukkah lamps and other Jewish ceremonial objects from Islamic countries. The tracery line forming the frame of the lamp draws a mosquelike building with a dome supported by five columns, providing an Islamic-influenced counterpart to the phenomenon found elsewhere in Jewish art of creating Hanukkah lamps styled after architecture to symbolize the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Excerpted from the book © The Art of Hanukkah by Nancy M. Berman, Universe Publishing, an imprint of Rizzoli New York, 2016.

Nancy M. Berman was the curator of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum from 1972 to 1977. She subsequently became director of the museum in 1977. Her career in Jewish art and culture began at the Jewish Museum in New York, where she was assistant curator of the Judaica Department.