Warm, colorful, and dynamic decorations of vegetal and zoomorphic motifs on the ceiling of the Horb synagogue, exhibited in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, surround and enchant the viewer below. These paintings of Eliezer-Zusman from Brody represent a rare remnant and reminder of bygone times and places where griffins, elephants, and numerous other animals were common inhabitants of synagogue paintings.
The tradition of synagogue interior painting flourished in Eastern Europe from the end of the seventeenth century. Eliezer-Zusman’s work is an example of the transfer of this tradition from Brody (in modern-day Ukraine) to Franconia and its vicinity. Therefore, analyzing Eliezer-Zusman’s artistic oeuvre can also indicate how other eighteenth-century painters worked and operated.
An itinerant artisan, Eliezer-Zusman was a highly prolific and deeply influential synagogue painter of the early modern period in central Europe. He signed his name in three synagogues in the Franconia region, present-day southern Germany, between 1732 and 1740 CE: in the market town of Bechhofen, in the small town of Horb on the river Main, and in the small town of Kirchheim near Würzburg.1 Paintings in the synagogues of Colmberg, Unterlimpurg, Steinbach, and Georgensgmünd have also been attributed to him.
The study aims to investigate various aspects of Eliezer-Zusman’s work methods: trace his professional training and itinerary, locate visual models he copied, examine his inscriptions, monitor changes and adjustments in his visual language, investigate considerations behind the paintings’ layout, and decipher the consolidation of painting themes. The examination of visual aspects may reveal evidence of the work of other painters under his guidance. Simultaneously, it can lead to the reliable compilation of a list of synagogues that he adorned. Finally, the study appraises Eliezer-Zusman’s influence on other synagogue painters in eighteenth-century German lands.
Numerous studies have been investigating the iconography of Jewish symbols and paintings. Although this book also discusses painted motifs and symbols, generally, it does not delve into their symbolism or iconography. Instead, it concentrates on work methods and processes involved in their making, manifested in their formal qualities. Throughout this book, this is usually done by juxtaposing visual materials from different sources.
Apart from the extension of topics discussed in previous studies, this research focuses on hitherto neglected aspects, such as a visual and stylistic analysis of synagogue paintings and inscriptions. One of the important innovations in this study is a reexamination, through stylistic and iconographic analysis, of the attribution of unsigned synagogue paintings to Eliezer-Zusman. These include the synagogues of Unterlimpurg, Steinbach, Colmberg, and Georgensgmünd. Another novelty, derived from comparing other paintings in today’s southern Germany with those of Eliezer-Zusman, is the assertion that, in this peripheral area, multiple synagogue painters were active.
State of Research
Eliezer-Zusman’s work has been studied since the early twentieth century. Wilhelm German, who attributed the Unterlimpurg Synagogue paintings to Eliezer-Zusman without thorough examination, regarded them as part of the local historical heritage.2 In contrast, the Jewish scholars Theodor Harburger and Erich Töplitz referred to Eliezer-Zusman’s work as an example of Jewish folk art. Harburger documented the paintings in the Bechhofen and Kirchheim synagogues and the remains of the Horb synagogue paintings. Töplitz reviewed the paintings in the three synagogues and attempted to locate their stylistic sources.3
The painter Max Untermayer-Raymer documented Eliezer-Zusman’s paintings in the Bechhofen and Kirchheim synagogues, both in drawings and texts, out of professional interest and in search of Jewish sources of inspiration for his artistic work.4 Rachel Wischnitzer and Carol Herselle Krinsky interpreted Eliezer-Zusman’s paintings in the context of eighteenth-century Eastern European synagogues.5 Iris Fishof expanded the discussion on the sources of Eliezer-Zusman’s work. Also, she referred to ornate Hebrew manuscripts from Germany and Kabbalistic texts that she believed influenced his paintings.6
Armin Panter and Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, contemporary scholars, discuss aspects of eighteenth-century local German art as affecting Eliezer-Zusman’s work.7 Important information about local history can be found in Andreas Maisch’s and Shlomo Katanka’s studies on the Jewish communities in which Eliezer-Zusman worked and the legal and social status of these communities within Christian society.8
The research literature on the work of itinerant painters and artisans from the Middle Ages to the early modern period did not discuss Jewish painters. However, numerous studies on the work methods of Christian painters have been undertaken; their methods resembled those of synagogue painters in certain aspects. These studies provide information on medieval painting techniques,9 visual and literal sources for interior paintings in medieval churches,10 and the influence of the printing press on painters.11 Further studies have been conducted on the professional associations of Christian craftsmen who engaged in painting.12 This research literature is essential to the present study due to the paucity of information on associations of Jewish craftsmen in general and Jewish painters in particular.
Visual and Textual Sources
The study relies on visual findings and textual sources of documentation. Records of synagogue paintings signed by Eliezer-Zusman and those attributed to him are based on remains of synagogue interior paintings and photographs of paintings in synagogues that were subsequently destroyed or dismantled. The remains of paintings from three synagogues painted by Eliezer-Zusman, currently on display in two museums, served as primary sources. The barrel vault of the Horb synagogue and its Torah Ark are displayed in the The Jack, Joseph, & Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art & Life in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Decorated panels from the ceiling and walls of the Unterlimpurg Synagogue are on display at the Hällisch-Fränkisches Museum in the town of Schwäbisch Hall, Germany. A few remains from the Steinbach synagogue are also on display in the same museum.
In addition to these findings, this study also draws upon photographs and sketches,13 as well as written evidence14 documenting Eliezer-Zusman’s work. A comparative analysis was carried out between the features of Eliezer-Zusman’s paintings and those in other Eastern and Central European synagogues. Eliezer-Zusman’s paintings and inscriptions were compared to those of medieval and early modern Hebrew manuscripts.15 His synagogue paintings were also compared with primary Christian sources, such as medieval and early modern illuminated manuscripts and church paintings. As part of this comparative study, church paintings similar to Eliezer-Zusman’s paintings in his area of origin were examined in towns of southern Poland near the Ukraine. Emphasis was placed on testing and comparing techniques and methodologies.16
Most visual materials are not new. The exceptions are two essential sources revealed for the first time in this book. The first one is a series of photographs documenting the Horb synagogue wall paintings and inscriptions in situ, which, unlike the synagogue’s decorated wooden panels, were left in the original site to waste away. The second source is textual: a German translation, made by Reuven Eschwege, of all the inscriptions written in the Kirchheim synagogue while displayed in the Luitpold Museum in Würzburg. These translations are the most reliable source available since this synagogue does no longer exists. In addition to extending our knowledge on the inscriptions in the two synagogues, these two sources contain the documentation of two signatures of Eliezer-Zusman whose formulas were hitherto unknown, thus increasing the number of his known signatures from three to five.
The textual sources of this study consist of two groups. The first consists of historical documents related to Jewish communities, including Pinkasim (community records), municipal records, and Memorbücher (memorial books). These documents shed light on the conditions of daily life and the social and legal status of Jewish communities during Eliezer-Zusman’s age. This study mainly focuses on primary sources from settlements in which the painter adorned synagogues and other Jewish communities in the countryside of Franconia and Württemberg.17 The second group includes model books used by Christian painters in Eastern Europe and Germany and guidebooks for medieval and early modern paintings.18
Toponyms are spelled according to The Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (
See Wilhelm German, “Die Holzsynagoge in Schwäbisch Hall,” Schwäbisches Heimatbuch 14 (1928): 30–35.
See Erich Töplitz, “Die Malerei in den Synagogen (Besonders in Franken),” Jüdischen Kulturgeschichte 3 (1929): 3–16; Töplitz, “From the Folk Art” [Min ha’amanut ha’amamit], Rimon 3 (1923): 1–8 [Hebrew].
See Max Untermayer-Raymer, “German Synagogue Art,” The Menorah Journal 25 (1937): 64–68.
See Rachel Wischnitzer, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964), 58; Carol Herselle Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 58.
See Fishof, “Descriptions of Jerusalem by Eliezer Sussmann of Brody.” The Israel Museum Journal 14 (1996): 67–82.
Panter’s study focuses on the history of the decorated wooden panels from the Unterlimpurg and Steinbach synagogues and their reconstruction process. See Armin Panter, “Bemarkungen zur Geschichte und zur musealen Präsentation der Unterlimpurger Synagogenvetäfelung,” in Geschützt, Geduldet, Gleichberechtigt: Die Juden im baden-württembergischen Franken vom 17. Jahrhundret bis zum Ende des Kaiserreichs (1918), ed. Taddey Gerhard (Ostfildern: Thorbecke, 2005), 139–146; Armin Panter, “Die Unterlimpurger Synagogenvertäfelung des Eliezer Sussmann im Hällisch Fränkischen Museum Schwäbisch Hall,” Schwäbische Heimat 3 (2006): 270–276; Armin Panter, Die Haller Synagogen des Elieser Sussmann im Kontext der Sammlung des Hällisch-Fränkischen Museums (Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2015), 29–89. Heimann-Jelinek’s research points to the origins of Eliezer-Zusman’s Unterlimpurg Synagogue paintings in synagogue painting tradition and popular German art. See Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, “Die Unterlimpurger Synagoge in der Tradition der jüdischen Kunst,” in Geschützt, Geduldet, Gleichberechtigt: Die Juden im baden-württembergischen Franken vom 17. Jahrhundret bis zum Ende des Kaiserreichs (1918), ed. Taddey Gerhard (Ostfildern: Thorbecke, 2005), 147–154.
For seventeenth and eighteenth-century history of the Jewish community in the small town of Unterlimpurg, see Andreas Maisch, Mayer Seligmann, Judt zu Unterlimpurg: Juden in Schwäbisch Hall und Steinbach, 1688–1802 (Schwäbisch Hall: Stadtarchiv, 2001). For a review of the history and customs of Jews in Bechhofen, see Uri Shraga Rosenstein, Shlomo Katanka and Mordechai Doerfer, In a place where the people were accustomed: Bechhofen rite [Makom she’nahagu: minhagim dekiryat kodesh Bechhofen] (London: Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz, 2011), 31–41 [Hebrew].
See Robert Walter Hans Peter Scheller, Exemplum: Model-Book Drawings and the Practice of Artistic Transmission in the Middle Ages (ca. 900–ca. 1450) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995); Walter Hans Peter Scheller, A Survey of Medieval Model Books (Haarlem: De Erven F. Bohn, 1963).
For a discussion on visual models used as a source for animal paintings, see William Brunsdon Yapp, “Animals in Medieval Art: The Bayeux Tapestry as An Example,” Journal of Medieval History 13, no. 1 (1987): 15–73.
On the influence of print on painters in Eastern Europe, see Waldemar Deluga, “Paper Icons by Nikodem Zubrzycki,” Print Quarterly 23, no. 2 (2006): 182–185; Waldemar Deluga, “The Ukrainian Prints from the Lavra Pecherska Monastery in Kiev (17th and 18th Centuries),” Apulum 50 (2013): 17–45; Waldemar Deluga, “The Influence of Prints on Painting in Eastern Europe,” Print Quarterly 3 (1993): 219–230; Ljiljana Stošić, “Caspar Luyken’s Illustrated Bible among the Serbs and Bulgarians in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Balcanica 42 (2011): 37–48.
See, for example: Stephan Epstein, “Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship, and Technological Change in Preindustrial Europe,” The Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 684–713.
Synagogue photographs in the Theodor Harburger collection, the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People, the Yad Vashem Archives, the Schwäbisch Hall Municipal Archive, Archive of the Leo Baeck Institute, and in assorted publications.
Töplitz, “Die Malerei,” 3–16; Töplitz, “From the Folk Art,” 1–8; Untermayer-Raymer, “German Synagogue Art,” 64–68.
This analysis is based on photographs in the collections of the Tel Aviv Museum and the ANU-Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum, the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People, the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Jewish Historical Institute and Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, the Taranushenko (Таранушенко) and Zoltovsky (Жолтовський) Collections in Kiev, and other collections. Synagogue paintings were also documented during study tours in Poland, Moravia and Germany.
During my research tours, paintings were examined in churches and monasteries in the Poręby Dymarskie, Rzeszów, Jarosław, Przemyszl, Blizne, Binarowa, Libusza, Polna, Krużlowa Wyżna, Modlnica, and Racławice. Remnants of interior paintings from Gothic and Renaissance wooden churches were also documented at the National Museum in Kraków (Muzeum Narodowe). Such murals are not found in Ukraine and Germany.
See, for example, Karl Ernst Stimpfig, Die Juden in Bechhofen, ihre Synagoge und ihr Judenfriedhof: Eine Dokumentation ([n.p.]: Self-publishing, 2003)—a book containing original records of the Jewish community of Bechhofen; Stimpfig, Die Juden in Leuterhausen, Jochsberg, Colmberg und Wiedersbach (Leutershausen: Majer, 2001)—information on the population of Jewish communities in several towns, including the community records in the town of Colmberg while Eliezer-Zusman worked there; See also Rosenstein, Katanka and Doerfer, In a place, for the translation of the memorial book and customs book of the Jewish community in Bechhofen.
See Charles Reginald Dodwell, Theophilus: The Various Arts: De Diversis Artibus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986); Paul Hetherington, The “Painter’s Manual” of Dionysius of Fourna (London: The Sagittarius Press, 1974); Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Il Libro Dell’ Arte o Trattat Della Pittura (Florence: F. Le Monnier, 1859); George Kakavas, Dionysios of Fourna (c. 1670–c. 1745): Artistic Creation and Literary Description (Leiden: Alexandros Press, 2008).