Date of this Version
Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).
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. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Torah for a Jewish congregation, so it is not surprising that the most dominant feature of a synagogue is the Ark of the Law in which the Torah scrolls are kept. This may be a large, elaborate structure or a simple cupboard or recess but there is always a decorative curtain hanging in front of it. Immediately in front of the Ark is the reading-desk on which the scrolls of the Torah are placed to be read; the reading-desk is also covered with a decorative cloth. In this paper I am going to consider the ritual and ceremonial significance of a parochet or curtain for the Ark of the Torah and an almemor or cover for the reading-desk - both are in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London1 and were embroidered in Northern Italy in the late 17th century.
They were purchased in 1877 fr.om a man called Caspar Clarke, who later became Sir Purdon Clarke and Director of the Museum; he had visited Italy eight years previously and may have acquired the textiles then. Although the Victoria & Albert Museum was among the first museums to collect Jewish ecclesiastical art, the ritual and cultural significance of these hangings was hardly considered by the Museum - it was far less important than their interest as textiles. They were acquired by a museum of decorative art primarily as examples of 17th century Italian needlework and have been regarded only as Italian needlework until recently. When any-one begins to study Jewish textiles they encounter a very big problem - because of persecutions and the deliberate destruction of synagogues and Jewish communities, few of the early pieces have survived and there is little related documentary evidence easily available for study, but the V&A hopes to explore the original significance of these embroideries and the author will be grateful for any comments provoked by this presentation.