May 2009 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The Black Death destroyed one-third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, but for surviving Jews a further tragedy loomed. In town after town across mediaeval Europe, the local populace turned on them, accusing them of bringing on the plague by poisoning the wells and water sources. The terrified Jews hid their precious belongings before fleeing the pogroms that followed. One thousand were killed on one day alone, 2 March 1349, in the German town of Erfurt.

In 1998, in the course of building work, an exceptional hoard of some 600 items of mediaeval gold and silver was excavated near the eleventh-century synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Erfurt. Now these items can be seen at the Wallace Collection exhibition Treasures of the Black Death (until 10 May). These poignant and personal pieces are shown with other jewellery, unearthed in the Jewish quarter of Colmar, France, in 1863.

The most exciting of the items are three earliest known Jewish wedding rings, decorated in the form of miniature houses, symbolic of both the marital home and the Temple. Given as ritual wedding gifts by the bridegroom to the bride, they are inscribed with the word ‘Mazaltov’ and claimed to be the only surviving Jewish wedding rings from mediaeval times. One is engraved gold opaque and translucent enamel. Another has a tiny bell (which rings!) and a single padlock. The craftsmanship is stunning in detail and delicacy.

There are double cups used in wedding ceremonies and several goblets, one tiny enough to be a kiddush cup. The highly decorated silver and enamel brooches are typical mediaeval ornamentation with garnet from India, sapphires from Ceylon, turquoise and pearls. There are belts, chains and cosmetic bottles and amulets used as Jewish symbols, such as the half-moon and star. Several examples of heraldic symbols include associations with eagles, lions and leopards.

The coinage and silverware indicate a thriving and diverse economy in which Jews were protected in exchange for taxes. Some treasures may have been used as financial pledges. The remains of the Erfurt synagogue, once the site of a Nazi dance hall, will now be a museum and the treasures will shortly return there in a permanent display.

Van Dyck and Britain at Tate Britain (until 17 May) explores the seventeenth-century Flemish artist’s influence on British culture, an influence due mainly to his patron, Charles 1. Anthony Van Dyck, known for his equestrian paintings of the king, was an early devotee of Italian artists like Titian and introduced that southern energy into royal portraiture. Fantasy, role play and allegory lent renewed vigour to the old sterile court portraiture, while retaining the puritanism that would break out in the Civil War.

In these court paintings, Van Dyck captures the sumptuous costumes with a sensuality that vies with the tight-lipped, hollow-eyed expressions of their wearers; the women particularly appear sexless and puritanical. Charles knighted him and gave him rooms at court. In return, he was expected to provide the public face of divine rule and to present a cosy picture of royal life.

It was far from the truth. Relations between king and parliament were on the brink of collapse. Yet in one equestrian painting the king wears an other-worldly expression, while his footman gazes up at him in beatific awe. The sorrowful, aquiline structure of the king’s face is surely one of our most enduring royal images.

There is a touching portrait of Charles II as a child wearing a suit of shining armour. Van Dyck pre-deceased his patron by eight years, but it was left to his successor, Peter Lely, to convey the more relaxed court of Charles II. The work of later artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, proves the enduring influence of Van Dyck’s formal portraiture.

Gloria Tessler

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