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Jewish Medals At TEFAF

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The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) March 16-25, 2012 (25 year anniversary) Maastricht, Netherlands http://www.tefaf.com/

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Some of the most fascinating displays of wealth at TEFAF were small change, so to speak—or at least they used to be. Tucked away in display cases at booths are a trove of coins (used for currency) and medals (non-legal tender), that although less dazzling than the wall-dominating medieval paintings and life-sized contemporary sculptures, are no less worthy of close examination. In fact, four medals at two vendors (Nomos in Switzerland, and Tradart in Belgium and Switzerland) are of particular interest to those who are passionate about Jewish art.

A silver medal representing Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1801-1825), labeled “The Emancipation of Russian Jews,” shows Alexander on the front (obverse), wearing the eight-pointed star of the Order of St. Andrew, Russia’s patron saint. The tsar, identified by the inscription “Alexandro,” is shown in profile dressed in armor. On the reverse side of the medal, the Jewish community is personified by a bearded (and perhaps helmeted) man looking heavenward with his hands clasped in prayer—or, as the vendor, Tradart, describes it, “as a token of gratitude to the tsar for the laws of 1804 granting Jews relative emancipation.” A Latin inscription declares, “He freed the Jews from burden, February 9, 1805.”

In front of the figure, who is dressed in biblical rather than contemporary garb, is an altar of sorts, with laurel wreaths and a flame. According to Tradart, the medal is thought to have been struck outside of Russia, with a golden copy presented personally to Alexander I. “In that case, it would precede by many years any other issuance by the Jewish community of Russia,” according to the gallery. “Knowing that engraver, Paul Merker, came from Brunswick, it could substantiate the claim that it was commissioned by the Jews of Berlin.”

Another medal at Tradart’s booth is a rectangular bronze plate commemorating the inauguration of Frankfort’s synagogue. The Hebrew inscription, “house of prayer of the upright” (depending on how one translates the word Yeshurun), appears above a sun setting (or rising) over the Frankfurt synagogue. Some of the floral details adorning the arch over the Hebrew inscription and along the sides of the plate resemble the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter of one of the divine names and, therefore, many mezuzah cases and other Judaica objects. And beneath the synagogue representation, another Hebrew inscription offers the Hebrew date of the inauguration.

The composition of the commemorative plate evokes the title page of Soncino’s editions of the Talmud (among other secular publishing designs). Three steps (which could symbolize any number of Jewish things) lead up the synagogue, which is circumscribed by an arch and two columns. The synagogue is represented in remarkable detail, but the artist has devoted equal—if not more—attention to the borders of the piece and the inscriptions. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the inscriptions seem to be confused, as some letters are slightly more elongated than they should be, and others are imprecisely formed.

A silver medal offered by Nomos also contains Hebrew inscriptions, but doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the Jewish community. The king appears in profile, wearing what might be the Order of the Golden Fleece (it’s tough to make out, but the interlocking shapes in the chain appear to be the iconic Burgundian ‘B’). Henry VIII was hardly a friend of the Jews (there were taxes and pogroms, among other oppressions), although by some accounts, Henry VIII enlisted Jewish scholars and their biblical expertise to justify his controversial divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

On the reverse side of the silver medal, inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek declare Henry VIII not only king, but “supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland,” according to Nomos. The Hebrew and Greek inscriptions, as the other two biblical languages besides Latin (which appears on the front of the medal), “affirm the legitimacy of Henry’s appointment,” according to the website of the British Museum, which owns one of two gold versions of the medal.

But a close inspection of the Hebrew inscription yields a different text. The word Messiah appears prominently, and although one can make out the term “community of England,” Ireland doesn’t appear. One term that is unaccounted for in the translation is Kush, and another 10-letter word doesn’t seem to be transcribed properly. More work can certainly be done on the inscription of this medal, although Richard Bishop’s Hebraica Veritas essay on the medal is very informative, particularly in its tracing of the humanism of the time and growing interests in Greek and Hebrew. A Hebrew font was developed in Venice by Teobaldo Mannucci in the very late 15th century, according to Bishop, and study of biblical Hebrew allowed scholars to understand the bible ad fontem (“at the source”)—although through a Christian lens, of course.

Bishop correctly points out that the Hebrew inscription isn’t perfect, but he calls the letters “well formed” (which isn’t entirely correct), and he deciphers what he calls the last word in the inscription, rosh (head), although that’s only the last word in the Hebrew inscription if one reads Hebrew backwards—from left to right. The true final word is elyon, and not rosh.

“No doubt Henry greatly approved of this medal. The message was loud and clear. His title “Supreme Head” spelt out in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, proclaimed to the world that the combined learning of all traditions, Hebraic, Greek and Roman, the Old and the New Testaments, all supported his claim to be God’s appointed Head of the Church,” Bishop writes.

An 1806 bronze medal depicting Napoleon I, also at Tradart, doesn’t have Hebrew inscriptions, but its subject matter is perhaps the most remarkable and surprising. On the front of the medal, the French engraver and medalist Alexis Joseph Depaulis (1790-1867), who was then 16 years old, depicted a bareheaded Napoleon I in profile dressed in a military uniform. A wreath hovers above Napoleon’s head, and an inscription identifies him by name.

But it’s the reverse, by the engraver Augustin Dupre (1748-1833), which is the most visually arresting. Napoleon, lavishly and regally dressed, stands and holds the Ten Commandments (with seemingly pseudo-Hebraic inscriptions)—rendered as two separate tablets, long and narrow and rounded at the tops. Kneeling before him is what one can only assume is a personification of the Jewish community, represented as Michelangelo’s Moses (beard, horns and all). Dupre appears to have rendered the moment after Moses/Jews presented the tablets to the French emperor.

The bronze was rendered around the time that Napoleon emancipated the Jews in the French empire, and one of the new freedoms was the creation of the Sanhedrin, a representative body named after the biblical assembly of sages and judges. Dupre pays tribute to that act of tolerance in particular, as an inscription beneath the figures states, “Grand Sanhedrin, XXX MAI, MDCCCVI.”

The images are Courtesey of Tradart, Switzerland.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Full disclosure: This writer’s trip to TEFAF was funded, in large part, by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, which, however, had no role whatsoever in or oversight over this article.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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