In third century Indian sculptures, one sees elaborate necklaces, armlets and bangle bracelets on dancing figures. The Egyptians specialized in gold jewelry featuring symbolic motifs linked to their many religious cults. Our own origins in the ancient Middle East are reflected in the beautiful diadems of gold poplar and willow leaves that graced the forehead of Sumerian royalty in Queen Pu-abi’s tomb from Ur, Abraham’s hometown. A somewhat more recent incarnation of this art form is seen in nineteenth century Moroccan wedding headdresses that covers the woman’s natural hair with a crown of velvet, silver filigree, glass stones and precious jewels. The Jewish desire to ornament the body flows directly from our common joy and appreciation of the God-given gift of material being.
Jewish sensibilities, though, are naturally more complex because our consciousness of jewelry is rooted in the Torah itself. The Choshen Mishpat worn by the Kohen Gadol is an arrangement of twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes and was used to seek guidance from G-d Himself concerning the proper course for the nation of Israel. This “jewelry” can be seen as an adornment to the majesty and power of the High Priest, acting as a visual confirmation of his ability to interpret Divine instructions. Bezalel was Israel’s first jeweler who stood “in the shadow of God” as he designed the stone studded breastplate.
One of the best-known examples of Jewish jewelry is the City of Gold, wedding bands that date from the late Middle Ages. The distinctive shape of the small shrine perched atop a heavily ornamented ring encrusted with jewels and precious stones symbolize simultaneously the holy city of Jerusalem and the home the new couple hopes to establish.
This tradition of using jewelry as a metaphor for religious and social meaning is continued in the work of Eitan Erell, master goldsmith and jewelry designer. His work has been exhibited internationally and in Israel, and consists of a number of motifs that he has explored over the years. The grape vine motif is taken from Psalms 128:3 “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine in the heart of thy house.” In a bracelet Erell designed, this image is expressed by grape leaves, vines and clusters of grapes that take the form of subtly colored stones. The dominance of the grape leaves, alluding to an understated modesty, contrasts with the supple vine, representing a resourcefulness that is a treasured quality in every wife.
Erell uses many traditional Jewish motifs in his works building on images from illuminated manuscripts and ancient Jewish mosaic decorations. The pomegranate is one of the most meaning laden symbols in the Jewish consciousness that he frequently utilizes in his jewelry. It is one of the seven choice fruits associated with the Land of Israel and expresses the Land’s inherent fertility. The pomegranate occupies a unique position transcending both the spiritual and the physical. While Shlomo Hamelech uses its color and qualities to describe the physical attributes of the beloved in the Song of Songs, the pomegranate is simultaneously utilized on the hem of the High Priest’s robe, joyfully announcing his every movement. Erell’s pendant of an inverted pomegranate filled with a ruby red carnelian stone seems to be pregnant with potential, threatening to spill its delicious red juice at any moment. The graceful curves of hammered silver echo the simplicity of the fruit’s shape.
Torah finials have been known throughout the ages as Rimmonim (pomegranates), and Erell’s simple silver design carries the tradition elegantly into the 21st century. The very practice of embellishing the Torah with elaborate crowns, shields and finials made of silver, gold and precious stones makes such adornments into a kind of jewelry for the holy scroll that we honor as if it were an actual human being. In Erell’s design, the six silver rods gracefully ascend to meet in celebration as a crown of abstract hands representing the three kinds of Jews (Kohen, Levi and Israel) that honor the Torah. The Torah itself is metaphorically suspended in the middle as a three-sided orb, a red juicy core of seeds that promise the continuation of learning and fecundity.
Jewelry’s modern function is to adorn the wearer, and Erell’s necklace of silver and enamel inlay utilizes an ancient mosaic pattern to create a broad collar of unusual light and color. It simultaneously attracts the viewer while honoring the wearer and reminds us of its deeply Jewish roots in synagogue mosaic decoration and the repeating image of the lily. By studying modern jewelry design in Denmark, Sweden and in Israel and incorporating multiple ancient Jewish themes taken from the vast repository of Jewish art and artifacts, Erell has crafted jewelry and ceremonial objects that exist comfortably in the present even as they summon our timeless links to the Land of Israel. He carries the tradition of Jewish jewelry forward because he refuses to forget our spectacular past.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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