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The Physics Of Flame Combustion

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Just because the miracle of Chanukah defied physics doesn’t mean illustrations and illuminations of the Temple and Tabernacle menorahs haven’t grappled with the physics of flame orientation.

An analysis of dozens of ancient and medieval depictions of menorahs reveals that although most artists conceived of flames in scientific terms—the flames “point” upward, as one would expect real world fire to do, absent factors like wind—some artists seem to have been influenced by Midrashic or rabbinic interpretations of the directions of the Tabernacle and Temple flames.

English biblical commentary. C. 1463. Fol. 048v. Lower part of page of Exodus. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

According to Midrashic and Talmudic sources (e.g. Menachot 86b and 98b), the central flame of the menorah (what we now call the Shamash) had special significance, while the Ner Ma’aravi (western lamp), which might have been the flame closest to the Holy of Holies, also carried unique symbolism and prominence.

Various rabbinic interpretations (e.g. Rashi) on Numbers 8:2 observe that the biblical mandate to orient the flames toward “mul p’nai ha-menorah”—loosely the “face” of the lamp—suggests that the six wicks ought to face the central wick, or as Rashi explains it, “toward the middle one, which is not of a branch of the menorah, but its body.”

So, it seems, there is rabbinic and biblical precedent for flames to face toward the central wick (which might face upward, without any reason to face any other flame). All this comes with the caveat that the western lamp (which may have been the second candle from the east, depending which orientation of the menorah one subscribes to: north-south or east-west) might face toward the Holy of Holies rather than to the center.

Synagogue of Hamat; floor mosaic. 4th century. Hamat, near Tiberias.

In light of this context, it is worth observing the configuration of menorah wicks in a mosaic on the floor of the fourth century synagogue in Chamat near Tverya (image one). The mosaic, which also features two lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and shovels, interprets biblical verses literally when it represents parts of the arms of the menorahs as pomegranate shaped. And the flames emanating from the three arms of the lamps on either side all face the central bodies of the menorahs. The central wicks of each Menorah face opposite directions—but each points to the central architectural form: either a representation of the synagogue, Tabernacle, Temple, or the Holy of Holies of the Temple or Tabernacle.

If one examined the image from a literal perspective, one would likely assign the central architectural element to Solomon’s Temple, which was the only place to have multiple menorahs in residence. But whether it ought to be taken literally or metaphorically, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the artist intended both of the menorahs’ central wicks to face the synagogue-Holy of Holies.

It’d be one thing to suggest that the wicks facing the central branch were an artistic device of parallel structure and symmetry and had nothing to do with religious symbolism—that’d be a fine argument to make, except that having the wicks face upward would also be symmetrical—but the mirror-image reversal of the central wicks certainly seems intentional.

The same move doesn’t occur in several other menorah interpretations. All the wicks in a Byzantine mosaic (sixth century) at Chulda, which also represents a shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel and features a Greek inscription, “Praise to the people,” seem to point upward.

The menorah wicks also point upward in a drawing engraved into plaster on a lime floor in a first century house in Jerusalem (Israel Museum), as well as in several other manuscripts.

French Bible. Part I: Genesis to Ecclesiastes. 14th century. Fol. 049v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS. Bodl. 251.

A visual device that appears in a 19th century Mizrach (East) decoration—also in the collection of the Israel Museum—represents an interesting interpretation of the flames. The same move surfaces in a 14th century French Bible (image two), which is also in the collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The flames in these menorahs resemble hands, with multiple “fingers” reaching out in different directions. The “hands” actually resemble floral elements (or bells, or fleurs-de-lis) on the body of the menorah.

While it’s difficult to sustain the argument that the flames face the center, or even if some of the “fingers” face the center that the artist intended them to carry the kind of symbolism discussed above, it is a noteworthy depiction of the flames, in that they are represented as disjointed, rather than unified. Anyone who has watched flame carefully knows that there is tension in the “paths” that flame takes in space. Even if this artist had no Midrashic or Talmudic texts in mind, it’s worth pondering the possibility of wicks both facing the center and a more naturalistic or scientific trajectory simultaneously.

Roman Jewish Catacomb. 3rd century.

A third-century Roman mural from a Jewish catacomb (image four) takes the motif one step further. The painting, which also seems to feature an etrog, shofar, and lulav, has a rare inventiveness and attention to detail. The flames have both blue and red fire, and are either two- or three-pronged in form. It might be no accident that the central flame—which might have been the flame where the divine presence rested symbolically—looks like the Hebrew letter Shin (the first letter of Shechinah, or “divine presence”).

What is certainly not an accident is the flames’ position. The central flame is centered within the middle bowl of the menorah, but the flames on the right are all flush left—i.e. as close as possible to the center—and the flames on the left are all aligned to the rightmost portion of their bowls. More research would have to be done on how likely the artist and patron who commissioned the catacomb were to have known about commentaries on the flames’ orientation to ascertain whether this interpretation was a symbolic or aesthetic choice. But it would be a pretty big coincidence of they didn’t have the Talmud and the Exodus and Numbers texts in mind.

More work would also have to be done on whether there were parallel Christian interpretations of the direction of the menorah flames to figure out whether Christian artists would be inclined to orient flames in any particular direction. A 1493 woodcut of a menorah (Candelabri Luminus) at the Warburg Institute Library by the workshop of Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff , for example, shows the following flame configuration from right to left: left, right, left, straight (center wick), right, right, left. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this order, not even if one seeks Fibonacci sequences.

Tobias Stimmer. “The Altar of Incense and the Golden Lampstand ( Exod. 25, 30, 37 ).” 1576. Woodcut.

A 1576 woodcut by Swiss artist Tobias Stimmer also has a seemingly random configuration, but it also has an overlap of flames—which it turns out is a rather rare element in menorah illustration. Stimmer also depicts the incense altar, and the smoke from the menorah flames combines with the incense smoke, which blows from left to right.

Whether artists intended to follow biblical interpretations is a fascinating question, which is perhaps overlooked, but it also raises a valuable—though comparatively mundane—art question. To what extent have artists, and particularly artists who embellished every sculpted detail of the branches of the menorah, also paid attention to the flames?

The question is particularly worth meditating upon when one realizes that the menorah, however beautiful, was just a tool. The real purpose of the vessel lay in the flames.

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

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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One Response to “The Physics Of Flame Combustion”

  1. Irwin Ruff says:

    One difficulty with the author’s interpretation is that illustrations are being discussed, and the flames are drawn as the artist preferred. The flames are drawn AS IF candles were being burned (i.e., the flame is rising from the center of the arm, even if they are then distorted). A reading of the pertinent sections of the Chumash, however, indicates that LAMPS were the source of the light. A lamp consisted of a bowl, probably open at the time of the first Temple, mostly closed on top later, filled with oil, and with a wick extending from one side of the lamp (the lamp was never completely round, but usually at least elongated, with a “spout” at one of the narrow points which held the wick). The wick was the only element that was burning. The flame was thus only at one direction relative to the cup of the menorah, and could therefor be oriented in any direction: toward the center arm or to the Holy of Holies. It is possible that the artists did not fully understand the geometry of the menorah.

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