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The Physics Of Flame Combustion

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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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