The synagogue in Gwoździec was probably built in 1640. It was a c. 15 m high wooden construction built on the plan of an irregular polygon shaped almost like a rectangle, a log construction built covered by the so-called Polish-style mansard roof. The central area was covered by an octagonal dome; the main room was beneath it – a square praying hall for men sized 11.3 x 11.3 m. The women’s prayer halls were located in the northern and southern parts of the building and on the gallery above the vestibule.

It is unknown whether the builders where Jews or hired craftsmen. The object was transformed a few times. The central part was the oldest one. Before 1729 the roof was remodeled; a vestibule, women’s prayer halls and a brick extension in the south-western corner, called bóżniczka (little synagogue) were also added. The little synagogue was used as a cheder and, in wintertime, as a heated prayer house. Before 1910, a renovation was conducted. The synagogue was seriously damaged for the first time in a fire during World War I. It was rebuilt in the interwar period, but destroyed completely by the Germans during World War II.

The synagogue was equipped among others with a tall, two-storeyed, polychrome Torah ark, a bimah in the shape of an octagonal arbour, also polychrome, with a lantern on top. However, the synagogue was most famous for the polychromes covering its interior, created by: Isaac Ber, his son (known only from the inscription texts), “a craftsman employed in holy work” Israel ben Mordechaj Liśnicki (Lissnitzki) from Jaryszów (dated after c. 1652), Israel ben Mordechaj Shen, and later restored by Isaac ben Yehuda ha-Cohen from Jaryczów in 1729. Both the ceilings and the walls were completely covered in colourful paintings depicting biblical motives interlaced by biblical verses, proverbs and abbreviations. The Torah ark by the eastern wall was flanked by paintings of shwebread tables (from the north) and of a menorah (from the south). On the other walls the paintings showed among others: an illustration of the Forefathers’ Parable, symbolic animals (a tiger, eagle, deer, lion), medallions with inscriptions; scenes depicting: bears climbing a tree in search of honey, a wolf killing a lamb, a stork with a snake in its beak; images of animals: a squirrel, a cock, a rabbit (hare) etc. Everything was incorporated into fantastic architecture and geometrical-botanical ornaments (compared to the decorative motifs of oriental carpets), and painted with distemper. It is worth underlining that despite the activity of various artists in different times, the principle of composition remained the same. Clear similarities between the polychrome of the synagogue in Gwoździec, and the ones in Chodorów, Jabłonowo and Kamionka Strumiłowa[1.1].

This extraordinary piece of art was “discovered” in the years 1890-1898 by Karol Maszkowski, who described the outcomes of his research in a manuscript entitled Bożnica drewniana w miasteczku Gwóźdźcu (Wooden synagogue in the town of Gwoździec). The publication also contained very detailed drawings[[refr:W. Wygnanowska, “O odkryciu polichromii bożnicy drewnianej w Gwoźdźcu pod Kołomyją”, Rocznik Historii Sztuki (1988), vol. XVII, 432.]]. This is where the date 1729 is mentioned as the year when the dome was decorated. Unfortunately because of the text being damaged, Maszkowski was unable to decipher the inscription signed by Isaac Bar and his son (from 1652) and Israel Lisnicki[[refr:W. Wygnanowska, “O odkryciu polichromii bożnicy drewnianej w Gwoźdźcu pod Kołomyją”, Rocznik Historii Sztuki (1988), vol. XVII, 435.]].

A replica roof of the Gwoździec synagogue is the key element of the gallery “Town”, which is part of the core exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The interior of the reconstruction is covered in polychrome, as was the original roof. This paintings are also attributed to Israel Lisnicki and depict, among others, a frieze of medallions with images of animals, the cycle of zodiac signs, the Leviathan, the Shor ha-Bor bull, an elephant with a palanquin. The individual plastic elements are intertwined by cartouches with inscriptions, botanical twines with fruit and flowers, with birds and animals between them.

Movie by Heather Elliott-Famularo showing a virtual reconstruction of the synagogue’s interior (without the paintings on the walls):

Movie of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: Gwozdziec Re!construction - replica roof of the synagogue installed at the Museum!

Bibliography:

  • E. Małkowska-Bieniek, “Opowieść o Przymierzu i czasach ostatecznych. Próba analizy ikonograficznej malowideł sklepienia synagogi w Gwoźdźcu”, Biuletyn Historii Sztuki (2013), no. 2, 295–310.
  • K. and W. Piechotka, Bramy nieba. Bóżnice drewniane, (1996), 208–212.
  • W. Wyganowska, “O odkryciu polichromii bożnicy drewnianej w Gwoźdźcu pod Kołomyją”, Rocznik Historii Sztuki (1988), vol. XVII.
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Footnotes

  • [1.1] The descriptions of the architecture and paintings based on: K. and W. Piechotka, Bramy nieba. Bóżnice drewniane (1966), 208-212.