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The ADVENTURES of a HOLY ARK - From the Renaissance till the 21st Century

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Based on the historical research of Professor Iliya Rodov of Bar-Ilan University

In 2020, Alice Dias of Studio Oro was invited to inspect the pieces of a Holy Ark that had been built in the 16 th century in Padua, Italy, with a view to its conservation and restoration. “It was well packed. I was excited, and hadn’t expected to find a package so well protected. It was obvious that the Ark pieces had endured a long journey. The base of the Ark was not original – apparently renovated in the 19 th century. The inner wooden structure remained, but many layers of new wood and paint had been added” said Alice, and continued .. “the impact of wars and wanderings were evident in the ancient pieces of the Ark, but nevertheless it was patently obvious that this was an illustrious piece of Judaica, the fruit of an artist’s hand”.

A Spot of History ....

In 1901, Heinrich Frauberger – an Art Historian who was a pioneer in the research of Jewish Art published a photo of a magnificent Holy Ark in the Padua Synagogue. This was the first documentation of this particular Ark. In error, Frauberger attributed the photo to the Sephardic Synagogue, but when the photo was compared to the plans of that synagogue, it became apparent that the researcher had mistakenly identified the location of the Ark. In fact, this splendid Holy Ark was actually located in the Beit Midrash of Ashkenazi Jewry in Padua.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue was erected in the year 1525, during the tenure of Rabbi Meir Katzenelenbogen renowned as “His Eminence” of Padua – the Chief Rabbi of the city. During the following few hundred years, from 1561 – 1926, the building went through many renovations and changes. In 1683 another story was added to the building, and the synagogue was relocated to the upper floor. The Holy Ark, however, remained on the lower floor that was turned into a Beit Midrash. Opposite the Ark, a giant beam was erected held up by massive columns, to support the ceiling that became the floor of the new upper story.

In 1892, due to even more renovations that changed the building’s destiny, the Beit Midrash was more or less abandoned. In 1943, in the throes of the 2 nd World War, the building was bombed and suffered severe damage. However, surprisingly, the Ark was no longer there ! Where was it? What kind of unexpected upheavals had it experienced?

In September 1939, a very short time before the outbreak of the 2 nd World War, an Israeli architect called Ya’akov Finkerpeled visited the location and reported that the famous Holy Ark was indeed not there. At the end of the war, he re-visited Padua and found the Beit Midrash in ruins as a result of the bombing in 1943.

From that point onwards, there is no documentation regarding the Ark’s journey. But then .... just a few years ago, Professor Iliya Rodov was called to the storeroom of a Jewish family in Jerusalem, whose ancestors were from Padua. They asked him to inspect the pieces they had of a Holy Ark that seemed to match Frauberger’s photos of the 16 th Century Ark from Padua. Professor Rodov’s inspection revealed that the pieces were indeed authentic and in fact parts of the mysterious Ark that had somehow miraculously survived wars and wandering between continents. A true relic from the Renaissance and from the days of The Eminence of Padua.

Eventually, additional biographical details came to light. Prior to 1939, gravely concerned about the looming threat of war, the Paduan Ashkenazi Jewish community sold the Ark to a local Jewish family, to prevent its possible destruction or damage and to hopefully ensure that this cultural and meaningful asset would be fittingly maintained for posterity.

During Professor Rodov’s inspection of the Ark pieces, he discovered two vases of flowers embossed on the upper portion of the Ark, that had apparently been added in the 17 th century – maybe when the upper floor of the Paduan synagogue was built in 1683.

Conserving and Restoring the 16 th Century Ark The renowned conservation and restoration artist, Alice Dias of Studio Oro in Jerusalem, was chosen to undertake this delicate and challenging project. The very first step was to decide whether to reconstruct it in its original form from 1525, or to also include the additions from the Baroque period.

As the Baroque additions were very impressive and suited the splendour of the original design, Alice decided to appropriate these additions as part of the Ark’s long history, and restore the Ark as it was in the 17 th Century. The missing wooden pieces were re-made, and the broken and damaged parts repaired . All the paint layers that had been added post-17 th century were carefully removed, and under these layers they discovered the original colours and even gold-leaf coating which were then consolidated into the restoration. They reconstructed the painting of the columns with dark marble-like surfaces and restored the gold decorations. Then a new key was created that would open and shut the original lock. Studio Oro has returned this precious Ark to its former glory.

And now for the HAPPY EVER AFTER conclusion ....

Upon completion of the conservation and restoration, the newly resplendent 16 th century Paduan Holy Ark was purchased by an American Jewish philanthropist, who requested it be flown to the USA to take up its new permanent home in the Torah Links Synagogue in Lakewood, New Jersey. An especially worthy and secure area was picked for its re-location – a space that would protect it for many years to come. Thus, a 500 year saga of adventures and hardships finally found a happy end ... and maybe a new historic chapter has begun for this illustrious Ark.

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