This large and impressive oil depicting Jews praying in a Synagogue in Italy is an exceptional record from one of the greatest centers of Jewish culture. It is one of the only Synagogue interiors dating from the 17th century and is thus a remarkable record of the rich Jewish life led by the Italian Jews during the Early Modern Era. From this flourishing community would come some of the greatest treasures of Judaica known to us today, from extraordinary silver objects produced for Synagogue worship to the most luxurious textiles including Torah Ark Curtains, exquisite Torah Binders and Reader’s Desk covers. Among the greatest Torah Crowns and Finials would be those produced in Venice in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The flowering of Jewish culture in Italy also resulted in a rich tradition of cantorial music and such unparalleled milestones as the printing of the Bomberg Talmud.
According to the former owners of this painting, who lived on the outskirts of Siena and in whose possession this work resided for generations, the interior possibly depicts the old Synagogue in Siena. The new Synagogue there was built in 1786 and no visual record has been found of the old Synagogue. There are other elements in the interior that suggest a location elsewhere in Italy. To the left of the Ark can be seen a large throne-like chair, the Cathedra, which is typical of Rome (the synagogue of Yarei Hashem and the Scole Catalana) and also of Mantua.
As documented by Alfred Rubens in A History of Jewish Costume, Jews of the Papal States were obliged to wear a distinctive yellow hat which set them apart from the rest of the population. All the men depicted in this painting, with the exception of the two figures in the lower left in black, wear the yellow hat. These two gentlemen were no doubt non-Jewish visitors to the synagogue, coming to hear the cantorial virtuosity and distinctive melodies for which Jewish services in Italy were well known. Contemporary Prints such as those by Hieronymus Hess depict non-Jewish visitors to the synagogue in Rome and there are contemporary accounts of non-Jews attending synagogue services in Venice specifically to hear the music.
The visitors in the present composition have chosen a high point in the Jewish calendar, the High Holy Days, as evidenced by the presence of a Shofar on the Reader’s Desk. The scene most likely takes place during the Minhah or Ne'ilah service of Yom Kippur. The lit candles indicate the onset of nightfall, and the worshipers, wrapped in tallitot, are engaged in fervent prayer. The presence of women too in the women’s balcony marks the solemnity of the occasion. The Shofar blowing at the end of the service marks the conclusion of the most holy day of the Jewish calendar. Through this painting we thus have a rare document of a vibrant and entrenched community which flourished in Italy for hundreds of years. We also have a remarkably detailed depiction of a moment of high emotional intensity and deep devotion to the Jewish faith.