From Italy to Jerusalem: Hanukkah Lamps from the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art

  • history
  • etnography
  • cultural history
  • heritage
  • judaica

A New Temporary Exhibition of the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem at the Knesset

On this Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, the precious Hanukkah lamps of the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art are illuminating the entrance hall of of the Israeli Parliament: the Knesset. The Hanukkah lamps from the Nahon Museum claim their Italian nature either through origin or ownership, and the diversity of styles represented in the collection reflects the many distinct origins of Italian Jews. Though most of the lamps borrow from the Italian aesthetic milieu, many are reminiscent of Hanukkah lamps from Eastern Europe and North Africa. A select number of the lamps actually are from Northern or Eastern Europe and arrived in Italy with immigrant Jewish families. Italy’s communities were comprised of Jews from many different countries. In addition to the original Jews of Italy, they included Jews from Germany, Spain, France, and more. Though their members had differing customs, the Italian Jewish communities thrived and presented a microcosm of world Jewry.

Along with the different artistic features presented by these lamps, this collection showcases the technical styles and techniques used for Hanukkah lamps. One style is hanging bench lamps, where the oil wells are cast in one long row and attached to a solid back-plate hung on a wall. Another is standing table lamps, which are similar to hanging bench lamps, but they are distinctive in that they stand usually on a table or pedestal, and are for use in the home and in the synagogue. Some lamps are much larger, almost monumental, and their only use would have been in the synagogue or the public Jewish square.

The richest Hanukkah lamps in the collection in terms of technical decoration are those made of silver, which were hand-made using a fine repoussé technique. The motifs that would appear on these lamps are either vegetal or architectural. These designs borrow heavily from contemporary architecture, gates and building decoration for inspiration. Many of these motifs translated into copper alloy Hanukkah lamps which were made beginning in the sixteenth century. Often these lamps had an open-work back, still rich with stylized floral motifs, and often included grotesque masks as well. In addition to these traditional designs, rampant lions, cornucopias, and vases began to appear. On occasion, the architectural inspiration would overtake the creator and a lamp would look much like a palace with crenellations and a tower. Another distinct motif directly connected to the holiday of Hanukkah is a seven-branched lamp flanked by two olive trees, which evokes the vision of the Prophet Zechariah.

The assembly of these Hanukkah lamps within the halls of the Knesset is also representative of the Jewish journey and the Jewish ideal of spreading light throughout the world. Like the Hanukkah lamps presented in the exhibition, Jews have migrated and adopted customs of their chosen homelands while maintaining their Jewish convictions. They took the aesthetics of their cultures and with them created exceptional art bathed in light that inspires us during the darkest days of the year.

Read more about the exhibit here.

Curators: Andreina Contessa and Sharon Soffer

Location: Jerusalem, The Knesset of Israel, Kedma Hall
Design and Production: Esh Biminov
Brochure Design: Printing Department of the Knesset