Woodwork

In many Italian synagogues the interior finish was entirely of wood. The walls were covered with wood, the benches were wooden, and the Holy Ark and the Bimah, which are the focus of the prayers, were also made out of wood. Often the size and shape of the Bimah and the Ark influenced the design of the synagogue in terms of the shape and internal proportions of the building and its ornamentation.

In certain periods, when restrictions were imposed on the Jews, synagogues had modest façades that resembled those of the houses around them, but their interiors were dazzling. The latter featured very rich ornamentation, primarily from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, when gold leaf and stucco became an integral part of synagogue decorations. A prominent example of this is the Conegliano Veneto synagogue.

The shape of the Holy Ark recalls the traditional representation of the facade of the Temple in Jerusalem which housed the Ark of the Covenant. Synagogue arks are therefore often designed like buildings and feature architectural elements such as columns, capitals, and gables.

The woodworking techniques used included engraving, water gilding, and polychrome. The Ark from Mantova-Sermide is an excellent example of Renaissance woodcarving, with characteristic elements of the period: its harmonious and symmetrical structure is characterized by a severe simplicity, and is ornamented with carved floral motifs and water-gilded. Gold leaf adorns the entire body of the Ark and creates a rhythm that blends in perfectly with its architectural elements.

The iconography of synagogue ornamentation reflects the fashions of the age, but avoids use of human or animal figures in favor of floral and geometric patterns.

In contrast to the textile industry, very few Jews seem to have been engaged in woodworking. Hence there was no deep tradition of woodcarving among them.