Sister Shuls: Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic

Over the past several months, we’ve traveled virtually to every continent except Antarctica visiting synagogues that have some sort of kinship with Eldridge Street. Today we’ll return to Prague, this time to the Spanish Synagogue. It’s time for Sister Shuls: Horror Vacui edition!

Horror vacui is a Latin term meaning for “fear of empty space” and it is most often used to describe art or decoration that is so obsessive that it covers every possible surface. We use that term at Eldridge Street to describe the painted designs that are everywhere you look in our main sanctuary. Domes, walls and ceilings are covered in scrolling arabesques, golden stars on blue backgrounds, a coffered grid and more. Our original painted decorative scheme dates from the early 1890s, several years after the synagogue opened in 1887. 

At the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, the sense of horror vacui is even more intense. The interior design, added in 1882-83, is the work of Antonin Baum and Bedřich Münzberger. So its about a decade older than Eldridge Street. Both the Eldridge and Prague decorative schemes take cues from Islamic design. Here are the sanctuaries side-by-side:

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The sanctuaries of both synagogues feature a dramatic proliferation of design elements. Left:  Prague. Right: Eldridge Street.

The Spanish Synagogue was built in 1868 and came to be so-named because its architecture echoes Moorish sites in Spain, especially the Alhambra in Granada. The use of Moorish detail in synagogue architecture is said to refer to a time in Spain before the Inquisition when Jews lived peacefully alongside Christians and Muslims. Like Eldridge Street, its façade also employs Moorish elements including keyhole-shaped windows.

Left: Façade of the Spanish Synagogue. Right: Eldridge Street.

Going back inside, let’s take a closer look at the painted decoration. By comparison, Eldridge Street’s seems rather tame! Both employ repeated geometric patterns and designs derived from nature, particularly floral shapes and stars. But the patterns at the Spanish Synagogue are more intricate and the coloration offers more contrast. That makes the overall effect even more dramatic.

Left: painted arches at the Spanish Synagogue.  Right: Eldridge Street.

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Looking up at the painted ceilings.  Left: Prague. Right: Eldridge Street

Like Eldridge Street, the Spanish Synagogue went through a period of decline and disrepair. During World War II, Nazis stored confiscated property at the Prague shul. After the war, the city’s Jewish Museum took control of the building and eventually restored it. But later, during the 1970s and 80s, it was neglected and then closed. It wasn’t until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which ended Communism, that the Spanish Synagogue was finally restored to its original glory. It reopened in 1998. Eldridge Street’s restoration was completed about a decade later in 2007.

The overall effect of the Spanish Synagogue – at least in photographs – is both stunning and dizzying. As a final comparison between the Prague and Eldridge Street, here are two swirling vortexes – one in paint on the ceiling of the Czech shul, and our own stained-glass masterpiece. Both are mesmerizing.

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Left: a painted swirling design in a dome of the Spanish Synagogue.  Right: The east rose window at Eldridge Street, designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans and installed in 2010.

Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Archivist and Exhibition Curator.

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