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Bevis Marks synagogue and the City churches

Kenneth Rubens

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Bevis Marks synagogue and the City churches KENNETH RUBENS The circumstances of the building of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Bevis Marks - named in Hebrew Sha 'ar Hashamayim - have been recorded by many, including Haham Moses Gaster in the history he wrote to mark the building's bicentenary in 19011 and Lionel Barnett in a volume on the early years of the congregation.2 In this tercentenial year it is fitting to recall briefly that the name of the street in which the synagogue stands, and by which it is familiarly known, is a corruption of Burie's Marks, the name of a mansion first belonging to the Bassets, later to the Abbots of Bury St Edmunds and lastly, following the dissolution of the monasteries, to the Heneages. These associations account for the the names of Bevis Marks and of the adjacent Heneage Lane, Bury Street and Bury Court. From the resettlement in 1656 the Spanish and Portuguese congregation worshipped in a building nearby in Creechurch Lane, to which was added, in 1674,3 a gallery running along three sides, similar to the one in the present synagogue. Mr Clarke and Mr Pope, the carpenters to whom this work was entrusted, were instructed inter alia to 'provide as many pillers [sic] as needed to support the intended galleries'. When in 1694 the congregation outgrew the Creechurch Lane building an appeal was organized to finance the con? struction of a new and larger one. Permission had, in the meantime, been given by the 'City Fathers' to build a new synagogue, on condition that it was built away from the highway so as not to arouse any offence among the surrounding population.4 The model commissioned at that time from Henry * Paper presented to the Society on 15 November 2001. The author would like to thank Miriam Rodriques-Pereira, hon. archivist of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, Professor Raphael Loewe, Steven Massil and Edgar Samuel for their valuable assistance and support in preparing this paper, and Rudi Cortissos of Amsterdam and the City church pastors and vicars for allowing him to take photographs. 1 Moses Gaster, History of the Ancient Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. . . (London 1901). 2 Lionel Barnett, Bevis Marks Records ... Part I: The Early History of the Congregation from the Beginning until 1800 (Oxford 1940). 3 W. S. Samuel, 'The First London Synagogue After the Resettlement', Trans JHSE 10 (1924)44. 4 I was informed, by a City verger, that in Chipping Ongar, Essex, the same restriction had been placed on a planning consent for a Catholic church in the mid-twentieth century. ii7</page><page sequence="2">Kenneth Rubens Ramsey, a carpenter, has not survived, but it may have been to his own design. Another carpenter, a Quaker named Joseph Avis, was awarded a contract to construct the new synagogue on 12 February 1699 f?r ?2^5?-&gt; payable by instalments. After paying the various craftsmen over the next three years, however, the total expenditure amounted to ?4946 4s od.5 Later in the same year, on 13 November, a ninety-nine-year lease was entered into, for an annual rental of ?120, for a property known as Plough Yard, the freehold of which was owned by the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Thomas Lyttelton, and his wife. Houses on the site needed to be demolished before work could begin. The contract, which survives in the archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, includes detailed specifications of the brickwork, carpentry, stonework and so on, and provides for payments to be made by instalments according to progress of construction. It is what today would be called a 'Design-and-Build Contract'. An arbitration clause stated that two 'indiffer? ent men' should be appointed in the case of a dispute, one from each party to the contract. On the reverse of the document a clause has been added prohibiting work on the Jewish Sabbath and festivals, with a corresponding extension of time being allowed for the completion of the project. The build? ing was finally opened on 27 EM 5461, the Sabbath prior to Rosh Hashanah, 1701. The congregation had acquired the freehold of the site by 1835 when there is a reference in the archives to its transfer from a retiring Parnass to his successor, but it is uncertain when this purchase took place. A schedule of documents dated 1748, referring to 'an indenture of Bargain and Sale between some parties enrolled in Chancery and members of the Mahamad' (one of whom was Moses de Paiba, an ancestor of the present writer), may refer to its acquisition. The origins of the design and its relationship to the carpenter's model, however, remain a puzzle that it is the purpose of this paper to address. Although Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner suggest that 'the general arrangements also owe much to the Great Synagogue - Amsterdam 1675',6 we will show that the structural and architectural features reflect quite separate antecedents. The London and Amsterdam congregations were indeed closely connected, for Cromwell readmitted Jews to Britain only after a petition was submitted by Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam. We know that one of the seven candelabra in the London synagogue was presented by the Dutch 5 Archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, cited by Gaster (see n. i) 80. 6 Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: The City of London (Harmondsworth 1997) 272. n8</page><page sequence="3">Bevis Marks synagogue and the City churches community and there are a strong superficial similarities in internal layout - the positioning of the banca (wardens' box) on the north side and of the Tebah and Echal (Reading Desk and Ark), for instance. But there are also substantial differences, including the dissimilar external elevations, as is shown in the photographs, and the fact that the Amsterdam building occupies virtually twice the area of Bevis Marks, measuring roughly 125 feet by 95 feet, com? pared with 80 feet by 50 feet for Bevis Marks (see plates 1 and 2). Amsterdam is also much loftier, and has a ceiling span that necessitates a barrel-vaulted roof of a style traditional in Dutch ecclesiastical buildings, supported by four massive freestanding columns (see plate 3). The galleries in Amsterdam are separately supported by twelve smaller pillars, as are those at Bevis Marks, which lacks, however, the freestanding roof-supporting pillars (see plate 4). This coincidence in the number of gallery pillars lends subsequently gave rise to the legendary identification of the columns as symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, although there is no concrete evidence that this was intended. The extemely detailed specification composed by the builder makes no refer? ence to a specific number of columns, and nothing was added to this effect by those commissioning the building. This is confirmed by the wording of the 1674 contract - albeit written before the Amsterdam synagogue was Plate 1 A plan of the Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam, from the engraving by Romeyn de Hooghe (1645?1708) celebrating its opening in 1675. 119</page><page sequence="4">Iff ?L^J?i-j^^l' il I it ' qL_O_lfil|i-fit Plate 2 A plan of Bevis Marks Synagogue. (Based on a drawing by Barbara Bowman, published in Sharman Kadish, Bevis Marks Synagogue, 1701-2001 [English Heritage and the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage in the UK and Ireland, 2001].) opened and relating to a different building - which suggests that the number of pillars was dictated uniquely by structural needs, and not by symbolic ones.7 The identification of the Amsterdam synagogue as the architectural pre? cursor of Bevis Marks must stand or fall on evidence that no other stylistic source is possible for the London builders. The architectural origins of the Amsterdam synagogue are clearly continental in nature. Its predecessor was built in 1639, served as a synagogue until 1675 when it was bought by Abra? ham de Judah Touro, and survived as a banqueting hall until the 1930s. The foundation stone of the present Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the architect-builder of which was a non-Jew, Elias Bouman, was laid on 17 April 1671, and the building was dedicated on 2 August 1675. It was closely mod? elled on the Church of the Remonstrants (Arminians) of 1629. This, like other dissenting churches in Amsterdam, was influenced in turn by the Hu? guenot Temple at Charenton near Paris, designed by the Protestant architect Saloman de Brosse in 1622 and destroyed in 1686. The similarity of the 7 Rachel Wischnitzer, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (Philadelphia 1964) 104. 120</page><page sequence="5">Plate 3 A view towards the Echal, Amsterdam (photo Kenneth Rubens).</page><page sequence="6">Plate 4 A view towards the Echal, Bevis Marks Synagogue. synagogue to these antecedents was sufficiently great to inspire Charles Ogier, secretary to Claude de Mesines, Comte d'Avaux, to remark, on a visit to Amsterdam, that the Sephardi synagogue resembled 'the new Calvinist Temples'.8 The Charenton Temple has prominent tablets of the Law beside the altar, similar to those over the Arks in the Amsterdam and London syn? agogues and in the screens of several contemporary City and other churches. Those in the City include St Anne and St Agnes (see plate 5), Gresham Street; St Edmund the King, Lombard Street, St Benet Fink and St Dunstan in the East. It may originally have been either a Christian or a Jewish tradi? tion. The Amsterdam synagogue may have owed its exterior design to an illus? tration of the Jerusalem Temple by Jerome Prado and John Baptist Villal pando, Spanish Jesuits, who based their reconstruction on descriptions in the Bible, Mishnah and works of Josephus. The similarity is greatest in the unusual design of the brick-and-stone buttresses along the Eastern wall. If this provenance is true, as a later historian has pointed out, it must be one 8 Ibid. 82-6. 122</page><page sequence="7">Plate 5 The reredos, St Anne and St Agnes, City of London, by Wren 1677-80 (photo Kenneth Rubens). of 'the ironies of history that the design of a synagogue built in Amsterdam by refugees from Spanish oppression was inspired by a reconstuction of the Temple of Solomon conceived by Spanish Jesuits'.9 Another possible source for the design is Rabbi Jacob Judah Leon ('Templo')'s model of the Temple, made in 1641 and exhibited well into the eighteenth century. It might be argued that this is a far more likely influence on the Amsterdam synagogue 9 Ibid. 123</page><page sequence="8">Plate 6 The Echal, Amsterdam (photo Kenneth Rubens). than the Jesuits.10 In a broader sense, since both the Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam and its Protestant neighbours owe their origin to the same clas? sical prototype - the Roman basilica, visible in the layout of the synagogue at Capernaum and medieval synagogues in Spain - the similarities of layout should not be surprising. In Bevis Marks we find the same classical basilica 10 I am grateful to Edgar Samuel for pointing this out to me. See Lewis Shane, 'Rabbi Jacob Judah Leon (Templo) of Amsterdam (i 603-1675) and his connections with England', Trans JHSE 25 (1977) 120-36. 124</page><page sequence="9">Plate 7 The Echal, Bevis Marks Synagogue (photo Kenneth Rubens). form, a central aisle delineated by parallel line of columns supporting galleries with additional seating beneath. The differences between Bevis Marks and Amsterdam are striking, how? ever, particularly in the handling of the entrances and the general external 125</page><page sequence="10">Kenneth Rubens design, doubtless resulting from the fact that while Elias Bouman in Amster? dam was influenced by the continental Protestant tradition, Avis in London was more familiar with the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren. Joseph Avis, primarily a carpenter but also an entrepreneur and contractor, was suf? ficiently prosperous to be admitted to the freedom of the Merchant Taylors' Company in 1664 and into its livery in 1674.11 He had worked on a number of prominent churches, including St James's Piccadilly and St Bride, Fleet Street, and, together with Dr Robert Hooke, Wren's chief surveyor, on the staircase hall at Merchant Taylors' Hall. The screen there shows a striking resemblance to the Ark in Bevis Marks (see plate 8).12 Craftsmen associated with work at Bevis Marks included John Sims, one of the principal joiners at St Clement Danes, Strand (1680-2), as well as St Bride, Fleet Street (1671-8).13 Another, Thomas Clarke, had been the prin? cipal carpenter for the remodelling of the old Creechurch Lane building. Payments were made also to John Lingar, a plumber, to John Dodson, and Plate 8 The screen, Merchant Taylors' Hall, City of London, on which Joseph Avis worked. The photograph dates to before its destruction in the Blitz. (Crown copyright. NMR.) 11 Records of the Merchant Taylors' Company (Guildhall Library). 12 M. I. Batten, The Architecture of Dr Robert Hooke', The Walpole Society 25 (London 1936 7) 90. 13 W. H. Godfrey, 'Church of St Bride', The Wren Society 10 (1933) 133, 135, 137. 126</page><page sequence="11">Bevis Marks synagogue and the City churches to one merely described as John the painter. The bricklayer was John Philips, the smith Thomas Robinson and the pavior James Paget.14 All had previously been employed by Wren and may be assumed to have replicated at Bevis Marks designs or styles of workmanship with which they were familiar. The three-panelled Ark surmounted by a painted wooden representation of the tablets of the Law, for instance, is similar to reredoses in City churches such as St Vedast, Foster Lane (see plate 9), the now Lutheran church of St Anne and St Agnes, Gresham Street, and the magnificent one by Grinling Gibbons at St Mary Abchurch, Abchurch Lane (see plate 10). Once a design such as that of the Ark had entered the repertoire of synagogue architecture it could prove remarkably durable, as can be seen from the echoing of the concept in the fa9ade of the former St John's Wood United Synagogue (now the Masorti New London Synagogue) in Abbey Road. Other similarities are easy to find. Bevis Marks was the prototype for many later synagogues that looked to London as a centre in matters of taste, such as the Touro Synagogue, New? port, Rhode Island (1759-63), the architect of which, Peter Harrison, was an American originally from Yorkshire who seems to have seen Bevis Marks on Plate 9 The reredos, St Vedast, City of London, by Wren 1694-7, reconstructed after the Blitz (photo Kenneth Rubens). 14 Gaster (see n. i) 80. 127</page><page sequence="12">Plate io The reredos, St Mary Abchurch, City of London, by Grinling Gibbons, 1686, the year Wren completed the church (photo Kenneth Rubens). 128</page><page sequence="13">Bevis Marks synagogue and the City churches one of his several visits to England. His plan follows the same aisled basilican plan and general arrangement as Bevis Marks, but is smaller (40 feet by 35 feet).15 Another comparable building is the Great Synagogue, Duke's Place, sadly destroyed in the Blitz. This was rebuilt in 1790 by James Spiller, a prominent architect clearly influenced by Sir Christopher Wren. It is conceivable that he based the massive pillars supporting the roof on those of the Amsterdam building, which he could have seen in prints. I was surprised to hear from the late Sir Thomas (T. P.) Bennett - the architect of a number of United Synagogue buildings in the 1960s and 1970s - that he believed the architect of Bevis Marks to have been Sir Christopher Wren himself. Although I was unconvinced at the time, I now realize that he may not have been far from the truth. The Great Fire of 1666 necessitated the large-scale rebuilding of City churches over a relatively short period of time, some twenty-six of the fifty-one by Christopher Wren surviving today. Since he was also in charge of the rebuilding of St Paul's he cannot have been responsible for each detail, and must have relied on his craftsmen and assistants to interpret his ideas. As many of Wren's men worked for Avis at Bevis Marks, it is inevitable that it reflects his style and conceptions, even if he was not personally involved. One example of the similarity between Sephardi and City-church architec? ture relates to what has been described as a 'peculiar picture'16 of Moses and Aaron flanking the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, the opening words of each of which appear in Hebrew and Spanish, that once hung over the Ark at Creechurch Lane and is preserved in the hall of Bevis Marks Syn? agogue (see plate n). It was painted for the Creechurch Lane building by a member of the community, Aron de Chavez, in 1675, at a total cost ?f ^3? 15s 6d, of which Chavez received ?$.17 A similar but artistically inferior paint? ing was kept at the Great Synagogue, Duke's Place, and is now in the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. Paintings of Moses and Aaron flanking the decalogue and the creed were common in altarpieces of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century City churches, and are to be found, among other places, at St Anne and St Agnes (see plate 12), St Edmund the King, Lombard Street, St Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street, and St Michael, Cornhill. Such paintings first appeared during the reign of James I, were removed by the Puritans and restored on the accession of Charles II, apparently because they had both theological and 15 Nancy S. Schless, 'Peter Harrison. The Touro Synagogue and the Wren City Church', Winterthur Portfolio 8 (South Carolina 1973) 187-200. 16 Gaster (see n. 1) 35. 17 Gaster (see n. 1) 35-6. 129</page><page sequence="14">Plate ii Moses and Aaron, by Aron de Chavez, 1675, at Bevis Marks Synagogue (photo Ken? neth Rubens). political significance, Moses the law-giver representing the king, and Aaron the High Priest, the established Church. This originally Christian and prob? ably Dutch custom was subsequently copied by Jews.18 This paper has argued that the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam owes its architectural style mainly to the French-Huguenot and Dutch-Protestant traditions, while Bevis Marks is influenced more by the contemporary clas? sical style of English church architecture. That these influences were easily accepted by Jews in both cities may reflect their awareness that the Protestant Church, with its roots in the Hebrew Bible and its mistrust of outward pomp, lay behind the relative freedom enjoyed in each place. Each style, in addition, comfortably accommodates the needs of traditional Jewish worship. The unlikehood of a non-Protestant model for Bevis Marks is emphasized by the fact that no Roman Catholic church has been built in the City of London since the Reformation, although there have been at times as many as three synagogues.19 The shared architectural origins of Bevis Marks and the City churches are acknowledged by the fact that several books on City of London churches 18 E. Croft-Murray, 'A Note on the Painting of Moses and Aaron', in R. B. Barnett (ed.) Treasures of a London Temple (London 1951) 67-8; Hasia Rimon, The Decalogue Painting from the Great Synagogue, London', Annual Report of the Jewish Museum, London (1983) 8. 19 M. and E. Quantrill, Monuments of Another Age (London 1975) 109. 130</page><page sequence="15">Plate 12 Moses and Aaron, flanking the reredos in St Anne and St Agnes, City of London. Artist unknown (photo Kenneth Rubens). include the synagogue as a major example. It is particularly admired for the exceptional state of preservation of its interior decorative scheme and furnish? ings. It has survived a number of threats to its existence. In 1883 the Mah amad put forward a scheme called 'City Freeholds' which envisaged its demolition and the leasing of the site to a developer to finance a new syn? agogue in the West End. In 1885 it was proposed to dismantle the building brick by brick for re-erection on a new site. In 1909 a valuer stated its worth to be ?5000, adding that 'Beyond the material, we do not attach any value to the building now on the site, except that it might be bought or used by another community of Jews, and then at only a hypothetical figure'. It sur? vived the Blitz and two IRA bomb attacks on the City in 1992 and 1993, after which it was faithfully restored. It is in regular use, and can claim to be the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Europe. 131</page></plain_text>