The Synagogue Ark Doors

The Synagogue as a Receptacle of Art

The new synagogue alteration incorporates a number of collaborative art installations, which are imbued with historical and religious significance.

It is important to remember that figurative art is not permitted, and so you will never see depictions of people. Therefore all the artwork is abstract , but representative of specific religious themes.

The stained glass windows

There are 3 sets of stained glass windows in the synagogue. All of these were commissioned from Graham Jones, who is a renowned international stained glass artist.

Set #1 on the west wall was designed by Graham in 1994 and were originally housed in the old synagogue in Worple Road. These represent the 6 days of creation, with day 1 on the far right and day 6 on the far left. (Remember that Hebrew is read from right to left)

Sets #2 and #3 were designed in 2106 in collaboration with Colin Mendelowitz, the architect of the alteration.

Set #2, behind the ark, set in a curved screen, represents the 7th day, Shabbat, the day of rest. It incorporates an architectural ‘trick’. By setting a mirror in the ceiling next to the glass, it gives the impression that the screen is taller than it is. The 2 panels on either side of the ark have gold leaf and represent the burning bush that Moses saw on Mount Sinai, or the 4 gold rings on the corners of the original tabernacle.

Set #3, on the east elevation is formed of 12 stained glass panels in a light-box, as it was not structurally possible to form openings for additional windows in this position. These panels represent the Garden of Eden, an extension of the view of greenery visible through the new main windows below the panels. The number 12 is also significant, as this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel.

The panels were made by Graham with Peters Glass Studio in Germany, incorporating several modern glass techniques. These include etching, staining and firing, screen printing, painting directly on the glass, and antique glass framed in traditional lead, fused to a toughened glass panel base. The frames were specially designed by Colin and made by Surrey Steels, a local steel fabricator, using stock steel angles.

If you look carefully, you will find images of the 7 biblical fruits within the panels:

The Design Drawing

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Grapes
  • Olives
  • Dates
  • Pomegranate

The Ark Foors

The ark doors were designed in collaboration with fellow architect Allan Schwarz, who runs the Mezimbite Forest Centre in Mozambique. www.mezimbite.net

The doors were delayed due to the military conflict in Mozambique, but after a suitable ransom was paid to the military, these were allowed on their way.

The principles of the ark door design include historical and biblical reference, systems of proportion and sustainability. As you can see from the front elevation design drawing below, the ark doors are the centrepiece and focus of the synagogue sanctuary and are based on the original Ark of the Covenant.

They are designed as a rectangle based on the ‘golden ratio’, which is unconsciously the most pleasing proportion to mankind, as many things in life relate somehow to this proportion –

see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio for more information.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ark_of_the_Covenant where the construction and description of the original ark are discussed. It is no coincidence that the dimensions of the original ark are almost identical to the golden ratio on the sides and a square at the ends.

The timber we are using for the doors is Acacia, the same wood used for the original Ark of the Covenant. This was chosen for good reason, as it is extremely hard, dense and durable, having a density of ±1000kg / m3 . (Oak is ±400kg / m3 as a comparison)

The original Ark was said to contain the original tablets of stone, on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. We have included these as tablets of wood, above and to either side of the ark. These are also designed to the golden ratio. The letters are laser cut stained MDF. The additional panel in the middle is the synagogue motto – “Come and worship the Lord with joy”.

Front Elevation design of the Sanctuary. The doors slide and appear to ‘float’ above the bimah, with the track and hanging mechanism concealed behind the pelmet at low level.

Manufacture of the Ark Doors

Allan’s workshop at Mezimbite has manufactured the doors using the sustainable principles he has established. No wood is wasted, and where there is a fault or crack in the timber, this is celebrated and repaired with marquetry and inlays of different local hardwoods.

Panels during manufacture

Craftsman making the doors

The craftsmen at work

Each panel was made by a different craftsman.

10 in all:

Frank, Antonio, Joao, Mario, Tiago, Zito, Luca, Marco, Mateu & Nel.

Their names are inscribed at the base or top of the panels.

The Design Philosophy of the Ark Doors

The timber used for the doors is Acacia. In Hebrew, ”Shittim” and the same timber used to construct the original Ark of the Covenant.

The overall shape is a golden rectangle, the construction of which is shown by the green dotted lines. This is the same proportion as the original Ark of the Covenant.

The “Tree of Life’’ (Chai) motif applied over the doors is symbolic, the structure of which is based on the Menorah. This is shown by the blue dotted lines in the picture below. Each branch is a flame of the Menorah.

Ark Door showing diagram of Tree of Life

The ‘Tree of Life’ motif on the doors is shown in this picture by the blue lines

The number of leaves on each door will be a factor of 18, as the Hebrew word for ‘life’, ‘chai’ are composed of Het & Yod, the 8th and 10th letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which when added together, give a total of 18.

There are 36 leaves and 36 sticks on the door, representing 2 x 18, or “Double Chai”. The number 36 also has special meaning.

The Hebrew letters that compose 36 are Lamed & Vav. Many believe that there are only 36 truly righteous people who maintain the balance of life on earth. They are known as the “Lamed Vav”.

The Key below explains the significance and philosophy of the details on the ark doors:

The ‘lights’ on the menorah are represented by groups of leaves and branches, configured in groups of 1 through 7, symbolising the 7 days of creation.

#1   – Central Branch – 1 leaf. The sticks form a “Shin” for the “Shma”

#2   – Branch 2 – 6 leaves

#3   – Branch 3 – 3 leaves

#4   – Branch 4 – 4 leaves

#5   – Branch 5 – 7 leaves

#6   – Branch 6 – 2 leaves

#7   – Branch 7 – 5 leaves

#8   – The handles represent the trunk of the tree, light & dark, male & female, positive and negative

#9   – The apple on the tree of life, falling. A sphere, symbolic of perfection.

#10 – Symbolic roots

#11 – This leaf is the wayward child, falling away, but the strength of the community keeps it within

#12 – Fallen leaves and roots