Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mastery of Design: A Jeweled Torah Crown, 1825

The Victoria & Albert Museum

An elaborately jeweled crown, this treasure is probably from the court of the Hassidic leader Rabbi Israel Ruzhin (1797-1850). Such crowns were crafted by Hassidic Jews in Eastern Europe as adornment for the Torah—indicating the importance of the text. This crown’s size suggests that it was made for a personal Torah scroll.

The Torah is central to the Jewish faith--the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Pentateuch. The Torah is written, traditionally, on a scroll which is wound on rollers called “Trees of Life” (properly, “Atzei Hayyim”). A crown such as this would have surmounted the rollers to demonstrate the majesty and the law of Torah.

This crown was bequeathed to the V&A as part of the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection. We’ve seen many items from the Gilbert family here at Stalking the Belle Époque. Sir Arthur Gilbert and his wife Rosalinde formed one of the world's great decorative art collections, including silver, mosaics, enameled portrait miniatures and gold boxes. Many of the snuffboxes we have examined are part of this collection. Arthur Gilbert's family, the Bernsteins, were successful Jewish immigrants, who had moved to London from Poland in the 1890s. This crown was a treasured family item and is one of the centerpieces of the collection.

The base of the crown is pierced and chased with scrolling foliage, punctuated with three beaded ovals bearing diamond Hebrew initials standing for the Mishnaic expression commonly used on Torah ornaments "(C)rown of (T)orah, (C)rown of (P)riesthood, (C)rown of (K)ingship.”

Trailing sprays of flowers set with table-cut rubies and emeralds, rose-cut diamonds and cabochon turquoises add to the object’s opulence. Six openwork arches chased with foliate sprays rise from flower-heads with amethyst centers to form the mid-section. Each arch is applied with alternating designs of flowers set with rose diamonds, cabochon turquoises and table-cut rubies, spaced by six eagles, each with a diamond-studded head and wings and a floral tail set with diamonds, rubies and an amethyst. Suspended in the beak of each eagle is a bell with a chased foliage canopy and beaded rim, the clapper set with a ruby.

The upper section rises from symmetrical pairs of chased wings which are formed from six leaf-chased panels overlaid with floral designs of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Each panel is spaced by bell-flowers hung with an oval ruby surrounded by six small ruby drops and suspended from foliate sprays of rubies and diamonds.

The finishing touch at the top is a diamond-set basket filled with a variety of gold flowers with turquoise, ruby and diamond centers. Three larger flowers (en tremblant, or on wires allowing for the jewel to move or "tremble") complete the piece—one is set with an old mine diamond weighing approximately 1.80 carats and two are set with rose diamonds each of approximately 1 carat.

The crown’s original contoured red leather case is tooled with gilt foliate designs and remains in excellent condition.

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