Strange synagogue painting baffles art experts

rome | Ivan Ceresnjes has documented synagogues all over the former Yugoslavia, but he’s never come across anything like the strange painting in the former synagogue in Apatin, a small Serbian town near the Hungarian border.

“It is a kind of mystery,” said Ceresnjes, who works with the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I am still searching for some reasonable explanation.”

The painting in question is a neo-baroque mural on the ceiling of the former synagogue, a simple village structure built in 1885 for a Neolog congregation, the Hungarian version of Reform Judaism.

In it, dramatic cloudbanks in the sky frame a depiction of the Ten Commandments. But the Hebrew lettering on the tablets is written backward, in mirror image.

Ceresnjes, an architect who was president of the Jewish community in Bosnia before making aliyah in 1996, said no comparable example exists either in that part of Serbia or in neighboring Hungary, and that no one knows why such an image was painted.

“It is the message of the painting that should be decoded,” he said. “Three rabbis, all of them educated in Budapest, officiated consecutively in that Neolog congregation, and none of them seems to have been disturbed by the picture’s central motif” — a mirror image of the commandments — “positioned in such a way that we can assume that it was done deliberately.”

Ceresnjes, who has carried out extensive documentation of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in all the countries that comprised the former Yugoslavia, said nothing was known about the architect of the synagogue, the artist who painted the ceiling or the circumstances under which it was created.

However, the artist probably was local and presumably not Jewish, as there is no record of any Jewish painter in the area at that time, Ceresnjes said. The painter likely would have been guided by someone in preparing the mural, presumably the rabbi of the community, he said.

Nonetheless, Ceresnjes said, “I do not exclude the possibility that the painter came from Hungary. There are a lot of church paintings of the same style from that period, but I am afraid that it would be very difficult to trace the name.”

Only about 60 Jews lived in Apatin before World War II, and the community was annihilated in the Holocaust. In the 1950s, the synagogue was sold to a Baptist church.

Ceresnjes fears that there are plans to sell the building again and turn it into a workshop, and he has warned that steps should be taken to save the painting.

“The painting is unique by all means, very important for preservation and protection,” he said. “Further neglect or allowing it to disappear or be destroyed would be an irreparable loss for the Jewish cultural and religious community as a whole.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.