Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Torah Mantle (Part 1)

After a couple hiccups, I am finally making great progress on my Torah mantle!

To refresh your memory, a Torah mantle is a cloth cover that is placed on the Torah when it is not in use in order to protect the parchment from debris.  They are usually ornately decorated, often using goldwork and applique.

As my first commissioned piece, it was very important for me to create what the customer wanted.  He had requests for symbols, some Jewish (lions, crown) and some personal (scales because he is a lawyer).  He wanted an emphasis on red, yellow, green, and blue colors.  He is also a fan of Marc Chagall, a 20th Century Jewish artist who is best known for more abstract, expressionistic work and stained glass.

With all this in mind, I found images that managed to represent the symbols he wanted without being too realistic in style.  I altered the pictures so that they were black-and-white outlines, then used printouts of these pictures to trace the design onto colored fabric.  I enjoyed using my light pad and discovering that it worked just as well with colored fabric.

I'm going for a fairly simple style with these pieces.  I'll use one color thread for each picture except for the family name, which will have a multicolored floral design.  The outlines are done in backstitch, with some other stitches for decorative details.

This is my take on a Judaic symbol known as the "Lion of Judah."  Animal imagery in Judaism has an interesting history.  It is against Jewish law to worship idols or make graven images, but Jews could never agree on whether representational art of people, animals, and plants counted as graven images.*  Sometimes, disagreements erupted even between Jews in the same community!  In Europe it was a common occurrence for a rich man to donate an item like a curtain for the Torah ark decorated with deer, only for the town's rabbis to argue over whether they could actually use it in the synagogue.

The only exception to this debate was lions.  The Twelve Tribes of Israel are each represented by a symbol, and the lion was the symbol for the tribe of Judah.  This association traces back to Genesis 49:9, when the patriarch Jacob blessed his son Judah by calling him a "young lion" (gur aryeh)  Tradition dictates that most Jews are descended from the tribe of Judah, and this is where we get the term "Judaism."  Because of this history, lions have been a popular symbol for Jewish ritual objects.

Another symbol I've made is the crown (keter).  Lots of torah mantles include this at the top of the design as a symbol of learning and G-d's majesty.  I played around with the details on this picture, using chain stitch for the band of the crown and buttonhole wheels for gems.

Once I am done with each symbol, I will sew them onto the torah mantle.  I've learned a lot at every stage of this process.  I am grateful for the opportunity to not only try doing a hobby I love professionally, but for the opportunity to grow as a Jewish artist.

*My favorite example of this issue can be found in one of the synagogues in Venice.  The walls of the sanctuary are decorated with famous Biblical scenes, but they tried to find ones where they could get away with not depicting people, flora, or fauna.  One picture is of the Red Sea after it drowned the Egyptians, with chariot wheels poking out of the water.  Another is of Moses beating a rock with his staff to bring forth water, but Moses is holding the staff from "off-stage."

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