Beverley-Jane Stewart: Halls of Prayer
Visual Arts

Beverley-Jane Stewart: Halls of Prayer

Beverley-Jane Stewart

Halls of Prayer

Curators: Vera Pilpoul, Ram Ozeri

The Sages considered the synagogue to be an extended version of the Holy Temple, as Ezekiel prophesized: “Thus said the Lord GOD: I have indeed removed them far among the nations, and have scattered them among the countries, I have become to them as a little sanctuary in the countries whither they have gone” (Ezekiel 11:16).

The phrase “little sanctuary” has been interpreted in Rabbinic literature as meaning “synagogue” and as a synonym for it. To every place where Jews were exiled, they brought the synagogue with them into the Diaspora. There has been a Jewish presence in Europe for millennia; The most important symbol of the Jewish community in cities, villages, and townlets is the synagogue, many of which exhibit impressive artistic and architectural achievements. The documentation of these buildings enables us to learn about the cultural and religious life of the Jewish communities of past generations.

For the past several decades, artist Beverley-Jane Stewart has been visiting synagogues throughout England and making paintings depicting them. Over the years, some have closed. Her artworks constitute the painterly documentation of time, place, and ritual that existed in the past, some of which no longer exist. Stewart was born in London to a family which observed Jewish traditions. As far back as she can remember, the synagogue was for her not only a place for the community to gather in prayer, but also a meeting place for life cycle events – circumcision feasts, people being honored to be called up to recite blessings over the Torah, engagement and wedding ceremonies, fundraising for community needs, and eulogies.

Most of Stewart’s large body of works, both paintings and drawings, selected for the current exhibition will then travel to Italy to be exhibited in several Jewish museums depict the atmosphere and folklore taking place in the various synagogues she visited and documented with great colorfulness, details, and vitality. In these figurative paintings, Stewart adhered closely to the architectonic form of the European synagogues. She emphasized the details of their decorations as well as the laws of the religious ceremonies and the togetherness of the Jewish community. Each painting was made after the artist visited and remained in the specific synagogue during the prayer service and/or the religious ritual with its numerous participants. The artist photographs and draws initial sketches of the scene she is about to paint, while selecting her viewpoint, the vanishing point into which all converges. The richly expressive colorfulness and decoration details are reflected in the individual attention to the painstakingly executed individual depictions of the stained glass windows, the ornamental adornments to the curtain of the Torah Ark, the splendid chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and more. It is evident that Stewart pays close attention to the details in the architectural space and the religious objects and vessels, and is very careful to emphasize them.

The architecture of European synagogues has been influenced by the structure of early basilicas and church architecture. Many are in the form of a long rectangular structure with a round wing at its end, similar to the design of a church with an apsis at the end. The impact of Renaissance church architecture is reflected in the lovely stained glass windows frequently integrated in the English synagogues depicted by the artist. Many of the synagogues built since the early 18th century rise to great heights, thus making the space where to pray to God even more splendid.

Observation and analysis of Stewart’s breathtaking series of synagogue paintings enables a mapping and an examination of the artist’s points of interest and view as a religious Jew and woman. Her gaze pays attention to the smallest details comprising the house of prayer, a gaze that depicts, documents, and preserves the aesthetics, beauty, and splendor of the architectural structure itself along with the decorative and ritual elements that glorify the building and the ritual objects. Thus, for example, the monumental size of the space surrounding the figures of the worshippers intensifies their tininess and their non-personification, since they lack facial features. This relationship between the building and the figures embodies a deliberate decision on proportions: in most of the paintings, the artist adheres to the rules of classical perspective, while placing the figures within the space. The figures are depicted in the naïve style (featureless, small, and multiple), lack individual identity, and are mostly depicted from the back. Thus the viewer sees only the skullcaps (kipot) and prayer shawls (tallitot) the usual attributes that are the accoutrements of prayer and the religious Jewish male.

The painter’s position in the women’s section of the synagogue, usually on an upper floor, gazing from above downward, commands the central space in which the backs and heads of the praying men in the men’s section are visible. Individual identity of the worshippers is concealed – the importance lies in the group, the prayer quorum of 10 (minyan), and the hevruta study pair, and not in the individual.  Removing the individuality and individual details from the depiction of the figures leads to the grouping of the figures within a network of faith and tradition. This dual process is embodied in the contrasting color scales: while the synagogue building stands out due to the complexity of its design and decorativeness, rich in color and textures, the figures of the men are in monochrome (with their suits and skullcaps usually black, and prayer shawls usually black and white).

And yet, the human presence in the space is an integral, important part of the artist’s expressive style depicting the symbiosis between person and place. The figures of the adult men and the children populate the painting, portraying them in a concentrated, directed act of prayer. The artist’s gaze from her viewpoint as a woman upstairs, sweeps over the panoramic view of the entire hall, enabling a breathtaking overlook of the glorious synagogue, the bima – the platform in front of the Torah Ark where the rabbi and the cantor pray. The figures of the women praying in the women’s gallery, their clothing depicted as nearly abstract color patches, without details, perhaps show modesty and restraint. The only time the women are visible in the space of the men’s section is during wedding ceremonies (as in the paintings The Wedding Scene – Bevis Marks; A Wedding Scene – New West End; and in Synagogue, St. Petersburgh Place, London). In Reform Jewish synagogues, the women and the men pray together in the daily prayer service.

Some of the synagogues depicted by Stewart over the years no longer exist, while others have been repurposed to become schools, shops, or turned to other uses. In this way, the artist’s paintings documenting synagogues that she visited have an extra added value beyond the artistic: they preserve memory and provide historical documentation through the direct evidence by an artist who visited them while they were bustling with life and the rustle of prayers by the worshippers. Thus, the painter simultaneously creates artworks and valuable memories for future generations.

In this way, the artist’s paintings simultaneously create artworks and very valuable memories for future generations. Among Stewart’s synagogue paintings is one of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest in London, established in 1701 and still functioning. Another painting portrays London’s New West End Synagogue, one of the oldest and largest in London still in use since construction began in 1877. Chaim Weizmann, the State of Israel’s first president, and Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner to Palestine during the British Mandate era, were both members of this synagogue and prayed there on a regular basis. Plaques still mark their seats.

Curators: Vera Pilpoul, Ram Ozeri

Date and time

Sep 26, 2023
12:00 AM (UTC+0)

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