Numerous images embedded in the painted decorations in early modern Central and Eastern European synagogues conveyed allegorical messages to the congregation. The symbolism was derived from biblical verses, stories, legends, and prayers, and sometimes different allegories were combined to develop coherent stories. In the present case study, which concerns a bird, seemingly a nocturnal raptor, depicted on the ceiling of the Unterlimpurg Synagogue, I explore the symbolism of this image in the contexts of liturgy, eschatology, and folklore. I undertake a comparative analysis of paintings in medieval and early modern illuminated manuscripts—both Christian and Jewish—and in synagogues in both Eastern and Central Europe. I argue that in some Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and synagogue paintings, nocturnal birds of prey may have been positive representations of the Jewish people, rather than simply a response to their negative image in Christian literature and art, but also a symbol of redemption. In the Unterlimpurg Synagogue, the night bird of prey, combined with other symbolic elements, represented a complex allegoric picture of redemption, possibly implying the image of King David and the kabbalistic nighttime prayer Tikkun Ḥaẓot
. This case study demonstrates the way in which early modern synagogue painters created allegoric paintings that captured contemporary religious and mystical ideas and liturgical developments.
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