synagogues have been treated more brutally than any
other places of worship. In London a handsomely
appointed group survives, little known but remarkably
complete, and a rare opportunity to explore the
distinctive architecture of some of these synagogues is
on offer this Sunday as part of the European Day of
Jewish Culture and Heritage.
While Anglican churches have often evolved over
centuries, the special appeal of synagogues is often
that they are all of a piece with furnishings and
fittings matching the architecture.
The oldest extant synagogue in Britain, Bevis Marks,
built in 1699-1701, is full of rich dark woodwork like
one of Wren’s City churches. The galleries have lattice
fronts rather than the solid panels found in
contemporary Anglican churches or Nonconformist chapels.
The handsome Echal or Ark is like a baroque reredos,
with marbled and grained Corinthian columns. It houses
the Torah scrolls and on it the Decalogue is painted in
Towards the other end is the raised platform of the
Bimah from which the Torah and Benediction are read.
This is surrounded by an imposing balustrade with
twisted balusters, similar to a set of communion rails.
Hanging from the ceiling are seven handsome brass
chandeliers representing the days of the week. The
high-backed benches face inwards according to the
Sephardic rite. Hinged flaps in the seats provide space
for storing prayer books and shawls. Furniture history
buffs can study the Sheraton-style Circumcision chair of
c 1790 and the canopied choir stall of c 1830.
The synagogue stands in a court; when it was built
Jews were still forbidden from building in a high
street. By tradition, Queen Anne (while still a
princess) gave one of the main beams.
The richly atmospheric Princelet Street synagogue in
Spitalfields is a place where time appears to have stood
still for far longer than the 30 years it has lain
disused. It was built, out of sight, on the garden of a
1719 Huguenot weaver’s house and forms a long narrow
space overlooked by a first-floor ladies’ gallery.
Pastel glass in the roof light casts an ethereal light
on gallery fronts emblazoned in gold letters with the
names of donors. Large doorways on both levels allowed
the congregation to stretch back into the house, while
in the basement is the meeting room of the Friendly
Society which established the synagogue a century and a
half ago. It was set up by Ashkenazi Jews to help
refugees from 19th-century pogroms and the Spitalfields
Centre is now seeking to raise £3 million to preserve it
as a museum of immigration.
By the end of the 19th century synagogues were
designed to put on a show of splendour.
The New West End Synagogue in St Petersburgh Place
has soaring twin towers framing a large and intricate
rose window. Built to the designs of George Audsley, it
mixes Romanesque, Byzantine and early Gothic detail. The
interior has tall arcades supported by columns with
Moorish capitals, a barrel vault and domed end.
Galleries on three sides provided for a very large
This year, as last year, the popular European
Heritage Days are in September but as Jewish High Days
and Holy Days and Festivals fall on Sundays throughout
September this year, the European Day of Jewish Culture
and Heritage is to be held on Sunday, June 16. The theme
chosen for this year is “The Jewish Calendar through
Art, Music and Culture”, which offers individual
synagogues all over the country a focus for an event for
their own community, in the form of a lecture or an
exhibition on a heritage theme.
For information on opening times of selected
synagogues this Sunday, including a number outside
London visit www.bbuk.org/bb_heritage.htm
or call 020-7930 9294.
The Times Faith page, with religious news and
features, the Credo column and Sunday worship listings,
appears every Saturday in The