December 21, 2019

Happy Hanukkah!

        In honor of Hanukkah, today’s wood block prints depict menorahs.  Of course, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that these all have 7 branches, which makes them temple menorahs, instead of the 8+1 branches of a Hanukkah menorah (aka hanukkiah).  The hanukkiah’s extra branches came about after the fall of the Second Temple in the first century CE, when people were prohibited from having replicas of the sacred 7-branched menorah outside the temple, so they made a variant for use in their homes.  There don’t seem to be any older depictions of these household candelabra because Hanukkah wasn’t an important holiday anyway.  So all the block prints I’ve found are illustrating the important stuff, and that’s the temple’s 7-branched version.
        This first wood block print illustrates a commentary from 1609, and I like the way all the parts are labelled.  I don’t know what the labels say, but I think it’s interesting that the labels are repeated on all the parts, not just one
of each.  The base has a particularly attractive design, nicely carved with lines of shading.
        Next is a very detailed illustration of the temple treasures from a Catholic Bible of 1494.  I do like the way the dark background allows the menorah’s flames to look bright.  This menorah’s design is very contemporary to its time.  I also find the elaborate border very interesting in its choice of details.  Frog, moth, grasshopper… not the decorative choices I would have expected.
        The third illustration amuses me because it makes the menorah look about two stories tall.  I mean, I know the little people are in the background, but they’re not that far away.  This is a menorah worthy of modern public holiday decor, perhaps in Times Square!  However, it isn’t as fancy as some of the others.  The base is lovely, but the arms are quite simple.
        And finally, something from the twentieth century.  If these children are celebrating at home, then perhaps their menorah should have nine arms, but setting that aside, there are two candles lit.  I wonder whether artist Irving Amen originally had another flame or two before extinguishing them by carving them away!  The background is particularly interesting, with its printed wood grain.
That background block had some areas carved out to be the base of the children, but also to leave the table’s placemat paper-colored.
        There are plenty of lights in these wood block prints, and I hope they bring special joy to anyone celebrating Hanukkah in the next week, and a bit of extra light to all at this darkest time of year.

[Pictures: Menorah, wood block print from Yosef Da’at by Joseph ben Issacher Baer, 1609 (Image from Sotheby’s);
Illustration of temple goods, wood block print from Catholic Bible printed by Johann Dietenberger, c 1494 (Image from National Library of Austria);
Menorah, wood block print by Bernhard Salomon from Wol gerissnen und geschnidten Figuren ausz der Bibel, 1564, originally for 1553 book (Image from e-rara Zentralbibliothek Zürich);
Sabbath Lights, woodcut print by Irving Amen, mid-twentieth century (Image from Worth Point).]

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