«With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return."
JEWISH TOMBSTONES IN MOLDOVA
In Eastern Europe, where Jews have lived for many centuries, Moldova is remarkable for its well-developed Jewish culture, brought over by Sephardic Jews. These descendants of Jews from medieval Spain and Portugal came to the Moldavian Princedom from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Crimea during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Later emigrants from Poland and Germany followed in the early-sixteenth century and laid the foundation of Ashkenazic culture in Moldova.
Jewish communities in Moldova led an isolated life. However, national cultural features acquired a local colour evident in the peculiarities of Yiddish dialect, poetic and musical folklore, and plastic and decorative forms of ritual and household objects.
Moldovan Jews played an important role in the development of the country's economy; but their lives were far from happy. Fate was cruel: People suffered from violent pogroms at the turn of the nineteenth century and the genocide of World War II, when tens of thousands of Moldovan Jews fell victim to the occupiers' atrocities.
The fate of the Jewish cultural heritage was also tragic. During the Nazi occupation, many synagogues of original architecture were destroyed, as well as invaluable murals, objects of carved wood or wrought metal, embroideries, hand-written scrolls, and early printed books. Those few artifacts that survived were purposefully destroyed with the connivance of local authorities, who complied with the party- and state-imposed ideology of atheism and intolerance to religion.
Nevertheless, there remains a significant legacy of Jewish art whose origins stretch far into the past; fortunately, some objects survived and others were photographed and studied before they were destroyed. Chief among these notable Moldovan artifacts are tombstones created during the eighteenth through early-nineteenth centuries. These memorials still fascinate us today because of the skill of their creators.
Although in the middle of the nineteenth century, some scholars showed great interest in headstones, this curiosity remained rather limited for a long time. Several books devoted to certain German, Polish, and Ukrainian cemeteries, published during that period, mention of epitaphs which were used primarily as valuable resources regarding Jewish communities, especially their distinguished citizens and righteous people (tsadikim). Attention was also paid to linguistic peculiarities of the texts; ironically, however, gravestones were not considered works of art. One of the reasons for this disregard of the artistic value of the monuments lies in the general attitude of nineteenth-century art critics, who tended to snub folk art as plebeian.
A serious interest in tombstones as objects of art emerged in the early- twentieth century. Critics were unexpectedly impressed by the stunning imagery of the Jewish gravestone reliefs in the cemeteries of Eastern Europe, where carvings touching upon unusually diverse subjects displayed a high level of artistic achievement.
Artists such as El Lissitzky, Natan Altman, Anatoly Kaplan and Solomon Yudovin, whose work reflected the new trends of twentieth-century art and, in particular, its folk motifs, were the first to notice the significance of these memorials. Yudovin was well-acquainted with headstone carvings and left numerous sketches of Ukrainian and Byelorussian tombstones, together with brilliant graphic interpretations of their subjects.
Some time later, scholars became interested in Jewish memorials in Moldova. In 1937, M. Diamant published several photographs of gravestones taken in Lipkany, situated near Moldova's northern border. The author of the present edition had regularly surveyed Moldovan cemeteries and photographed the tombstones, a huge number of which were razed to the ground during the World War II. If it had not been for these photographs, people would have never learnt about these memorable works of art. Fortunately, the author also managed to photograph many headstones that were later destroyed by the Soviet regime in the post-war era or, being left without adequate protection, were simply stolen from the cemeteries. These lost tombstones from Orgeyev, Kishinev, Beltsy, Kalarash, and other places, form the major part of the illustrative material of this book.
It should be noted that on the whole, Jewish memorials invariably follow national tradition, although they also display certain local peculiarities. A tombstone is always built in the form of a stele: a vertical slab (matseva), standing apart, or adjoining a sarcophagus. The stele, which resembles a chest, may be built of slabs, or solid stone with one flat, and two or even three sloping surfaces. In areas rich in shell limestone, an inexpensive and pliable material, sarcophagi were sometimes hewn together with monolith stelae. Graves of righteous Jews that served as places of pilgrimage were topped with a tent-like structure (ohel) to protect visitors from the elements.
The stele could have different configurations: it could retain its initial rectangular shape, sometimes with cut corners; be circular; or even triangular, with two sloping surfaces, or a more intricately shaped top. An epitaph and a relief were placed on the front side, and sometimes the relief was repeated on the back side of the stele. Usually, stelae were placed facing eastward, but that custom was sometimes modified due to bad terrain: poor Jewish communities often had to purchase the cheapest plots of land, unfit for cultivation or development, for their cemeteries.
A tombstone is sacred for the Jews: a link with the eternal soul of the deceased. Everything pertaining to these headstones is sanctified through ritual. A memorial was, as a rule, erected a year after a person's death. Throughout that period, concern for perpetuating the memory of the deceased never left the elder members of the family. Visiting the cemetery, they could choose one or another variant of stelae design and discuss the concept with the craftsman. It was a custom in Moldova for the epitaph to be produced by the son of the deceased in accordance with the latter's will or because the family was poor. Besides commemorating people, tombstones were also put on the burial places of worn-out sacred scrolls and books. Such a memorial marking the burial place of Torah scrolls, which had been vandalised during a pogrom in 1903, existed at the Kishinev cemetery.
Headstones, in the form of vertical slabs, became customary in the diaspora in the first centuries of the common era (C. E.). For hundreds of years to come, a stele would preserve its original simplicity and asceticism: its initial design remaining unchanged. Several centuries had passed before the art of carved gravestones started developing more freely, which only happened with the approach of the Renaissance and considerable loosening of medieval bans and taboos. Stelae acquired new features and became an object of artistic endeavour.
A type of stele appeared with a developed portal (shaar) motif, which had a small niche to accommodate the text and lateral pilaster finishing strips. Some scholars connect the portal motif in headstones with the concept of the Gates of Paradise, thus seeing a Messianic symbol in the memorial. The model of such gravestones comes from world architecture and is one of its basic constructive and artistic elements,
The oldest known Moldovan tombstones date back to the first half of the seventeenth century. Some of these memorials, as well as older ones, can sti be found at the Orgeyev cemetery among ruined and broken stones. One headstone, from 1640, is now exhibited at the National Jewish Museum of Moldova, These ancient stelae, each with their modest framing and lapidary inscriptions on a thick slab, are very impressive, evoking a sense of the past and revealing the power and immortality of the human spirit.
The development of this art can be seen as a process evolving from the simplest to more complicated forms; in Moldova, it started somewhat later than in the Ukraine, but by the seventeenth century, artisans were becoming much more interested in the design itself, thus paying greater attention to the ornamentation of the upper surface of a stele. Various decorative motifs appear: hands in the act of blessing as a symbol of priests of the family of Aaron (Aaronids); and a pitcher as a symbol of Levites, the priests assigned to lesser ceremonial offices. Centuries-old motifs of the seven-branched candelabra (menorah), the tree of life, a bunch of grapes, animals and birds, which were once sketched in timid lines, now are executed with an extraordinary sense of ornamentation. The chiselled design occupies an ever larger portion of headstone surface, displacing the epitaph, laconic as it is.
Late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century memorials are characterized by their meaningful
pictorial nature. An original style of stone carving arose in Galicia and the Carpathians, in the western Russian Empire, the last outpost of Jewish migration at the time when the notorious Pale of Settlement brought a large concentration of Jews to this area. That particular style elaborated new, previously unknown features, which were largely connected with certain factors of local community life. For the masses of people, who lived in misery and were subjected to oppression, and in whom religion inculcated the spirit of humility and hope, tombstones were a vital link between the living and the dead, between the real and the next world; they acquired a certain symbolic meaning. The cemeteries became a place of pilgrimage, with people praying for protection and a better life at the graves of their dearly beloved.
Gravestones were increasingly individualized: each one designed to be unique and easily distinguished from among a host of memorials. Hence, the desire grew to be original and avoid repetition — so obviously manifest in every stele.
The carved design most frequently reflected the personal characteristics of the deceased as described in the epitaph: caste, sex, and age as well as biblical images and designs of animals associated with a person's name. Some symbolic features illustrated the deceased's trade or spiritual longings; others, that appeared later, were allegorical representations of life and death. Stele were covered with the pictures of animals, birds, plants, diverse objects of the real world, attributes of trades and the Jewish mode of life, and ornamentation, with a vast variety of solutions and interpretations employed.
Stone carving was obviously influenced by other kinds of national art in its subjects and style, and it is just as obvious that that influence was mutual. Headstone reliefs in their pictorial motifs bear resemblance to other traditional types of national craft. There is much similarity between these and the engraved title pages of various editions of the Bible and Passover books (Haggadah), as well as Temple art, particularly the painting of ceilings and walls, carved wooden ornaments of the Ark (aron kodesh) and gold thread embroidery of its curtains (parochet), the fine metalwork of synagogue chandeliers and the silver appurtenances of the Torah scrolls, Torah shields, finials, and crowns (tass, rimonim, keter Torah). The same can be said of ceremonial objects used in Jewish households, such as candlesticks, Hanukkah lights, spice boxes (hadas), Passover dishes, and other objects.
Clearly, stone carving was not isolated from other types of art, either regional or national. It is noteworthy that the foliate ornamentation on some Jewish memorials in Kishinev is similar to that encountered on tombstones at the Christian cemeteries, particularly at Ryshkanovsky, Armenian, and city cemeteries of Kishinev, which proves that Jewish stonecutters were familiar with the work of their gentile colleagues. At the same time, the reliefs of Jewish stelae in neighbouring Bukovina often bear motifs akin to those of Ukrainian folk art. Borrowings from other sources are also worth mentioning: a double-headed eagle can often be seen on the stelae. It should be noted, however, that no matter how diverse the sources are, there is no hint of eclecticism. All borrowed features were transformed and stelae acquired a distinctive plastic expression on new soil. The prototypical elements of high art were simplified by stonecutters, displaying purely folkloric imagery.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, interest in the art of carved headstones waned as did enthusiasm for folk art in general. Striking works of some gifted craftsmen still appeared here and there, but on the whole the art was on the decline: the concept lost its former meaning; and the design grew scant and lacking in expressiveness. The laconic interpretation of motifs gave way to coarseness — tradition to fortuity. Craftsmen availed themselves of stencils, which imbued with ruinous monotony. Tombstones were replaced by pillars, obelisks, and monuments of other forms, in which the primordial idiom of the people was lost in the preponderant anarchy of lack of style: the great traditional art form sank into oblivion.
Gravestone reliefs display a wealth of pictorial symbols, whose analysys reveals an extremely fascinating and original aspect of national art. The motifs of Jewish tombstone reliefs are sometimes mentioned in connection with the art of carved stone, which developed in the neighbouring territories. Some themes might have existed in Moldova, only to disappear eventually along with lost stelae; others may still be waiting to be discovered.
It is important to note that the development of the pictorial forms of Jewish art was hindered by the broad interpretation of a well-known biblical ban on the portrayal of animals. In fact, this ban referred only to sculpture, so as to preclude it becoming an object of adoration similar to its prototype: the Golden Calf. In reality, however, representations were found in Jewish art from time immemorial, as is corroborated by Palestinian mosaics of the early centuries C. E. portraying human beings and animals. This trend can be observed in later years pertaining to different spheres of art.
However, human images on gravestone reliefs are extremely uncommon. Seeking a way to overcome the prohibition, artists either resorted to the pars pro toto method, depicting only a hand instead of a human figure, or substituted the motif of an animal or a bird for the human image. Thus, a pitcher (signifying that the deceased belonged to the Levites) was usually depicted being held by a hand or, at times, by a lion. There is a composition with a lion cub bound on an altar, representing Yitzchak (Isaac), ready to become the sacrifice of his father, Avraham, whose faith was tested by God. In such cases, the deceased was named Isaac. The biblical story of ten spies returning to the Israelites in the desert with a good report of the fertile land of Canaan is represented with similar conventions: two bears carrying a bunch of grapes. Representatives of the animal world embody human virtues; the deceased is pictured as a bird reading a book, putting alms into a charity-box, or feeding a nestling.
Some motifs relate to cult symbols, especially the menorah, the seven- branched candelabra. An old attribute of the temple, the menorah is considered the symbol of Judaism. It was interpreted on memorials as a sign of a woman's piety, manifest in the observance of the ritual of lighting candles on the eve of the Sabbath and various Jewish festivals. The intricate design of the candelabra typically featured seven branches, though sometimes nine or less. A single candle, at times broken, is encountered on young girls1 tombstones. The menorah is often accompanied by a woman's hands with fingers locked in prayer; it is usually flanked by animals or plants.
Hands offering a blessing with characteristically spread fingers were depicted on headstones to show that the deceased belonged to the caste of Aaronid priests (Kohanim). A pitcher was often depicted on the memorials of Levites (Levijm), referring to their honorary duty to wash the priests' hands before conducting religious ceremonies. The lofty significance of one symbol or another is designated by the picture of a crown above it. Thus, the crown of learning (keter Torah) is placed above the Torah scroll (sefer Torah) or the Ark for keeping the scrolls (aron kodesh). Similarly, the crown of priesthood (keter kehuna) rises above the hands of a priest in the act of blessing. Depicted above the epitaph to a highly esteemed person, this symbol is called the "crown of a good name" (keter shem tov).
Images of the animal world are also very meaningful. Their use was largely prompted by the talmudic exhortation to be "as brave as the panther, as light as the eagle, as fast as the deer, and as strong as the lion in fulfilling God's will”. This saying served as a source of themes, which inspired the artist's imagination, and served as a symbol of righteousness. All these images, including the griffon, unicorn, and lion with a fish's tail, are perceived as genii — guardians of holy things. Their paired reliefs flank the menorah, the Torah Ark, the container of the Pentateuch and six books of Mishna, and various other symbols, thus emphasising their significance.
The image of the doe embodies the idea of goodness and beauty. Extolled in poetic similes of the "Song of Songs" (Shir hashirim), it symbolises love and can be used to adorn the tombstone of a young girl or a woman.
Quite interesting is one of many interpretations of the unicorn motif: this mythic creature, a mountain dweller, conveys the idea of loftiness of the human spirit. However, there is still no adequate interpretation of its representation together with the lion, or even fighting the lion, with its horn thrust into the lion's mouth.
Some motifs are associated with the Messianic idea and the afterlife. The dream of eternal bliss in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of heaven found embodiment in the image of the peacock, while the coiled "king of the seas", the leviathan, intended to be served together with the wild bull (shor habar) for the heavenly dinner, should remind the righteous of their forthcoming prosperity.
The aforementioned set of motifs became the basis for numerous improvisations. With the passage of time, the mystical elements in the headstone themes yielded to reason, increasingly giving way to realistic images of human life. When analysing the evolution of images and their symbols from the second half of the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries, it is extremely interesting to observe how the interpretation of motifs expands and loses its constraints, and the artisan's imagination awakens, giving birth to his own ideas and judgements. Thus, the lofty meaning of ; the lion symbol was reduced to a mere illustration of the name of the I deceased, Leon (Lejb, or Arje in Hebrew), Likewise, the picture of the | deer or the bear would accompany the corresponding man's name of Hirsh (Zvi) and Ber (Dov); that of the fish — the man's name Fishl, and that of the bird — the woman's name Fejgl, This desire to find a pictorial equivalent to a certain name at times led to paradoxical cases.
A. Levi, a student of Jewish tombstones in Poland, described a memorial bearing the name of Gut, with a perplexing picture of a hat flanked with lions, The explanation is nevertheless quite simple: gut is pronounced as hut, which in Yiddish means "a hat",
Another practice, just as curious, and highly evocative, was to depict a fish on the gravestone of a drowned person. Though the idea is trivial, it enchants the viewer with its simple, folksy image,
Artisans did not confine themselves to the simple iustratron of purely outward characteristics, such as the name of the deceased. They showed animals pierced by arrows or bitten by a snake, thus filling their works with a philosophical spirit and connecting the name with the idea of death* A departing bird, portrayed next to a young girl's name Fejgl, becomes an allegorical representation of the girl's departing life* An epitaph for someone with the name of Hirsh was accompanied by the picture of a deer bitten by a snake* Carried away by the idea, the artisan sometimes made no connection between the name and the animal, but turned the latter into an abstract symbol. A number of other themes were used to express the most important notion—a crushed tree, a broken boat, a falling flower, a deserted house. In fact, anything broken, crushed, or deserted became a sign of death.
Striving to enhance the impression and to emphasise the idea of an inevitable fate, craftsmen brought together several images. They showed a rose with a broken stem, doomed as it was, being bitten by a snake. A fascinating tombstone at the Kishinev cemetery incorporates three different themes: a snake entwining a broken tree is biting a deer lying nearby* A deserted house, with its door hanging on a single hinge, depicted over the tree, adds a human dimension to the same sad story. The notion of death is sometimes expressed as an inexorably brutal force, personified by a terrible lion crushing a fruit-bearing tree with its paw. The theme sometimes has a dramatic strain: an ominous bird in flight extinguishes a lit candle.
Artisans did not hesitate to portray the deceased themselves, as a lion locked in the closeness of its last home, or as a dead bird lying on the ground. One of the Kishinev headstones shows a tree with a split trunk and a dead nestling lying under a dry branch on the left, and mourning birds standing in the shadow of the foliage on the right. Dramatic effect of the sad event is enhanced by the symbolic tree, which provides an emotional background to the picture. The artisan resorted to a popular device in folklore of making nature consonant with the state of the character. Conventional pictures in similar representations go together with the actual particulars of personal or family life. For example, a poetic epitaph tells of a young mother of six children, with the accompanying picture showing six nestlings on a tree with a broken trunk.
Moral and intellectual virtues are also reflected in gravestone motifs: a squirrel nibbling at the nut of wisdom symbolises wit, while a stork pecking at a snake illustrates the idea that the virtues of the deceased prevailed over evil. A pelican feeding its nestling with its own blood is an allegory of maternal love. Another interesting tombstone shows a lion gnawing at the throat of an eagle which carries a lamb in its beak.
A broad range of themes deals with the vocation and trade of the deceased: a bookcase motif commemorates an educated person; a fiddle or a flute signifies a musician; a plane and saw or an iron and scissors denotes a craftsman; while a horse and water barrel symbolises a water carrier. Stonecutters also depicted such vocational attributes as an iron, chair, boot, or violin on the back of the slab. Likewise, symbols of various crafts depicted on a woman's memorial were supposed to indicate her husband's trade. Such mundane attributes of trades portrayed on sacred tombstones reflect the democratic nature of the art, as well as the popular belief in the lofty vocation of the working man and the dignity of labour.
Though used primarily for their decorative effect, foliate motifs also have some specific meaning; blooming plants and separate flowers, pomegranate fruits and bunches of grapes, all convey the idea of man's fruitful activity.
Not all gravestone motifs, however, have a concrete symbolic meaning, in fact, some themes evolved over time to signify different interpretations. Scenes connected with ritual symbols, whose intricacies might be obscure to craftsmen with different degrees of schooling, were the first to be subjected to a significant change in meaning. Originating basically in folklore, stone carving motifs tended to be re-interpreted being passed on "from hand to hand". As a result, many images lost their initial meaning and served merely as a decorative element. Stonecutters ever more frequently made arbitrary use of one theme or another, guided not so much by the logic of the symbols' meanings as by the artists' personal predilections.
Craftsmen gave free rein to improvisation. An entire world of decorative folklore, utterly unrelated to epitaph texts, was transplanted to headstones in the images of animals, birds, and plants, which seemed to have cast aside the restraining burden of the concept and stood for nothing but themselves. There is a series of lions with rearing tails and wide open mouths; deer with spreading horns; bears, hares, squirrels with fluffy tails; snakes entwining branches of trees; birds and fish; mythical unicorns, griffons, fabled underwater denizens, and other creatures embodied in stone; as well as foliate motifs, ornaments, and originally carved script. Craftsmen seemed to have put all their skill into accomplishing a task of singular importance — to produce a beautiful stele. Perhaps unwittingly, they filled gravestones with a new content that undermined their symbolic meaning. Intended to remind people of their mortality and death, tombstones resonate with voice of life and glorify nature with its generosity and beauty.
Moldovan cemeteries are quite original. Their stelae evoke special feelings and have their own traditions, carried through the centuries by local craftsmen. It is fascinating to follow the development of gravestone design, the process being uneven, at times broken by the intrusion of a fresh talent that brought original artistic solutions to several groups of headstones or — in the event of strong artistic individuality — even created a new style.
The Orgeyev cemetery is worth mentioning in this respect. Here, in the oldest Moldovan cemetery, one can still find fragments of gravestones dating back to the late-seventeenth century, which are characterised by simplicity combined with grandeur in appearance, the features so typical of ancient laconic brevity. Early-eighteenth century design, at first modest and having a profiled niche, later acquires side pillars in the form of twisted semicolumns. Especially interesting are memorials in which side mouldings are crossed in the upper part of a slab, resembling arms, and their volutes, like hands, are placed above the epitaph. Such mouldings sometimes flank the epitaph in a curved line evoking images of guarding snakes. Henceforth, more emphasis is laid on the decoration of the upper part of the stone. There appear compositions with large rosettes surrounded by blossoming branches. A lion standing near the tree of life (ez chaim) can also be seen.
Particularly striking are the tombstones created by a stonecutter who worked at the Orgeyev cemetery in 1890-1900. While, on the whole, the art of stone carving was on the decline, his numerous stelae (now all destroyed) at the Orgeyev cemetery demonstrate the vitality of traditional forms, renewed by the efforts of the talented craftsman. His works, most of which were performed in carved contour, are graphically expressive. The craftsman depicts a pitcher, a tree-shaped several-levelled manorah, hands in the act of blessing with lines of fortune distinctly cut on their palms, a fawn, and a bird among the branches of a tree: all imbued with ingenuous folk imagery. It is curious to note that the ornaments, in which the artist uses simple geometrical figures such as rhombuses and angles, as well as herring-bones and rosettes, are in their graphic representation closer to the script of an epitaph and form with it a single design pattern.
The Kishinev cemetery, destroyed in 1959, was quite unique. Originating in the early-nineteenth century, from the first days of its existence, it coincided with rapid urban development. The most gifted stonecutters worked there, displaying their talent to the utmost degree and having a strong impact on the work of following generations of craftsmen.
The dual nature of the main stylistic tendencies of this art are evident particularly in the Kishinev stelae. Their design, on the one hand, is of the highest professional quality; while on the other hand, it unmistakably reveals its folklore origins. Some reliefs are marked by intricate and expressive patterns, showing animals and birds, fanciful play of acanthus scrolls, palmettes, volutes, rocailles, and other Renaissance and Baroque motifs, forming together with Oriental-style intertwinings a set of marvellous compositions, albeit slightly tinged with cold professionalism. Alongside these, there is a multitude of other works in the folk style, which contrast austere forms with unrestrained spontaneity and fully compensate their lack of "learning" with captivating sincerity and simplicity.
The Kishinev stelae are exceptionally rich in themes. Among numerous motifs of religious cult, one encounters pictures of birds in a beautiful tree of Eden, the gates of paradise with a tempting bunch of grapes, and bears with thick fur carrying grapes. Here, more often than anywhere else in and beyond Moldova, the stelae of the second half of the nineteenth century portray universal symbols, all of which convey the same idea: life has ceased. We see a dead bird, a snake biting a deer, a deserted house, a broken tree, and a falling flower.
The fact that many Kishinev stelae had been very well-preserved and, thus, studied before their destruction, allows us to see the development of local art in chronological order and, additionally, point out certain groups of memorials marked by an individual stylistic approach. For example, several reliefs from 1830-50, bearing generalised and primitivistic images of animals and birds, are all imbued with national spirit. Created by a very talented craftsman in 1860-70, a number of tombstones draw our special attention by their high-relief compositions of magnificent baroque design, which incorporates delicately carved chains of flowers and thick-folded drapery. Also noteworthy is a group of later stelae with foliate patterns, executed in Art Nouveau style, that can be traced in the peculiar, sensuous curves of leaves and bright petals of large rosettes.
Comparatively new, the Kishinev cemetery, unlike the Orgeyev cemetery, does not remind a visitor of ancient times. While the Orgeyev gravestones display monumental spirit and modest laconicism that inspire meditation, the (Kishinev stelae, built in the nineteenth century, reveal the inclination towards learning and hagiographic imagery.
Also fascinating is the Beltsy cemetery, with its many headstones formed by a stele and a sarcophagus hewn of solid stone. These reliefs feature real-life pictures of birds and animals depicted by local craftsmen. The striking carved designs of these gravestones may be explained by the general tendency in the folk art of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to reflect elements of urban culture.
The separation of epitaph from relief, when the latter forms a sort of narrow frieze above the former, is typical of the Beltsy stelae. A group of memorials of this type seem to have been created by the same skilful craftsman, free in his treatment of both form and material.
His carvings are remarkable for their use of the rare device of background texturing, which implies the background notching and deepening of design contours. Among the craftsman's themes are a lion crushing a tree with its paw, a dove touching a flower with its beak, a bird of paradise, the Torah scroll in the Ark with a crown above, and several others, including various improvisations.
At the old Kalarash cemetery, small headstones from the first half of the nineteenth century are notable for exquisitely carved reliefs that depict lions, deer, and double-headed eagles. One also encounters widespread motifs of a fruit-bearing tree, a pomegranate fruit, a flowerpot with a blooming sunflower, and a twined seven-branched menorah. Also worth mentioning is a memorial from 1841, where lion's head and tail are substituted for the whole figure of the animal, thus offering a fragmentary but enlarged image. The Kalarash reliefs are characterised by their "soft" design. Notchings forming the stone's texture help to render the fur of animals and the plumage of birds, while little dentils around the contour allow the outline of leaves, knots, and thorns on the plants' stems to emerge.
Cemeteries in the northern-Moldovan villages of Brichany and Lipkany also feature some interesting tombstones. Located very closely to each other, they exhibit similarity in the chiselled design of their memorials, which were probably executed by the same craftsmen. The carvings are marked by inconspicuous modest delicacy. Many stelae are decorated with beautiful rosettes with petals carved in two or three circles. A Messianic symbol may be perceived in the motif that is associated with a solar sign.
The Ataki cemetery is remarkable for its ancient gravestones, the oldest of which date back to the eighteenth century. Located in northern Moldova, the village of Ataki lies very close to the Ukrainian border; thus, it is no wonder that local headstones reflect the influence of the art of Podolia. The Ataki stelae feature a complicated design, abounding in images of animals as well as purely decorative forms executed in the Renaissance and Baroque style. Certain themes and motifs deserve special attention: a double-headed eagle with three rosettes on its breast and in each paw; and a rosette flanked with fish on a woman's tombstone. Several stelae of the early-nineteenth century are wonderfully designed with leaves entwining a medallion. Some stelae, executed in high-relief, bear only the script but are nonetheless extremely expressive. A memorial created in 1815 and covered only by a laconic epitaph, every word of which is placed in a distinctly carved niche, may even suggest abstract art.
Analysing tombstones as works of art, one should take into account various artistic devices used by craftsmen striving to embody their images in stone. In their work, artisans were noticeably influenced by their life experiences. Relying on their personal observations, they typified images, laying emphasis on familiar features. Depicting vessels used by the Levites, craftsmen tended to portray pottery or metal utensils widespread in their midst: a clay mug similar to those used in their households; or an embossed pitcher with a wide mouth and the sharp lines of embossed copper fluting. Impressionable craftsmen were sometimes tempted to give a fuller picture of the lavabo ceremony; besides showing a hand holding a pitcher and another being washed, they added a piece of the interior, complete with a water barrel and a towel on a figured wooden shelf. Cupboards with carved columns and characteristically decorated pediments, chimneys, shutters, wrought-iron hinges and a latch on a dangling door of a deserted house, an iron with a detachable lid, a high-heeled low boot with elastic insets, and other objects and details attract viewers by their authenticity, recalling past images of shtetl life.
While the stonecutters developed a number of conventional techniques, stemming from their particular understanding of form, space, and scale, their pictorial idiom was simple and convincing. There was a reason for their laconicism: the fact that every grave required a headstone meant they had to be inexpensive, thus influencing the nature of the representation, inducing artisans to achieve an expressive effect through sparing means. Additionally, the properties of the stone itself, especially the porous brittle limestone, prevented artisans from depicting finer details. However, neither the desire to lower production costs nor the properties of the material explain the powerful laconicism of most memorials. More often than not, artisans stopped carving long before the stone "prompted" them to do so. Their specific idiom and simple, generalised shapes, skilfully shorn of every insignificance or element of chance, were determined above all by the craftsmen's notions and reflected a certain visual system characteristic of folk art.
Conventional designs in relief are invariably associated with representational clarity. There is no foreshortening or perspective in stone carving, images of animals and birds are profiled in sharply outlined , silhouettes; animals are never pictured heading toward the “viewer". Leaves and flowers are always carefully arranged, as if in a herbarium, and the components of a relief never overlap each other, nor interfere with each other's full portrayal, The perception of shapes may also be amazingly conventional, which is, incidentally, typical of peasant art. Artisans might show a flower as If dissected, with the Inner parts, normally hidden from view by the corolla, revealed. In pictures of vessels, one can simultaneously see the mouth and the bottom. Artisans treated scale just as freely, disregarding any contradiction with nature. Thus, the viewer is not surprised to see a house, bird, and tree portrayed as the same size. Similarly, just a few large leaves may represent all the foliage.
Craftsmen's imagination gave birth to countless interpretations and improvisations. Put together, the different representations of, say, the menorah would form a fascinating series of variable solutions, which bring to light certain typological forms of that motif. Some are exceedingly simple and represent not so much the object itself as its structural scheme. Others are, on the contrary, quite realistic and reproduce concrete kinds of lampstands, typical of their time. Fancifully entwined branches often form ornamental compositions in the style of Oriental-swirl patterns. Lamps in the most diverse Baroque shapes were especially popular. Tree-shaped menorahs (analogues of the biblical prototype) with branches terminating in oil lamps shaped like flowers, each having wicks in the shape of pestils, are of special interest.
Stonecutters demonstrated a fine sense of composition; this was most graphically manifest in asymmetrical shapes, not affording artisans a chance to balance one side of the relief with a mirrored replica. It is, however, apparent that symmetry was not strictly observed in compositions with central and flanking elements, either. Every paired representation is characterised by original interpretation, an indisputable result of a perfec command of form and dextrous execution.
Striving for variety, artisans employed different techniques of combining the two main components of their carvings: the inscription and the picture. In some cases, the epitaphs stand clearly apart from the ornament, creating counterpoints within a decorative equilibrium. In others, ornamentation softens the transition from script to the picture. Inscriptions could frame pictures, with separate words intruding into them and the initial "Here lies" (poh nikbar) entwined organically in the pattern.
Epitaphs also merit special attention. Laconic, they usually consist of the name and patronymic (surname omitted), one or two words of praise, the date of death with the day, month, and year given according to the Jewish calendar, and the invariable five letters for the abbreviated wish addressed to the dead*. "Let his (her) soul be tied in the knot of (eternal) life".
Some epitaphs have more detailed, at times quite extensive, texts, praising the virtues of the deceased or quoting passages from the Bible with references to characters bearing the same names. The script also has a certain appeal. In the architectonics of the letters, the thin vertical lines of the Hebrew script supporting the massive horizontal bars emanate a certain monumental spirit. The textual piece always looks reserved and consummate: its lines were always brought to the end by elongating the last letter, as was the common practice in Judaic manuscripts since ancient times. The inscription looks like an unbroken design, owing to the quiet rhythm of the lines, which were sometimes staved, and the absence of either blanks or excessive crowding. Artisans had a wealth of manuscript material and type to copy in search of variation. It is not surprising that old Jewish gravestones, whose sole ornament is the epitaph, look especially impressive.
Stonecutters also demonstrated a fine, highly developed feeling for the nature of the material used in their work, as well as respect for its natural beauty. They preserved the irregular shape of slabs, which afforded spontaneous and live solutions for the entire composition. The front surface of slabs was occasionally left untouched. Relying completely on their intuition, stonecutters made sparing use of the ruler and dividers, ignoring them even when working on symmetrical designs, letting their chisels do the whole work along the pre-mapped guidelines. As a result, the themes, though duplicated repeatedly, always acquired a new interpretation.
Finally, mention should be made of the interest shown in colour, albeit infrequently, but quite notably and vividly. Colouring was often used to renovate the memorial. Light-yellow and reddish-brown soil, lime, soot, and bluing mixed with egg yoke served as dyes. Unfortunately, these dyes were not permanent; eventually, they were washed away by rain or blown off by wind, retaining the original artistry only in the deep recesses of those once distinctly coloured headstones.
In conclusion, it is necessary to reiterate the authentic originality of Jewish carved tombstones and to view the work of Moldovan stonecutters — full of thought and expressive feeling — as one of the highest achievements in this genre. Fate was cruel to them: thus, it is imperative that these spiritual and aesthetically significant works of art, which have now acquired a new life, should remain in the memory of those who come after us.
‘Forgotten stones. Jewish tombstones in Moldova’ by D. Goberman