Aug 26, 2008 — The Yeshiva University Museum provides the only North American venue for an unusually significant exhibition of Medieval gold and silver jewelry, tableware, and rare coins discovered just a decade ago concealed within the foundation of a 12th-century house in Erfurt, Germany, a historic center of Ashkenazi Jewry.
The treasure, which scholars believe was buried by a Jewish merchant or moneylender during anti-Semitic violence, was discovered by archeologists during an excavation in the Medieval Jewish quarter of the city.
Carefully hidden under the wall of a private home’s stone cellar were over 3,000 silver coins, 14 silver ingots, and over 600 pieces of jewelry.
“Erfurt: Jewish Treasures from Medieval Ashkenaz,” on view September 8–February 9, features 167 objects including a Jewish wedding ring in the shape of a tower, unique silver drinking vessels, coins, elaborate belt buckles, and a variety of garment accessories, all dating from the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The exhibition offers a glimpse into Jewish life and culture in medieval Europe before the Black Death and anti-Jewish persecutions decimated this small but thriving population in 1349.
An international tour will follow with stops at the Wallace Collection (London) and Beth Hatefutsoth (Tel Aviv), before the objects go on permanent display in Erfurt’s 11th-century synagogue in the fall of 2009.
Located approximately 70 miles southwest of Kassel, Erfurt is the capital city of the central German region of Thuringia. The vast number of coins and ingots found among the treasure hoard dem onstrate Erfurt’s status as a center for trade and commerce in medi eval Germany. The Jewish quarter of the city was located on the banks of the Gera River, crucial to regional trade.
Records show that Jews prospered in Erfurt as early as the 9th century, peacefully coexisting there with other groups until the 14th century. At this time, bur geoning anti-Semitism erupted into violence, and Jews were targeted as scapegoats for perceived social and economic ills.
Tragically, the entire Jewish community of Erfurt was expelled or murdered at the height of the Bubonic Plague (or Black Death) in 1349, when Jews were blamed for spreading the disease.
The exhibition includes a three-dimensional model of the city’s synagogue during the 12th century, an architectural model of a Medieval synagogue, a 16th-century map of Erfurt, photographs of important sites, and facsimiles of original manuscripts.
Exhibition highlights include a hand-crafted gold Jewish wedding ring from the early 14th century, one of very few Medieval Ashkenazi wedding rings in existence. Well-preserved artifacts from this period are extremely rare, as jewelry was often melted down when it went it was deemed out of style. This ring features an ornate, miniature version of a gothic tower and six engraved Hebrew letters spelling out mazal tov, meaning “good luck,” written on the tower’s roof.
Scholars have interpreted the tower as symbolizing the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Jewish tradition still mandates that wedding bands be made of plain gold without the addition of stones.
The silver double cups housed the jewelry found in the treasure and are noteworthy for their colorful enameled images from Aesop’s fables of The Fox and the Eagle and The Fox and the Raven. Additional rarities include a set of eight silver cups designed to fit inside each other, dozens of belt buckles and garment appliqués, a cosmetic set, and seven brooches.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation, with additional funds from the David Berg Foundation and Lufthansa.
A public symposium, “Treasured Possessions: Jews and Christians in a Medieval City,” co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yeshiva University Museum, will be held November 5–6.