Unique 1910 synagogue mural restored

After 112 years, 36 of them spent enclosed behind a false wall, a unique mural that once decorated the Chai Adam synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, has been rescued, restored and put on display.

The Chai Adam congregation commissioned Lithuanian immigrant sign-painter Ben Zion Black to create the mural in 1910. Black was paid $200 (the equivalent of $5,314 today) and completed the large-scale triptych on the apse of the synagogue plus other ceiling paintings in just six months. He brought the Jewish Lithuanian artistic tradition he learned in the Old Country to Vermont, a style that initially caused consternation among the congregants who took issue with the bright colors and some of the imagery (musical instruments, angels).

Painted with oils on plaster in a boldly outlined style, the mural features a faux theatrical proscenium with a Decalogue supported by lions rampant center stage. The Ten Commandments are crowned and beribboned and Hebrew words on the ribbon read Keter Torah (Crown of the Torah), a phrase from the Talmud. The panel is topped by a sun with wide rays reaching the edges and floor. Dramatic layers of theatrical curtains drape over four columns and frame the central composition. Between the columns a forested landscape fades into the distance. Puffy clouds in a blue sky float over the  proscenium arch.

Synagogue murals were a popular tradition in Eastern Europe between the early 18th century and World War I, but they never took root in the United States. As far as anyone knows, the mural in the Chai Adam Synagogue is the only example in the US. The murals in European synagogues were destroyed by arson in the Holocaust, and there are only a handful of examples of the art form left anywhere in the world. The Burlington piece is the only surviving Eastern European-style synagogue mural in the US, and the only known survivor of Jewish Lithuanian remaining in the world. It’s also the largest surviving example of Lithuanian Folk Art in the world. (The Nazis didn’t like folk art even when it wasn’t Jewish, so they destroyed it at every opportunity.)

In this case, neglect appears to have been the key to its survival. Chai Adam merged with the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in 1939 and the original building with mural still in place was put to several different uses (carpet store, warehouse). When the building was sold in 1986 to developers who converted it into apartments, the new owners agreed to wall up the art instead of demolishing it. It saw the light again in 2012, when Burlington’s Jewish community removed the wall to assess the condition of the painting. The mural had suffered.

The plaster was in poor condition and paint was flaking off in many sections. The plaster was stabilized and a conservator worked to reattach the paint. Then a temporary structure was built so that the building’s roof could be removed, the mural’s lathes reinforced, and the artwork could be encased in a metal frame for the move in 2015 by crane and then truck to the current Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

In its new home, conservators restored damaged sections of paint and cleaned the entire mural, revealing its original vibrant color and detail. Paint was also matched and added where it had fallen off. That work took place this and last year, during the coronavirus pandemic, when the building was largely unused.

The conservation was completed earlier this year and the restored mural was unveiled in all its vibrant glory at a ceremony on June 28th. Public tours are scheduled to begin this October. Private tours can be booked online now.