The 20th century artist (and rabbi) David Hillman (1894-1974) created richly elaborate stained glass windows for a number of synagogues in the UK, including St. Albans United Synagogue, the Synagogue in St. Johns Wood, London; the Central Synagogue, London; the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the Egerton Road synagogue, London, and more. He also designed stained glass windows in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
The windows in the Central Synagogue — a building constructed in the 1950s to replace a synagogue destroyed in World War II enemy bombing — is said to represent the largest display of David Hillman’s work in one building and took 15 years to install.
The windows measure 3m x 1.75m and portray fine scenes from the Old Testament or Jewish festivals. Each is unique and features verses from the Bible interwoven with a particular theme. The centre panel focuses on an event associated with the main picture thus revealing a ‘story within a story’.
The St. John’s Wood Synagogue has 160 Hillman windows centered on Jewish holidays, other religious themes, and musical instruments — and the synagogue’s web site includes a beautiful slide show featuring 49 of them.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, gives an appreciation of Hillman and his windows. He provides fascinating details about Hillman’s life and upbringing as part of a noted family of Jewish religious leaders and scholars, as well as a discussion of the windows themselves.
His style is distinct and one cannot mistake the religious motifs repeated in the main sequence, dealing with the festivals or months of the Jewish calendar. All of his windows include a wide range of biblical and scriptural verses and quotations, displaying his deep knowledge of Jewish source material, rarely to be found on other windows of this type. […] The story of the large St. John’s Wood collection (over 100 separate windows) is another interesting episode in Anglo Jewish history. Approximately two-thirds of the windows were originally made for the previous synagogue, situated on Abbey Road (of Beatles fame). When the synagogue relocated to larger premises nearby in the 1960s, the windows were all carefully transferred to their new abode – but were insufficient for the large space. In this way, 30 years after completing the original windows, Hillman prepared additional windows, enlarging each festival set of three to five.
Studying Hillman’s windows, Newman writes, “is far more than a lesson in art. It opens the door to understanding a particular epoch in the development of Anglo-Jewry – when religion and art found a symbiosis, and when Orthodox Jewish and rabbinical families appreciated that the two were not necessarily disconnected from each other.