This exhibition of gold and silver jewelry, tableware, and rare coins, all from the Medieval period, is culled from a personal Jewish treasure hoard uncovered in Erfurt, Germany. The 167 objects offer a glimpse into Jewish life and culture in medieval Europe before the Black Death and anti-Semitic violence decimated this small but thriving population in 1349.
Located approximately 70 miles southwest of Kassel, Erfurt is the capital city of the central German state of Thuringia. For centuries Erfurt served as a historical center of Ashkenazim, the Jewish communities that originated along the Rhine River in Germany and later emigrated to Eastern Europe and throughout the Diaspora. According to Yeshiva University Museum in New York, over 85 percent of American Jews can trace their ancestral roots to this group of Jews. In 1998, a team of archaeologists made an unexpected discovery during an excavation on Michaelisstrasse in the medieval Jewish quarter of the city. Carefully hidden under the wall of a private home’s stone cellar was a personal treasure hoard containing over 3,000 silver coins, 14 silver ingots and over 600 pieces of jewelry. Jewish merchants and moneylenders often buried their wealth because of the Black Death and other persecutions.
Exhibition highlights include a hand-crafted gold Jewish wedding ring (left) from the early 14th century, one of few medieval Ashkenazi wedding rings in existence. Well-preserved artifacts from this period are extremely rare, as jewelry was often melted down when 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. 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.
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