Sculpted GlassArcheology and Sculpted Glass Combine
to Tell the Jewish Nation’s Story
By: Jeremy Langford, glass artist
The Challenge – Art at Judaism’s Holiest Site
Five years ago, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, along with their architect Eliav Nachlieli, asked me to create a series of monumental glass sculptures for the new visitors’ center at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. My task was to create eight glass sculptures representing the history and development of the Jewish people since their beginnings at the time of the Patriarchs up to the present day return to Israel.
This was for me the ultimate artist’s dream, an amazing design challenge at one of the most important religious and cultural sites in the world. At the same time, this was a huge responsibility; I was to create Artwork at the holiest site of Judaism. I was to present the idea of the Jews as a ‘Chain of Generations’ and, therefore, had to find an artistic language that would cut across all boundaries and that people from different backgrounds could relate to.
It was decided, therefore, to use an abstract form as a symbol of the Jews. Non-figurative sculpture, something very close to my heart, is a language that can be read on many levels.
Sculpted Glass – A Metaphor of the Jewish Nation
I felt that the sculptures must make their own artistic statement and express the purpose for which they were created, while also rendering a feeling of belonging to the site. I felt that I must add another layer onto the 3000 years of civilization and culture inherent to the site. In order to achieve this somewhat unlikely harmony of ancient architecture and modern art, I related to the chambers on the site as a ‘canvas’ on which I would ‘paint’ the sculptures. My ‘painting’ medium was the glass column, the basic simple form used throughout the exhibit.
The column, then, was to be the symbol of the figures from the biblical narrative and the Jewish people. The column stands straight and with strong boundaries; yet at the same time is undefined.
Glass was used here as a medium that could make its own statement, while complementing the architecture and archeology of the site. I have a very deep relationship with glass. I find it a very spiritual medium and particularly fitting to the theme of these sculptures. The production of glass requires a process of heat and pressure. Sand, basically a dead substance, is transformed into one of the most beautiful and versatile materials known to man. Strong, but elastic; transparent, but with clear boundaries; glass glows and transmits light. This is the metaphor of the Jewish People. From early origins in idol worship, through much suffering and pressure in Egypt, and through successive exiles and travails came forth a nation that is one day to be a ‘light unto the nations’. This is also the reason I have used the glass art technique of sculpting and layering - layer upon layer, generation upon generation…
The Sculptures – A Journey through Jewish History
There are, in all, eight sculptures situated in seven chambers, representing a period of almost 3500 years. The sculptures are built from tens of thousands of pieces of layered and sculpted glass and required almost 150 tons of glass to create them. All of the sculptures are carved with Hebrew lettering, names of individuals from each historic period.
The first sculpture sets up the language of the entire series – a straight glass column with the Hebrew lettering of “Jerusalem” carved into it. In the background are etched verses from the book of Chronicles, enumerating the generations from the beginning of mankind. From here begins a process of building, development, destruction, and suffering – and then the process of return, restoration and rebuilding.
The sculptures begin with the appearance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the 12 tribes, and then go on to portray the building of Jerusalem, its destruction and the exile, with a 9-meter (27 foot) column symbolizing the never-ceasing yearning to return to Zion; to return to the land of Israel.
With the next sculpture begins the modern period; a memorial to the Holocaust is represented by a huge block of glass. The column has been shattered, broken into six separate pieces. From here, we turn to the T’kuma - Redemption sculpture that I intentionally did not finish. The columns have gone through a process of building and destruction and here begins the construction anew. Here in the present, the work is unfinished - the remainder of this process is now in our hands, your hands, our children’s hands…
One Room – Spanning a Period of 3000 Years
One of the most powerful sculptures is a nine meter high sculpted glass column weighing over 15 tons. The sculpture was to be placed in a 17 meter high room which had originally been discovered to be a Roman latrine. While excavating the site in order to lay concrete foundations to support the sculpture, archeologists discovered a complete fully-preserved mikvah (ritual bath) from the Second Temple directly below the sculpture! It was immediately decided that the sculpture should be suspended on steel girders in order to preserve the Hasmonean mikvah underneath. While preparing this, an extremely rare find was unearthed - a wall from the period of King Solomon’s Temple!
Standing in this incredible room, one views a 21st century sculpture. Above one’s head is a ceiling from the Crusader period and walls from Mamluk times. Below the sculpture sits the 2000 year old perfectly-preserved mikvah, while next to that is situated one of the only preserved walls from the time of King Solomon’s Temple.
A Work of Art in Space and Time
In conclusion, a brief word about my feelings regarding this unique project. While working on the project and feeling myself as part of the Jewish people I was portraying, I felt that the site and the sculptures must work together. I, as the artist, am simply adding another layer on the canvas of this site. The whole structure of the site is an organic work of art being formed over thousands of years – as is the formation and development of Am Yisrael. The building, the destruction, and the renovation are now all part of one process. It is a work of art in space and time.
This historic site itself is a work of art - the Chain of Generations of the Jewish people.