New York’s Jewish Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recently jointly acquired a pair of silver objects designed for decorating a Torah scroll. Diane Bolz writes:
The finials, which are from 1729, are the work of Abraham Lopes de Oliveyra, the earliest known Jewish silversmith to work in England. Praised as masterpieces of historical Judaica and noted for their exquisite design, the finials, rimmonim [literally, pomegranates] in Hebrew, are designed to sit on top of the two wooden staves of a Torah scroll. Made of partially gilded silver, the finials feature ornate foliate patterns and tiers of bells surrounding three flattened spheres that showcase Oliveyra’s characteristic bold openwork—a design made by creating patterns of holes or piercings in the silver.
Abraham Lopes de Oliveyra’s story is compelling. He was born in 1657 in Amsterdam to a Jewish Portuguese family who had settled in the Dutch city, known for its atmosphere of tolerance, after fleeing religious persecution. Oliveyra likely studied the art of silver crafting and engraving there and worked as a Hebrew book engraver. A book of Psalms he engraved includes a rendering of a silversmith shop. In his early thirties, Oliveyra moved to London.
At the time in Western Europe, Jews were prohibited from joining the artists’ guilds, including the silversmiths’ association. Thus most European pieces of Jewish ceremonial art, though commissioned by Jews, were made by Christian silversmiths. In London, however, Jewish artisans had become eligible for membership in professional guilds, so Oliveyra was able to join the silversmiths’ guild. . . . He was the only Jewish silversmith in England during this period, and he was frequently commissioned to create ceremonial Judaica by both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish communities in London.