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Traditions, Modernities and the Semiosis of Style: A Reading of Diversity in the Synagogue Architecture of the Moorish Revival

Graham Panico, Lecturer Visual and Creative Cultures

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When thinking about significant events in the history of design, Europe in the 19th Century has much to recommend it as a field of study. It was a period which saw the emergence of major social, economic and political factors that, in combination, were to influence the world at every level. Consequently, it is a period worthy of deep study and investigation which will constantly surprise and enlighten students of design history in the revelation of the cultural foundations of our own society in the 21st Century. The period is often seen as synonymous with a revivalist and distinctly eclectic material culture, and this is no more evident than in the built environment and the diversity of styles that European architecture represents. It is from an awareness of this notion that the ideas in this paper first began to emerge and have subsequently been explored. 

Of all the period styles that were fashionable at the time the Moorish Revival, often termed the Neo-Moorish to distinguish it from original Medieval Moorish architecture, is perhaps one of the most distinct and easily recognisable forms. It continued to appear throughout much of the 19th century and shaped exterior and interior spaces in both urban and rural settings across much of Europe. One of the most important sub-genres of the Moorish Revival for much of the century can be found in Moorish synagogue architecture and when approached from a modern mind-set this mixture of Arab, and therefore Islamic styling, appears to be particularly incongruous in the context of a Jewish place of worship. Why was it that for many decades’ synagogues were built, to the eye of the uninformed, in an apparent Islamic style? This is the question to be addressed in this paper and is the question that initially instigated this particular piece of research.

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