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Artwork in the Knesset
Seven-branched menorah, by Benno Elkan
Written by Dr. Susan Hattis Rolef

The Knesset Complex and surrounding areas
The Knesset Menorah, situated on the edge of the Rose Garden across from the Knesset building, is the work of the Jewish-English artist of German origin Benno Elkan (1877 – 1960). The Menorah is molded of bronze and resembles the menorah (7-branched candelabra) of the Temple, which has come to be a Jewish symbol. The sculpture is 4.30 meters high, 3.5 meters wide, and weighs 4 tons. The main theme of the work depicts the spiritual struggles of the Jewish people and it is engraved with the passage “Not by strength and not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord who rules over all” (Zechariah 4, 6). The Menorah includes engravings of biblical figures and events from the tradition and history of the Jewish people. The engravings on the six side branches of the Menorah portray the fate of the Israeli people since it was exiled from its land, and the engravings on the center branch portray the people’s fate since the beginning of the return to the land up to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Menorah was presented to the Knesset as a gift from the British Labor Party on April 15th 1956 in honor of the celebrations of the eighth Independence Day of the State of Israel. It was first placed at a square in central Jerusalem, near the temporary housing of the Knesset, and it was moved to its current location towards the inauguration of the Knesset building. Despite the artist’s request to place the Menorah within the Knesset and place upper lighting to highlight its engravings, and despite the ruling of Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog that it may be placed within the building in spite of its portrayal of images – its was decided that the Menorah be placed outside, enabling the public to see it and enjoy its beauty.

The three original entrance gates to the Knesset complex were designed by sculptor David Palombo, a native of Turkey (1911 – 1966), who was killed in a car accident shortly after completing his work on the gates. Palombo’s work was aimed at creating a memorial for the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War. The gates are 17 meters long and 3 meters high. The grill of the gates is comprised of abstract forms, intertwined one with the other in a unique way, resembling half-burnt tree trunks. In 2007, when the Knesset’s entrance was reconstructed, it was decided to move the gates several meters to the east, and they now serve as an impressive self-standing sculpture.
David Palombo sculps one of the entrance
gates to the Knesset
The original Knesset entrance gates
The gates in their new (current) location

Several months prior to the inauguration of the Knesset building, it was decided to install a memorial monument for the fallen of the War of Independence at the area in front of the entrance to the Knesset building.
The Burning Bush, by David Palombo
Sculptor David Palombo designed the monument and presented it to the Knesset as a gift. It was designed with the inspiration of the biblical Burning Bush (Exodus 3, 2) and built using a technique of fusion between iron pieces. The work was set on basalt stones and placed on the western side of the Knesset’s entrance courtyard, in proximity to the building. In 1971 it was agreed with the artist’s widow that the monument serve as a memorial for all fallen IDF soldiers. The sculpture was then raised, and underneath was placed a stone engraved with Leah Goldberg's words "The morning will rise through their blood," from her poem "The Tree." The monument now stands at the entrance to the Knesset courtyard, near the three gates designed by David Palombo.

Monument in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers, Zelig Segal
In place of the memorial monument designed by Palombo, the western side of the Knesset's entrance courtyard now houses a memorial for the fallen soldiers. It was designed in 2007 by sculptor Zelig Segal, and consists of a rectangular steel board, placed horizontally over a water pool that is gradually elevated and made of a dark stone. The center of the monument is a blaze of eternal flame. Behind it, on the ground, are three-dimensional steel letters that form the words, "The morning will rise through their blood" of Leah Goldberg’s "The Tree." The ceremonies held at the courtyard for dignitaries include the placing of a wreath by the monument.

The main entrance doors to the Knesset building are named the Gate of the Tribes. They are the work of Czechoslovakian-born artist Shraga Weil (born in 1918). The three doors are made of wood and covered with copper boards that were processed with acid burns. Each door is two meters high and 2.5 meters wide. They are adorned with graphic figures of Jewish symbols from ancient times. The right door portrays the destruction of the Temple, exile and the wandering of the Jewish people in the Diaspora; the center door – the ingathering of the Diaspora; and the left door – the settlement and the establishment of the State of Israel. The left side of the door portrays 12 circles with the symbols of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

The Gate of the Tribes, at the main Knesset entrance, by Shraga Weil

One of the three doors of the Gate of the Tribes
The Plenum Hall
The wall behind the Speaker's dais at the plenum was designed by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan (born in Tel Aviv in 1932). The piece is entitled "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love her prosper!" (from Psalms 122:6); its theme is of "Jerusalem between heaven and earth." The wall is 20 meters wide and 7.5 meters high. It is comprised of Galilee stones sized 2 by 1 meters, chiseled by local stonemasons. The sculptor wanted to create a piece that would be simple and pleasant to look at, as it serves as a background for all speakers on the Knesset’s dais. A portrait etched on a zinc tablet of Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl, visionary of the State, hangs on the left side of the wall, and the flag of Israel is in its center.

The original planning of the plenum hall designated a high ceiling, reaching the roof of the building. It was also planned that the plenum would have natural light from numerous windows placed on the ceiling. It was later decided to mount a hanging ceiling to be placed under the original ceiling, made of 12 white "goal posts" designed by Dani Karavan.

The popular name for the hanging goal posts is the “guillotines,” for their shape. Each post weighs approximately 300 kilograms. The decision for designing a hanging ceiling was made due to the height of the original ceiling in comparison with the decorated wall at the front of the hall. It was also claimed by the architects that the goal posts will help improve the acoustics of the hall and provide better light, as the natural light did not spread equally across the plenum. The windows in the original ceiling were painted black and replaced with 48 spotlights fixated behind glass plates. Smaller light bulbs were set on the ceiling's lower level.

Detail of the wall designed by Dani Karavan
Knesset Plenum Hall, with of a view of the Speaker's dais
Portrait of Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl etched on a tablet of dark zinc

Chagall State Hall
A two-story high foyer for national ceremonies and events is found to the right of the plenum hall, and it is named the Chagall State Hall, after Russian-born Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). The columns in the hall are made of polished marble and contain fossils, and the ceiling is covered by small wooden blocks. The hall houses Gobelins (tapestries) designed by Chagall on its eastern wall. The hall also contains mosaics by Chagall – one on the northern wall, and 12 others fixed on the floor of the hall.

Marc Chagall oversees the work on the center tapestry
The Gobelins: Speaker of the Knesset Kadish Luz called on March Chagall in 1960 and requested that he provide the artwork the future permanent Knesset building. It was first discussed that he create murals or works of stained glass, as he had created for the synagogue at the Hadassah Hospital. Chagall, however, wished to attempt and create tapestries, though he had never done so before and his style of painting was not an easy one to render into wall tapestries. Kadish Luz provided him with passages from the Bible, and Chagall worked them into his drawings. In December 1963 he suggested to make the Gobelins as a triptych – three paintings of the same theme, hanging side-by-side and comprising a whole.

Chagall made the original paintings the same size of the future tapestries. The painting for the right tapestry was completed at the end of 1963, since he had made a similar painting – in different colors – for a stained glass window he made for the United Nations building in memory of the late Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. The paintings for the center and left tapestries were completed in the summer of 1964. It was then that the weaving of the tapestries began, at the “Atelier de la Manufacture des Gobelins” workshop in Paris. Prior to the work on the tapestries themselves, the workshop attempted weaving portions of the carpets for a year and selected 144 colors and shades to be used in their making. The weaving began in 1965 and continued until early 1968. The side tapestries are 4.8 meters high and 5.5. meters wide, and the center is 4.8 meters high and 9.5 meters wide. Each tapestry was signed by the company and shows the signature of Chagall and the date of the painting. They were hung on June 18th 1969, in the presence of the President of the State.

The tapestries depict biblical motifs, motifs from Chagall’s childhood in Vitebsk in Russia, and motifs from modern Jewish history. Alongside these, the tapestries also show differences in color, shape and size. As in other works by Chagall, they show reversed characters, two-faced characters, reversed heads, simultaneous male and female characters, etc. Chagall has commented on these characters: “It is possible that at certain times I was doubtful. I painted pictures in reverse. I decapitated heads and dissected my themes to pieces, that stayed afloat in the air of my paintings…”

Motifs in the tapestries are also adapted from two other works of Chagall: The series of Bible prints he painted during the 1930’s and was commissioned by the city of Nice in France (i.e. the woman on a camel, shown in the center painting, is found in the prints as Rebecca leaving her home on her way to Isaac), and a series of paintings made during 1927 – 1931 on the fables of La Fontaine (as some of the animals on the right tapestry).

The wide selection of images and scenes create some obscurity and it is not always possible to find an immediate connection between the characters and scenes on the tapestry and its main theme. In the press conference on the day they were hung, Chagall said: “A work of art does not need to be clear. If it is too clear, it lacks in its artistic form.” Chagall also stated many times that his paintings are impossible to decipher, and there are times that he himself cannot do so. “I myself do not understand them at all… They are simply painted arrangements that force themselves on me… The theories I could have made to explain myself, and those that others develop about me, are all nonsense.” There is however a claim that Chagall preferred to maintain obscurity on the meaning of his paintings, so as not to seem as a “story teller” in the era of abstract art.

A wide view of the tapestry on the right
The right tapestry was the first one to be complete. Its title was changed several times. Following the first discussion Chagall had with Knesset Speaker Kadish Luz, he wished to dedicate its theme to the “End of Days.” Articles written on the tapestries during their making, and news reports in Israel towards the hanging of the tapestries in 1969, spoke of the tapestry as “The Creation.” There is, however, a clear discrepancy between the expression Chagall gave to the concept of “Creation” in another biblical piece of his, and the biblical images in this work. The title “Peace” was then given to the tapestry during the early 1970’s, due to its similarity to the similar motifs in his stained glass window, entitle “Peace” in the United Nations building. The notable differences between the two pieces are the dominance of Christian motifs and of the color blue in the one in the UN. The most accurate name is probably “The Vision of Isaiah,” as the image of Isaiah is the most dominant in the work, and there is no doubt that the animals in it symbolize the passages, “A wolf will reside with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a young goat; an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along. A cow and a bear will graze together, their young will lie down together. A lion, like an ox, will eat straw. A baby will play over the hole of a snake; over the nest of a serpent, an infant will put his hand” (Isaiah 11, 6 – 8).

Among the motifs in the tapestry that are not necessarily related to its main theme are: Moses portrayed as an angel with the Stone Tablets (on the top right), Jacob’s dream of the ladder (top center), and the image of Sarah with her son Isaac, below the image of Abraham holding a knife (bottom left).

The center tapestry was at first named by Chagall as “Moses, King David, and the Diaspora,” but it was later renamed “The Exodus.” The two most distinct images in it are Moses and King David, and they both appear twice: Moses upon receiving the Stone Tablets (on the right side), and again when leading the people of Israel in the Exodus (from left to center), as they are being watched by higher powers (Exodus 13, 21). The people carry with them the remains of Joseph, and the cloud above them is accompanied by an angel with a shofar (ram’s horn), symbolizing the declaration of salvation. King David appears playing on a harp (left side), and before him is the image of a young David holding the head of Goliath.

The center tapestry
The Diaspora is represented in the tapestry by the Shtetl – the Jewish village in Eastern Europe – going up in flames (right to center, top), and the image of the wandering Jewish man carrying his belongings (top center). Above the latter is found the image of a dead body surrounded by six candles, symbolizing the six million Jewish victims in the Holocaust. Below the burning shtetl is the Golden Calf and images of people dancing around it. Aaron, the High Priest, can be seen with a Menorah (bottom left), and to his right is the image of Korah, who was devoured by the earth together with his followers.

As in the right tapestry, there are motifs that do not relate to the tapestry’s main theme, such as the struggle between Jacob and the angel and the binding of Isaac (top right). Behind the image of King David stands the image of a bride. Attached to the bride in reverse in an image of a violinist, which is a motif found in many of Chagall’s paintings, and it represents a self-portrait of Chagall.

A portion of the left tapestry
The theme of the left tapestry is the “Entrance to Jerusalem,” or the “Return to Zion.” Chagall initially suggested that its theme will be the “Revival of the State of Israel,” and the tapestry mixes motifs of two time periods: The era of King David, and the modern period of the State of Israel. King David is seen playing an instrument, above a group of characters carrying the Ark of the Covenant from Kiryat Yearim to Jerusalem (on the right side), in accordance with chapter 6 in the Second Book of Samuel. The ark, accompanied by people playing different instruments (top right) bears no likeness to the description of the Ark of the Covenant in the Bible, but it is similar to arks seen by Chagall in Safed during his visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1931. King David is being greeted with singing and dancing by a variety of crowds: Hassidim alongside pioneers, symbolizing the return to Zion in modern times.

The modern era is also visible in the image of a bird, carrying the news of the resurrection in Israel with the word “Israel” appearing to come out of her mouth (top left), and flying towards a watchtower from the period of “Tower and Stockade.” At the top of the tower is a child lighting a Menorah – the symbol of the State of Israel. Also in the tapestry is the image of an armed soldier guarding over the flag of Israel growing out of a tree (bottom left). The spies carrying a cluster of grapes (bottom right) connect the entry of David to Jerusalem with the Exodus.

Other scenes in the tapestry are of pastoral love, motherhood, and life in the village, as well as allusions to the holidays of Israel and symbols of the State. The top of the tapestry shows a circle with an image of the holy city of Jerusalem (according to Isaiah 52, 1).

The tapestries were taken down in September 2006 to be sent to Paris for professional cleaning.

The Chagall State Hall

Marc Chagall sketches the image for one of the floor mosaics
The Mosaics: While planning the tapestries, Chagall offered in July 1964 to create 12 mosaics for the hall’s floor. The use of mosaic in floors of public institutions is adapted from the ancient Jewish tradition, as seen in archaeological findings of mosaics in synagogues from the fifth and sixth centuries.

One of the floor mosaics
The 12 mosaics are asymmetrical in their shapes. They are not linked by a certain theme, but join together into a poetic love song to life, Jewish tradition and the Land of Israel. They depict images such as fruits, animals, candlesticks, and a shofar (ram’s horn).

The setting of the stones was carried out by Mr. and Mrs. Melano, who were Chagall’s favorite Italian mosaic artists and came at his request to Jerusalem. The stones comprising the mosaics were mostly local natural stones: Those of light colors are from Jerusalem, blue and green stones from the Timna Valley in the south, black and brown stones are basalt from the north, and the yellow and orange are Italian Murano glass.

Chagall also decided, in December 1965, to create a wall mosaic, which can be seen on the northern wall of the hall. It is 6 meters high and 5.5 meters wide and represents the passages “By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep… If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand be crippled…” (Psalms 137). Chagall chose to represent the theme using an image of the Western Wall, which was under Jordanian control at the time. The immigrants to Eretz Yisrael are seen praying at the Wall, and in the horizon is the Old City and Tower of David. The center of the mosaic shows the Menorah, representing both the Menorah of the Temple and the state emblem. Also in the mosaic are images of people looking up at an angel signaling to them to return to their homeland. The star of David on the left of the mosaic represents the psalm “A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24, 17), as well as the Star of the David from the state’s flag.

The work on the mosaics was completed towards the inauguration of the Knesset building in August 1966.

Two historically significant documents are on display at the Chagall State Hall: The Proclamation of Independence and the Jerusalem Pact.

The Proclamation of Independence is displayed in a glass case, left to the stairs leading from the hall to the Knesset’s entrance. It is a replica of the original Proclamation of Independence, which was on display until its storage in the State Archives for purposes of preservation. The scroll shows the text of the proclamation, as read by David Ben Gurion on May 14th 1948 and signed by 37 members of the Provisional State Council – the parliamentary body before the establishment of the state.

The Jerusalem Pact is on display at the hall since 1993. It contains an oath of allegiance of the State of Israel to the city of Jerusalem, and signed on May 21st 1982 – the 25th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem – by the heads of state and the chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

Additional Works of Art in the Building
An embossment by the Israeli Irish-born artist Dan Ben-Shmuel (born in 1927) hangs above the elevator on the fourth floor. It is 3.6 meters high and 3.19 meters wide, comprised of copper quadrangular shapes put together in an “assemblage” technique. The artist has said that the consistent combination of quadrangular shapes in various complex formations, while maintaining the principle of a basic shape, is an abstract expression of the wealth of the political and social ideas and opinions represented in the Knesset, which follow the basic laws of democracy. However, it is possible to look at the work as a model of a modern city, in which the buildings and streets meet at right angles and create a maze.

The ceramic wall, located along the wall of the public cafeteria, is the work of Israeli Argentinean-born artist Hava Kaufman (born in 1957). Its height is 2.85 meters and it is 21 meters wide. The wall is decorated with abstract forms.

The Seven Species Menorah is situated on the fourth floor. It was created by the multidisciplinary artist Eliezer Weishoff (born in Jerusalem in 1938), and given to the Knesset on its 50th birthday (1999) by the Jewish National Fund. The Menorah’s base is a trunk of an olive tree, symbolizing the deep roots of the people in their land. The seven molded species appear to grow out of the severed trunk, symbolizing the renewed growth of the people of Israel in their land.
The embossment by Dan Ben-Shmuel
The ceramic wall by Hava Kaufman
The Seven Species Menorah by Eliezer Weishoff

The breastplate embossment by Buky Schwartz

A breastplate embossment is found on the side of the stairway leading from the second to the third floor. It was made by sculptor Buky Schwartz (born in Jerusalem in 1932), who selected the breastplate of the High Priest as a theme connecting between the Temple – “the most important place for the Israeli people in the past” – and the Israeli house of representatives – “the most important place for the Israeli people in the present.” The embossment is 3.6 meters high and 3.1 meters wide, comprised of bronze with melted glass. The artist chose not to reconstruct an original breastplate as it is described in literature; rather he designed it in an abstract form.

The government floor contains an oil painting by the Russian-born artist Joseph Kuzkovsky (1902 – 1969) entitled “Led to the Slaughter – Babi Yar.” There are claims that the painting done in 1947, does not specifically depict the events in Babi Yar, but one of the many expulsions committed by the Nazis in the conquered areas of the Soviet Union, which mostly ended with executions by gunshot. The picture depicts the expulsion of a Jewish community towards the forest – a common event in many east-European areas during 1941-1942. Kuzkovsky painted himself in the picture, as the male image in the center, who is described as a Jewish soldier of the Red Army escaping from captivity and being expelled with his family when visiting them. The artist immigrated to Israel in 1969, carrying the picture in his jacket for fear that the Soviet authorities will not allow him to take it with him. He passed away several months later, and the picture was acquired from his widow in 1971. A better known painting of Babi Yar by Kuzkovsky, depicting women before their execution, is on display at the Yad VaShem museum.

"Led to the Slaughter - Babi Yar" by Joseph Kuzkovsky
Another work found on the second floor is "A Song of Praise to Jerusalem." Jerusalem-born artist Moshe Castel (1909 – 1991) created it especially for the Knesset, by pasting basalt powder onto wooden plates. It is 2.4 meters high and 7 meters wide, decorated with ancient letters spelling the word “Jerusalem.” The piece was moved to its current location at the request of the artist’s family, after it was placed across from the Prime Minister’s Office and exposed to the sun.

"A Song of Praise to Jerusalem" by Moshe Castel
The Government Room is among the most impressive in the Knesset building, designed by interior decorator Dora Gad. Most of its territory is taken by the round table in the center, but it does not hold the cabinet meetings. At times, it serves for holding special gatherings of government ministers. Behind the Prime Minister’s seat hangs the painting “A mountainous view of the Galilee,” created by Romanian-born painter Reuven Rubin (1893 – 1974). This painting was made in 1966 especially for this room, and it measures 2 meters high and 3.3 meters wide.

A Mountainous View of the Galilee by Reuven Rubin

Another painting by Reuven Rubin is found at the Knesset Speaker’s chamber. The painting, entitled “This is the Land,” depicts a scene viewed through a window and beyond pomegranates found on the windowsill. The painting was donated to the Knesset by Rubin’s widow in 1983.

"This is the Land" by Reuven Rubin

The holy ark in the Knesset synagogue
The synagogue on the first floor was designed by architect David Cassuto. The wooden Holy Ark within it was made in the 17th century, and brought to Israel during the 1960’s from its destroyed Jewish community in Italy. The Ark is decorated with architectural elements that were common in Italy during the baroque period. A Torah scroll dedicated in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was recently placed in it.

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