Exploring the LBC Library Collections

Some thoughts on Life and Art Through Stained Glass: Roman Halter 1927-2012

from Librarian Cassy Sachar


This beautiful exhibition catalogue was published to accompany the posthumous exhibition of the same name at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2014, a retrospective of the life and work of artist and architect Roman Halter. It shows stained glass, watercolours and oils; it shows landscapes, nature and people; it shows architecture, Judaica and fine art; it shows suffering, beauty and hope and it explains the centrality of Halter’s experience as a Holocaust survivor to his creativity and world view.

The first items in the catalogue, a memorial light and a splendid set of ark doors, and many works that follow, will be familiar to anyone who has visited the Leo Baeck College’s Room of Prayer. This extraordinary space was designed and decorated by Halter and his artist daughter Aviva in the mid-80s when the College moved to the Manor House site. 

As the book details: the ark, the bimah (reader’s desk), the chairs, the cushions, the stained glass ‘curtains’, the stencils on the walls and canopy, form part of this extraordinary vision of what a prayer space can be. The adornment and decoration of Jewish ritual objects has long been part of the concept of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the commandment. Here the Halters emulate the work of the biblical craftsman Bezalel who built the tabernacle in the wilderness and made its sacred furnishings (Exodus 31) creating a space for the shechina, the immanence of god, to dwell. Historian of stained glass, Caroline Swash notes the success of their project in creating a space that is both special and welcoming (p17).

This copy of the exhibition catalogue was presented to the College by the Ben Uri Gallery and I can imagine the photographers spending the day onsite trying to get the light right as it comes though the stained glass. When not full of photographers the Room of Prayer is the meeting place of the Reform Bet Din, it is the prayer space of the LBC community, it is a space for student rabbis to experiment with liturgy, melodies and sermons; to hone their styles and ’shul’ skills. 

Writing under the CV-19 lockdown, I am keenly aware that the LBC community and its guests cannot pray or chat or argue as we would daily in the Room of Prayer but this book allows me to return to that charged spaced for a moment. The photographs allow me to figuratively run my hand over the textiles and even look out the window to see the trees that often catch my eye during daily prayers there. But even more than simply being able to remember the colours, motifs and words of Halter’s designs, the catalogue presents an opportunity to look at them in detail, to analyse them as works of art, to remove them from what for me is their familiar context, to consider them anew. 

For the first time I consciously notice that in the ark doors the traditional motifs of lions of Judah rampant, usually heavy embroidery on thick velvet, have been transposed into coloured glass, enclosed in highly polished metal. The menorah of the temple, the ancient symbol of Israel is also broken into beautiful fragments. A sense of completeness comes to me as I recall a meditation student rabbis have brought to the Room of Prayer by Dan Nichols: I thank You for my life, body and soul / Help me realise I am beautiful and whole / I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too – somehow Halter was able tap into to this necessity of brokenness. The light of the Ner Tamid, the light always shining before the ark containing the Torah scrolls, is caught in the metal and glass, fragments reconnected with others to make a whole.

The book also brings another layer of connection. The works I am familiar with are now connected with others illustrated: vistas of Jerusalem at the Central Synagogue, animal rich foliage at the North Western Reform Synagogue. Halter’s visions of hope and growth like islands in the synagogues of the metropolis. The book also forces me to look away from the glass, to the words Zichron, remember, to the faces that Halter remembered and memorialised on paper of his family, friends and fellows and their suffering in the Shoah.

For those who prayer regularly, the liturgy becomes familiar, sometimes rote. It is the observation of a punctuation mark, of unexpected verb-ending that can make us look at a prayer completely anew. This catalogue of Roman Halter’s work has been the catalyst for me to look again at my familiar visual liturgy, and take solace and inspiration from his creative vision of brightness and renewal.