The Story of Sacred Art to Carousel Horses

This is a story of perseverance. And love. And history. And more.

For me, it began with a love of carousel animals, the magical artistry that produced the horses, the lions, the giraffes and the frogs of those fanciful turn-of-the-century merry-go-rounds, mostly now gone.

For artist and teacher Murray Zimiles, it was the love of wooden synagogues that led to his guest curating "Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel," on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

The show includes scores of marvelous religious carvings of animals - Jewish law forbade the human form in sacred art - as well as gravestone art and wonderfully intricate paper cutouts, which hung in Eastern European synagogues and homes. It also includes a dozen delightful carved carousel animals, produced in the late 18th and early 19th century by Jewish woodcarvers who emigrated to New York. How Zimiles traced one to the other is the show's story.

Twenty years ago, Zimiles, a Millerton, NY, resident and a professor at Purchase College, read and was smitten by "Wooden Synagogues," which depicted 16th-18th century synagogues in Europe, most now destroyed. That led to travels in Poland, where he became entranced by the carvings that had decorated them.

Back home, he dug out a catalog from the folk art museum of a show in the mid-80s, "The Jewish Heritage in American Folk Art." That's when he realized the connection between the tradition of Jewish religious carving in Europe and its more secular form in America. He was hooked on exploring it. The folk museum agreed to let him do it.

What he discovered as he set across Europe on his search was a world of exquisite wood carvings and gravestone markers, often in animal - lions, eagles, serpents - and floral form. Elaborate paper cutouts were sometimes used as preliminary "drawings" for carvers but also depicted psalms for synagogue interiors or in homes, served as mizrahs, signs that indicate east, the direction of Jerusalem and of prayer. Paper cutouts were made with small scissors on folded paper, with further details cut with tiny knives; interestingly, these incredibly intricate pieces were made by boys and men. Much of the carving was family based, passed down from father to son. The artists were most often anonymous but the level of their work bespoke years of training.

The religious carvings in the "Gilded Lions" are indeed gorgeous; the surprise is the breathtaking beauty of the paper cutouts. Their elaborate intricacy and detail is astounding, the birds and animals, including wolves, unicorns, snakes and elephants are wildly imaginative. These are amazing works, not the least because of their painstaking painting in brilliant colors.

The fervor and talent that went into these art forms were often translated, when the artists came to the United States, into more secular forms.

"This is a very American story," Zimiles said. "From the sacred to the secular... it's an immigrant's story, too." In Europe, he said, "You had to look to the messianic future; there was nothing else to look toward. But in America, you were judged on who you were and what you could do, not on your religious fervor."

As Eastern European Jews were emigrating to the United States, amusement areas were beginning to flourish in cities around the country. And with them came the carousel, and in turn, "schools" of carousel carving. One such area, and school, was Coney Island, which absorbed a number of master Jewish carvers.

And so it was that the primary creators of carousels in Coney Island - comprising the "Coney Island School"- were Eastern European Jews: Marcus Charles Illions, Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein, and Charles Carmel (there were doubtless others, but Anglicizing names and the lack of documentation make it difficult to know for sure).

Each carver had his particular style and arguably the most talented was Marcus Charles Illions, the son of a Russian horse-trader, who knew the horse anatomy intimately. His shop eventually employed his extended family. His horses, of which two are on display in this show along with a muscular lion, were "some of the most animated carousel animals ever made," Zimiles said.

But Illions had competition: Two were Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, who originally worked for another Jewish immigrant carver of horses, William Mangels. Together, Stein and Goldstein produced 17 carousels, one of which - the carousel in Central Park - is still in operation.

Charles Carmel also worked for Mangels, and then opened his own shop, which produced a carousel for Coney Island's Dreamland Park. The day before it was scheduled to open, the entire park burned to the ground. From then on Carmel sold his animals to other manufacturers of carousels, including Mangels and Stein and Goldstein.

It's clear from viewing the wonderful specimens on display in the show that the Coney Island carvers absorbed the methods employed in "the old country": the visual iconography of lions, birds, serpents; the fully dimensional carving techniques; the pierced scrollwork and vivid coloring of paper cutouts; the intricate vines and flowers from gravestones that later adorned horses' manes and bridles. One look at the snarling lions guarding the Torah's ark makes clear the lineage of the snarling lion at the arcade.

The melding of that tradition with elements from other cultures the new immigrants found here and embraced gave the American carousel its particularly innovative, playful and imaginative aspect that allowed it "to reach a height of artistry not achieved elsewhere," writes Zimiles in the show's accompanying book. And this melding made the Coney Island School "In my opinion, probably the greatest carousel carving school."

The carousel building business collapsed just before the Depression, brought about by dwindling supplies after World War I, the public's desire for more thrilling rides and machines which began to produce animals in aluminum more efficiently - if less beautifully. And by immigrants who raised their sons not to carve, but to go to college. The Depression itself drove the last nail, so to speak, in the coffin. And so another art form began to disappear.

At one point in his research, Zimiles said, "I thought, 'If I get hit by a truck, I'm the only person who knows about this stuff.' "

Luckily, no longer.




"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses:The Synagogue to the Carousel," is on view at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd St., through March 23. For information, go to


The accompanying hard-back book of the same name, with abundant color and black-and-white illustrations, is available at the museum and at Oblong Books in Millerton, NY .

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