Country houses are symbols of national identity, evoking the glamorous world of the landowning aristocracy. “Jewish” country houses tell a more complex story – of prejudice and integration, difference and belonging.
Our new exhibition Country Houses, Jewish Homes explores how Jews arrived in Britain, and fought for the right to acquire land and the political rights and social status that came with it. This was a society still structured by Christianity and dominated by the landed aristocracy. What did owning an English country house mean for immigrant Jewish families like the Rothschilds or the Sassoons? Was it easy to lead a Jewish life in the countryside? And what did those Jews who bought country houses both grand and small bring to the places they came to call home?
From the early struggles for religious equality in Georgian Britain to the rise of modern political antisemitism and the tragedy of the Holocaust, this exhibition illuminates what it means to be British, and the changing place of both Jews and the country house in British life.
This exhibition is curated by Abigail Green and Marcus Roberts and is part of the work of the ‘Jewish Country Houses’ project at the University of Oxford, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [grant number AH/S006656/1].
The exhibition is made up of the panels provided by the ‘Jewish Country Houses’ project and objects relating to local Country House, Worth Park.
The Montefiore family were of the Jewish ‘Sephardi’ Faith and the emblems are an adapted version of what was a much elaborate crest dating back to 1630.
The first Montefiore Family Crest was found on a red silk curtain embroidered in gold thread to adorn the Holy Ark (Aron Kodesh) in Pesaro, Italy. This very early Torah Ark curtain was embroidered in 1620 by Rachel Olivetti of Pesaro, on the occasion of her marriage to her husband, Judah Montefiore. The curtain today hangs in the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem.
Sir Moses Montefiore, the great uncle of Sir Francis Abraham Montefiore, had a Coat of Arms designed for his personal use in 1819 using the Italian Family Crest. The lion, hills and cedar tree were the central features.
By the mid-18th century, the Montefiore Family Crest took a firmer shape. The main features were still the lion and hills, and by now also a palm tree. Each was accompanied by an appropriate text in Hebrew, translated below.
The Lion: “Be strong as a lion to perform the will of your father in Heaven.” (Pirke Avot 5:23)
The Hills: “When I lift my eyes to the hills I ask from where comes my help? My help comes from the Lord.” (Psalm 121:1)
The Palm Tree: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”(Psalm 92:12).
Incidentally, the palm tree and lion were early emblems of the hill town of Montefiore Conca, in the Romagna region of Italy. This is possibly where the Montefiores’ came from, or a place they passed through. The palm was later changed to a cedar tree. The text from Psalm 92 caters to both options.
When Sir Moses became a Baronet in 1841, Queen Victoria granted him the supporters. His Knighthood was at the request of Queen Victoria for his many good works. Sir Moses choose symbols from the ancient Montefiore Family Crest however decided to simplify the previous elaborate design choosing the words Think and Thank as his motto to simplify the longer text. Sir Moses died in 1885; three months before his 100th birthday leaving no legitimate heirs to continue the title.
Wanting to retain a Montefiore Baronet, Queen Victoria in February 1886 revived the title and bestowed it on Francis Abraham Montefiore; the closes male heir to Sir Moses Montefiore. Sir Francis Abraham Montefiore adopted the crest used by his Great Uncle.
The Lion- The ‘Lion of Judah’ is seen holding a ‘Tree of Life’, with the banner showing the word ‘Jerusalem’ in Hebrew written in the old Biblical way.
The Cedar Tree- The Cedar Tree stands for righteousness and strength. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was built with cedar wood.
The Hills- The small hills with flowers of them, either side of the cedar tree, represent a mountain. In Italian, the word ‘Monte’ means mountain and ‘Fiore’ means flower.
Motto- The Montefiore family motto is ‘Jerusalem’ and appears on the banners. Think and Thank are written underneath the shield.
Stars of David/ Magen David- There are two Magen Davids either side of a dagger. These were once used as symbols of Jewish Identity but are now symbols of the State of Israel.
Dagger- In Heraldry, the dagger above the cedar tree, represents ‘Power, Justice and Valour’. Queen Victoria would have conferred Knighthoods in the traditional way by using a sword.
Collectively, the twelve points of the two stars and the point of the sword represent the 13 Attributes of Mercy.
Hamsa- Scarcely visible above the dagger. This offers protection from ‘the evil eye’
Helmet- The open helmet above the shield represents the highest rank of nobility in Heraldry.
Supporters- The lion and stag are ‘supporters’ granted by Queen Victoria. They are holding banners with the words ‘Jerusalem’ written on them. Symbols of the Kingdom of Judea and Isreal, the lion is the emblem of the Tribe of Judah and the stag is the emblem of the Tribe of Naphtali. In Ethics of The Fathers, it is written “…Be as swift as a deer and as strong as a lion…”
Colours- Blue, Silver and Gold are the colours featured in the Montefiore Coat of Arms. Blue and Gold became the Montefiore family colours.
The image of the lion sitting upon a coronet base (the twisted ribbon) holding the pennon (pennant/banner) with the word ‘Jerusalem’ was used as a shortened version of the Coat of Arms.
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