In my work, I examine and compare the signs used in abstract communication systems. These come from areas such as history, ethnology, writing system research, religion or the natural sciences and cover a period dating from prehistoric rock drawings up to modern-day electronically data processing. It is the graphical qualities of these signs, which is most important for me and not the philosophical content or scientific significance.

In the former synagogue in Oerlinghausen, Schwabach, Erfurt and Wittlich little more than the name reminds one of the religious significance of this space and the rituals that have taken place within it. In my exhibition there, I would like to call this significance to mind and to return it to its original place.

The works for this site-specific project are based on the Hebraic writing. This alphabet, derived from the Phonetician alphabet, consists of 22 letters and is one of the oldest alphabets in the world. It is a holy alphabet. According to rabbinical accounts Yahweh wrote the 10 commandments in black fire upon white flames emanating from his lap. This is symbolized even today by the ritual of writing the Torah scrolls (the five books of Moses) and the holy books with their black square letters (black fire) on white vellum made from the hides of kosher animals (white fire). Only when these two elements are united do Yahweh commandments, and thus Yahweh himself, come into being. The letters are embodied with great creative powers. Yahweh created heaven and earth with his words. When a practising Jew speaks one of the letters of this alphabet, he arouses its divine spark, which returns into the heavenly centre/Yahweh from whence this spark originated. The series of works about the Hebraic script consists of 22 square, individual sheets, each 27 3/4 in. The carrier is paper, upon which painted layers of yellow red and grey have been covered with white glazes. The white ground is to refer to the above-mentioned white fire. Additionally, the whitish ground alludes to the desert with its shades of yellow, red and grey. The desert has surrounded the Israelites from their beginnings to the present day. For this reason, white is the colour of the tablecloth used on the Sabbath. It reminds one of the manna that fell from the heavens in the desert on this day. The modified and transformed letters of the Hebraic alphabet appear in blue against this white background. According to the Old Testament Commandment (4. Moses, Chapter 15, Verse 38-41) tassels (Zizith) are to be attached to the four corners of the ancient Jewish robes. These tassels are made of strings, one of which has to be blue. Every time the faithful look at this tassel they are to think of Yahweh commandments and obey them. Blue has ceased to be used in tassels today. The ancient robe evolved into a prayer shawl (Tallith) with four white tassels in the corners. Nevertheless the religious significance of the colour blue remained the quintessential Jewish colour, the divine colour and the equilibrium between black and white, day and night and heights and depths.

A publication is to accompany the project. The 22 letters employed are to be depicted. Additionally, there will be some illustrations with the signs in the room. Furthermore, this publication is to contain an art historical text and a text on Hebraic writing by an authority working at a scientific institution in Judaic research. The title of this publication and the exhibition is like the first line of the Torah (Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1) In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.


As described above, with my exhibition project I want to recall the former religious and sacred significance of the "space" in Glockengasse. Due to its different use today, this former significance has almost completely vanished from our consciousness. By choosing the sacred Hebrew letters and their colours, this significance returns to this "space" for a limited time. The letters and the colour are part of the Torah and the Tallit; they are signs of religious thought and ritual activities, which were once present in this "space".

Johannes Senf                                                                                                                                                                                         Cologne 2002

                                                                                                                     translation from German by the translation office Denzig Cologne
1996; Kremepigments, acrylic, Archespaper; 22 parts, each 27 3/4 in.

Johannes Senf, signs on paper

Ot, in Hebrew the word, the letter, the biblical synonym for witness, sign and miracle, represents in the abundance of Ottijjot a concept, an idea, the mode in which God delivers his will. "Knowing the meaning of the letters of the alphabet," says Gabriele Mandel, "signifies knowing the divine essence of the world of appearances, and the structure of the world of appearances finds its precise correspondence in the letters of the alphabet, from which and thanks to which ultimately every thought, and consequently all human consciousness, is formed."

The five books of Moses, the Torah, were codified and transmitted in Canaanite, i.e. Old Hebrew, an alphabetic language, which was developed from Phoenician but with features of its own, which were unknown to the latter. The oldest document in Old Hebrew writing is the so-called "Gezer Calendar" from the ninth century BC. Old Hebrew was scarcely used any more for daily communication from the late 5th century BC, but was carried on in the written culture of the Samaritans, and it appears again as a national signal of Jewish unity in the second century BC, the time of the uprising of Judas Maccabeus, and on coins of the first and second centuries AD during the Jewish revolt against the Romans.

In post-Babylonian times, Hebrew functioned mainly as a cul-tic and literary language, while Aramaic was used for everyday purposes. In the forties of the 5th century BC, Aramaic textual signs were also preferred by Ezra, including for the Tanakh texts (Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim), but the name of God, Yahweh, was written only in Old Hebrew letters and in block form. The Hebrew "square script" has been the sacred symbol of Judaism for more than two thousand years. When the Hebrew language fell silent, there was an urgent need for an unambiguous sound system for written words, a vocalisation of the consonantal script used in Hebrew, transitionally achieved by allocating the semi-consonantal signs. From the 7th to the 10th century, various diacritical vowel systems were used (points and strokes above and below the consonants). Modern editions of the Hebrew Bible use the Masoretic vowel sign system.

The "square script" had its origins in the Aramaic branch of Semitic writing systems. The oldest document in Aramaic square script, from 515 BC, comes from Egypt. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrew elite from the northern state and their direct contact with Aramaic, the Hebrews took over the Aramaic alphabet and shaped its signs into the characteristic Hebrew "square script", whose coherence and consistency through almost 2000 years are astonishing. Since the first dated handwritten document of 896, the script has undergone almost no notable change.

The conceptual work of Johannes Senf, originally created as a spatial project in remembrance of the ritual meeting places and the study of scripts in the former synagogues of Interlingua's, Erfurt, Wittlich and Schwabach, includes 22 tables with forms abstracted from the Hebrew script. The religiously determined, sound-coded signs are limited to the aesthetic dimension by reducing and stylising the original, to remove them, apparently, from linguistic communication. There is still the riddle of the creation of meaning for alienated written signs as blue lines on yellow, red and grey pigmented, white glazed squares – blue as the colour of the divine, a reminder of the zizith, the threads on the fringes on the talith, revived in the flag of Israel. White (on a coloured background) as symbol of the desert and the thaw that covered the manna in front of the huts of the Jews on their flight from Egypt is a reminder of the white cloth for the Sabbath breads. The square base area refers to the concept of "square script", whose letters, however, are not written into an equilateral so much as a vertically extended rectangle. The square also has art-historical references up to Malevich's "Black Square" of Suprematism, a term which may possibly go back to the Polish derivation of the Latin word "supremus" – the ruler, the superior.

Interestingly, the open Mem, and, even more, the closed Mem, in the Hebrew alphabet reminds one most clearly of the square, and in relation to the alphabet of Rabbi Akiba, where the question arises why there is a two-in-one expression of the Mem, it takes up the secret of the Throne of Glory, where the letters are "all engraved in the orders of the Flame on the Throne of Glory, and establish crowns of light on its (the orders') heads..." With the sign of the closed Mem the holy man is called the "Lord of Lords" and his kingdom rules over everything!

According to the idea of Suprematism, the black square on a white ground, which embodies the non plus ultra of Suprematist aesthetics, is only meaningful as such, in itself and in the work of Malevich – its development, its structure – it means nothing: it is.

The – in spite of everything – philosophic and religious dimension of Suprematism, over and beyond the new liberating approach to life of "excitement", is defined through Malevich's expression of the square as "a naked, unframed icon". Understood in this way, the image was shown, at the "last Futurist exhibition" organised in Petrograd by Ivan Puni, at an angle in the "beautiful corner", the place devoted to the sign of the cross.

With his 22 plates, Johannes Senf is not so much concerned with the symbolic meaning of the Hebrew letters, explained through Jewish mysticism, especially the symbolism of the Cabbala in the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), the alphabet of Rabbi Akiba and the Book of the Image (Sefer ha-temuna) in reference to phonetic and graphic studies, but focuses rather on the calligraphic play of the lines as an adaptation of the sound-reflecting signs that carry no meaning beyond themselves. Consequently, the square for the closed Mem, which is in fact understood by Senf, not taking the base curve into account, as the letter Samekh, does not have the mystical association that binds Mem with water, namely the forty days of the Great Flood (open Mem), the subterranean river (closed, final Mem) and the pregnant womb. In addition to these, Mem symbolises the unconscious conditions of the mind, the ability to reproduce, the first word of the creation and the esoteric dimension of the Torah. As the number forty it is a reminder, among other things, of the amount of water taken in by kosher Mikwe, the forty days of the fast in the desert, the forty days spent by Moses on Mount Sinai...

"Pre-condition for the rebirth, the new beginning in painting, sculpture, architecture, applied arts and writing."

Indeed, the narrowing path of the culture of painting led to the square, but, on the other hand, a new culture is beginning to bear fruit. Indeed, we welcome the bold man who threw himself into the abyss so that he could arise from the dead again in a new form... (El Lisitzky on Malevich)

The square as the perfect form, white and black as symbols of the greatest contrast, of heaven and earth, of light and darkness – the "square script" is black on the white parchment of the Torah – have an existential, religious meaning beyond time and space. Just as in the consciousness of the Sofer every word he writes is "the Word", as if God were dictating it to him in person, "art demands" according to Malevich, "that its necessary forms be performed." Incidentally, even Malevich's black square is not a perfect equilateral form. Without the help of geometry, only with pure colours he wants to make the human hand tangible in the most delicate lines and surfaces of the square – pure painting, not only in its exclusiveness but also in its purity and absence of falseness (without representational restraints) – this is the consistency of Malevich.

Marion Méndez (director of the museum Synagogue Gröbzig)                                                                                             Halle/Saale 2007

                                                                                                                  translation from German by the translations office Denzig Cologne