Religion & Spirituality

Everything is Illuminated: Mining the Art of Illustrated Haggadah Manuscripts for Meaning

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  Everything is Illuminated: Mining the Art oIllustrated Haggadah Manuscripts for Meaning Everything is Illuminated: Mining the Art of Illustrated Haggadah Manuscripts for Meaning We have discussed haggadah illustrations in the past (see the links at the end of this post) and we wanted to expandand update upon that discussion for this year. In this post we focus on Hebrew illuminated haggadah manuscripts, and in thefollow-up post will turn our attention to printed illustrated haggadot. While there is not as large of a body of Jewish art as that of art in general, historically Jews have appreciated thevisual arts early in their evolution into a nation. Aside from the biblical forms, we have evidence of art dating to the secondcentury of the common era in the well-known frescos at the Dura-Europos synagogue.[1] But, such appreciation was notlimited to second century Palestinian Jews, as evidenced from the discussion below, this appreciation continued, almostunabated, until the modern period. It was not just the artist class or wealthy acculturated Jews that were exposed to andadmired this medium. For example, in the 1560 Mantua haggadah, one of the more important printed illustrated haggadot,the wise son appears to be modeled after Michelangelo’s Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel (view it here: link). Lest one think that it is highly unlikely that a 16th century Italian Jew would have even entered the chapel, let alone beenfamiliar with this painting, a contemporaneous account of Jewish art appreciation disabuses those assumptions. Specifically,Giorgi Vasari, the 16th century artist and art historian, in his  Lives of Excellent Painters  (first published in 1560), recordsregarding Michelangelo’s statute of Moses – that is a full statute depicting the human form and was placed in the church of San Pietro in Rome – that “the Jews [go] in crowds, both men and women, every Saturday, like flocks of starlings, to visitand adore the statue.” That is, the Sabbath afternoon activity was to go to church to admire the statute of Moses, that is morefamous for having horns than its Jewish visitors.[2]  Hebrew Manuscripts Background A brief background regarding Hebrew manuscripts before delving into the illuminated haggadah manuscripts. Detailsregarding manuscripts, the name of the copyist, the date, and the place where the manuscript was written, were supplied notat the beginning of the book – as is the convention with printed books and title pages – instead in manuscripts thisinformation is provided at the end. For this reason, the scribe’s note containing the information was called a colophon – fromthe Greek word kolofon , meaning “summit” or “final point.”[3]Number of Hebrew mss. A cautious guess of the number of extant Hebrew manuscripts in existence is between 60,000 -70,000 “but no morethan 30-40 thousand of them predate the middle of the sixteenth century.”[4] Of the 2-3 hundred thousand Hebrewmanuscripts presumed in existence in Europe at the beginning of the fourteenth century, probably no more than four to fivethousand are extant today, possibly even less. “From the tenth century (before which information is very scarce) to 1490(when the influence of printing books began to be felt)” there are an estimated one million manuscripts, meaning, “that 95per cent of manuscripts have disappeared.”[5] In addition, the early printed books – incunabula – had similar survival rates. The dearth of manuscripts has left a significant hole in our knowledge of major Jewish texts. For example, there isonly one complete manuscript of the Palestinian Talmud (1289) and two partial manuscripts. The Babylonian Talmud faredslightly better, with one complete manuscript (1342) and 63 partial manuscripts in libraries, with only 14 dating from the12th & 13th centuries.[6] One of the partial TPs is known as the Vatican Codex 133 – and worth mentioning is the Vatican and its roleregarding Hebrew manuscripts. While there is no doubt that the Church had a significant hand in reducing the number of manuscripts – in reality the destruction of Hebrew manuscripts was the work of the Jesuits and not the Roman CatholicChurch. Indeed, the Church confiscated and, thus in some instances preserved Hebrew manuscripts. Consequently, we havea number of important Jewish texts that survive in the Vatican library. Today, many of these manuscripts have beenpublished. The incomplete manuscript of the TP is but one example. Additionally, regarding the use of (rather than justreprinting) the Vatican library, for at least late 19th century, Jews had access to the library. For example, R. Raphael NathanRabinowitz, who authored a monumental work on Talmudic variants provides that “I prayed to God to permit me entrance tothe Vatican library to record variant readings” his prayer was answered, and he received permission not only to use it duringregular hours but “even on days that it was closed due to Christian holidays, when the library was closed to all, and evenmore so Jews.”[7] In total he spent close to 9 months in the library. In addition, Rabbi Rabinowitz’s presence and specialstatus at the Vatican library was instrumental for the editing of the Vilna Talmud, where he secured permission for theRomm-employed copyists to work with manuscripts of the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel, even though they arrived inRome during the summer season when the library was closed. Of the estimated one million Hebrew manuscripts from the 10th century until 1490, approximately 5% havesurvived. As mentioned, religious persecution was one reason, but the main reasons are (1) deterioration from use, (2)accidents, and (3) reuse. The first two are self-explanatory, the third requires a bit of explanation. From the times thatmanuscripts were written on papyrus, unwanted manuscripts were scraped or washed and then reused. (This papyrusrecycling was not confined to reusing for books, papyrus was used from wrapping mummies, burned for its aroma, and used,according to Apices, to wrap meat for cooking). Similarly, leather and parchment were recycled, in the more egregious  examples for shoe leather but in many cases for book bindings. The latter reuse would be critical to the survival of numerous Hebrew manuscripts which have now been reclaimed from bindings. It is estimated that there are 85,000 suchbinding fragments. “The commonest use of written folios, however, was in bindings, whether for binding strips, end papers,or covers.”[8] Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts The “earliest examples of Jewish book illumination are tenth-and eleventh-century Bible codices written in theOrient or Near East. The illuminations are not figurative but consist of a number of decorative carpet pages adorned withabstract geometric or micrographic designs preceding or following the Biblical text.”[9] While these early illuminatedmanuscripts did not contain human figures, they did contain the first iterations of something unique to Jewish manuscripts,“one form of manuscript depiction unique to Jewish manuscripts is micrography with the earliest examples of this art maybe found in the tenth-century Bibles written in the Orient.”[10] A beautiful example of this art can be seen in the carpetpages for the Leningrad Codex. Similar non-representational geometric art was incorporated into Islamic art to avoid graphic representation. Consequently, symmetrical forms were created which required advances in math theory to accommodate the ever morecomplex art.Hebrew manuscripts did not adopt the Islamic convention – for the most part – and the earliest illustrations of humanfigures appear in Franco-Ashkenazic manuscripts – bibles – of the thirteenth century.The earliest extant illustrated haggadah[11] is what is known as the Birds’ Head Haggadah dated to the early 1300s.The moniker “Birds’ Head” comes from the fact that the illustrator used birds heads/griffins in place of human heads. Thismanuscript is not the only Jewish manuscript to use zoophilic (the combination of man and beast) images. Zoophilic imagescan be found in a variety of contexts in Jewish manuscripts. For example, in the manuscript known as Tripartite Machzor,men are drawn normally while the women are drawn with animal heads.[12] The name of this Machzor comes from therandom fact that the manuscript was split up into three. At times manuscripts are titled by location (Leipzig Mahzor),history (tripartite) or owner. In one example, the “Murphy Haggadah” “ suffered a fate all too common to many Hebrew  texts. Before the Second World War the manuscript belonged to Baron Edmond de Rothschild. During the war it was stolenand sold to an American, F.T. Murphy, who bequeathed it to Yale University, his alma matter. For years it was known as the“Murphy Haggadah” until, in 1980, a Yale scholar, Prof. J. Marrow, identified as belonging to the Rothschilds. Themanuscript was returned to the Rothschild family and presented by the Baroness Dorothy to the Jewish National Library.[13] When it comes to the Birds’ Head manuscript, a variety of reasons have been offered for its imagery, running thegamut from halachik concerns to the rather incredible notion that the images are actually anti-Semitic with a bird’s beakstanding in for the Jewish nose trope and the claim that the ears on the “birds” are reminiscent of pigs’ ears. Generally, thoseclaiming halackhic, or more particular pietistic reasons, do so because they are unable “to conceive of such a bizarre andfanciful treatment of the human image as emerging from anywhere other than the twisted and febrile imagination of religious fanatics.”[14] But, in reality the use of bird’s head in lieu of human “reflects a liberal halakhic position rather thanan extreme one.”[15] The camp of Yehuda ha–Hassid would ban all human, animal and celestial depictions, a more liberalposition from this perspective permits animal images. And, while that position doesn’t explicitly permit a depiction half-animal half-human, the zoophilic images appear to show they were allowed, as the illuminator and owner of the Birds HeadHaggadah agreed with that position. Aside from halakha, and the meaning or lack thereof behind “birds”, a close examination how the illuminator usedthis convention yields surprising nuance and commentary. While most of the images carry a bird’s head, there are a few exceptions. Most notably, non-Jews, both corporeal andspiritual do not. Instead, non-Jewish humans as well as angels have blank circles instead of faces. But, there is one scenethat poses a problem. One illustration shows the Jews fleeing Egypt (all with birds’ heads), being pursued by Pharaoh andhis army. Pharaoh and his army are depicted faceless. But, unlike the rest of the figures inPharaoh’s army, two figures appear withbirds’ heads. Some write this off tocarelessness on the illustrator’s part.Epstein, who credits his (then) ten-year oldson for a novel explanation, offers thatthese two figures are Datan and Aviram,two prominent members of the erev rav ,those Jews who elected to remain behind.Indeed, they are brandishing whipsindicative of their role as nogsim (Jewishtaskmasters, or the precursor toJewish Sonderkommando ). While theillustrator included them with theEgyptians, he still allowed them to remain with their “Jewish” bird’s head. This is a powerful idea regarding the idea of sin,and specifically, the Jewish view that even when a Jew sins, they still retain their Jewish identity – their “birds head.” Sin,and including sinners as Jews, are motifs that are highlighted on Pesach with the mention of the wicked son and perhaps isalso indicated with this illustration. The illustrator could have left Datan and Aviram out entirely or decided to mark themsome other way rather than the Birds’ head. Thus, utilizing this explanation allows for the illustrator to enable a broaderdiscussion about not only the exodus and the Egyptian army’s chase, but expands the discussion to sin, repentance, Jewishidentity, inclusiveness and exclusiveness and other related themes.[16] Once we have identified the Jews within the haggadah, we need to discuss another nuance in their depiction. Thefull dress of the adult male bird is one with a beard and a “Jewish hat,”  pieus conutus  – a peaked hat, or the Judenhut. Children and young servants are bareheaded. But, there are three other instances of bareheadness that are worthy of discussion. (1) Joseph in Egypt, (2) the Jews in Egypt and (3) Datan and Aviram. The similarity between all three is thateach depicts a distance from god or Jewish identity. Joseph, unrecognizable to his brothers, a stranger in a strange land, andwhile inwardly a Jew, externally that was not the case.   The Jews in Egypt had sunk to the deepest depths on impurity, far from God. Finally, as we discussed previously,Datan and Aviram are also removed from god and the Jewish people. Again, the illustrator is depicting Jews – they all havethe griffin heads – but they are distinct in their interaction with god and the Jewish people.[17] Using this interpretation of the griffin images, yields yet another subtle point regarding inclusion, and also injectssome humor into the haggadah. The dayenu  panel has splitting of the sea, the manna and the giving of the Torah. Themiddle panel is less clear. Some posit that it is the Jews celebrating at the sea, but there is no indication of that because inmost manuscripts, that includes Miriam, and the Egyptians drowning, not just five random images. Instead, it appears that the person to theleft is speaking (his hand is over his heart amedieval convention to indicate speech),and they are approaching the older figureon the left. All are griffin headed andJudenhut attired – so Jews and regularones. Between the splitting of the sea andthe manna and quails the Jews complainedto Moses. Its possible that this is what isbeing depicted here, the complaining Jews,and the illustration serves as a testament toGod’s patience and divine plan, the themeof dayenu , that even though wecomplained and did X, God still broughtthe manna, quail and Torah.[18] If these are in fact the complainers, we can theorize about another detail of the image. Above the figure at the leftand the right, is faint cursive (enhanced here for visibility as much as possible) that reads: “  Dass ist der Meirer  (this isMeir)  Dass ist der Eisik   (this is Issac).”[19] Thus Meir and Issac are being chided – but not kicked out – for complainingtoo much (rather than representing an unclear image of the Jews celebrating at the sea or just evidencing poor dancing).
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