Articles in Category: Jewish Art Before 1800

Jewish Art Before 1800

Medieval Echoes

Written on April 18, 2014

Miriam Sings - Golden Haggadah
Rushing in from the Boston airport on a bright Sunday morning, I breathlessly rolled into Boston College’s Gasson Hall, surprised by the sumptuous kosher lunch set out, and settled into the first of a series of PowerPoint Presentations delivered about illuminated medieval Jewish manuscripts.  Within the blink of an eye, I was in heaven.  This was the beginning of a two day presentation of 8 serious scholarly papers; explorations into the complexities of the medieval Hebrew manuscript. Where else but in a Jesuit college?

Crossing Borders
Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Written on October 27, 2012

Tripartate Mahzor Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh HaShanah piyyut; “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’s praise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God.  The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Finding Moses: Part I

Written on September 02, 2012

Moses (1515) marble by Michelangelo Courtesy San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome Italy

As the year draws to a close we have the book of Deuteronomy before us week after week, reviewing many halachos and reminding us of our harrowing trek through the wilderness. Moshe Rabbeinu is the stern narrator, guiding us to the very edge of the Promised Land, a final step he will never take.  He pleads with God to let him enter the Land to no avail.

Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context

Written on July 30, 2012

Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

The Rylands Haggadah, created in Catalonia Spain sometime around 1330, is a towering masterpiece of Jewish Art.  In addition to pages of piyutim surrounded by ornate decorative and figurative micrography, richly decorated Haggadah text and blessings, there is a 13 page miniature cycle depicting the Exodus story from Moses at the Burning Bush to the Crossing of the Red Sea.

Christie’s Mahzor
At Home in Florence?

Written on April 28, 2012

Mahzor; “Kol Nidarim” illuminated manuscript (ca. 1490s) Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2012

The auction at Christie’s in Paris this May 11 of a Tuscan Mahzor, created and illuminated in the 1490’s, will be an extraordinary event.  This rare example of illuminated Jewish art has never before been seen publically in over 500 years and, aside from tantalizing internal suggestions, is lacking conclusive identification of the scribe and illuminators.

Golden Haggadah: A Unique Methodology
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination

Written on April 11, 2012

Golden Haggadah, fol. 14v, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript London, British Library Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein Yale University Press, 2011
The Golden Haggadah was created in Catalonia, Spain sometime around 1320.  So named because all the illustrations are placed against a patterned gold-leaf background, it is a ritual object of incredible luxury and expense.  In light of Marc Michael Epstein’s analysis found in his recent book “The Medieval Haggadah,” this tiny masterpiece of Jewish art easily ranks among other towering works of complex narration including Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in Rome. With his exhaustive analysis in hand we can now ‘read’ it with the same intense multifaceted interpretation as accorded scripture itself. 

Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination By Marc Michael Epstein, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2011

Written on March 18, 2012

Therefore: the Seder fol 26v, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein Yale University Press, 2011

The Dura Europos synagogue murals (245 CE) evidenced the first great flowering of Jewish visual creativity, quickly followed by the creation of at least 17 synagogue mosaic floors in Palestine. The next efflorescence of Jewish art was found in illuminated manuscript production in Spain and Germany over 600 years later. 

Mourning, Memory & Art

Written on August 07, 2011

Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts

David Roberts (1796-1864) was a Scottish painter who in the late 1830’s traveled extensively in the Levant and Egypt documenting “Orientalist” sites in drawings and watercolors. Together with the lithographer Louis Haghe, he marketed his work to a public eager for exotic scenes.  Queen Victoria was one of his first customers.

Considering Dura: Part I

Written on June 24, 2010

Akeidah – Torah Niche -Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

The dilemma of the Jewish artist is that he or she is often dismissed out of hand as a cultural and halachic impossibility.  And yet a very real history exists to reveal a great many antecedents.  Jews have made Jewish art for at least two thousand years; 20th & 19th century paintings, five hundred years of making ritual objects and illustrated prayer books, haggadahs, megillas and ketubos not to mention the extensive production of illuminated manuscripts between 1300 and 1500.

A Mohel’s Siddur
by Aryeh ben Judah Leib

Written on July 18, 2010

Tobias (detail) copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch Courtesy The Braginsky Collection

Imagine you are a mohel and, thank God, business is booming.  It’s a good living and you even have time to sit and learn in between the jobs that seem to crop up at least once a week.  Also you do a bit of doctoring and tutoring a few children in heder.  You think, “perhaps I should have a siddur to replace my father’s worn-out printed volume that he got from his father and then from his father…oh so many years ago.

Considering Dura: Part II

Written on June 23, 2010

Rescuing Moses - Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

Dura Europos looms large in the history of Jewish Art not only because of its place as the earliest example of Jewish Art but also because its achievements are seemingly at odds with the conceptual and halachic problems it presents.  The complexity and variety of Torah subjects depicted are more ambitious and extensive than any Jewish Art until the advent of the illuminated Haggadahs in Spain one thousand years later.

Considering Dura: Part III

Written on June 22, 2010

Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child- Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

The significance of the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue murals paradoxically lies less in their historical importance as the earliest example of Jewish narrative art than in their role as a paradigm of what is possible for contemporary Jewish artists.  After all, we have absolutely no other examples of Jewish narrative art on this scale and one might argue Dura is simply an aberration, a curiosity from Late Antiquity, never repeated.

The Braginsky Collection

Written on February 14, 2010

Akeida, Harrison Miscellany, 1720, Corfu, Greece Courtesy The Braginsky Collection

Five hundred years of Jewish manuscript and printed book illumination are presented in “Highlights from the Braginsky Collection” scheduled to open at Yeshiva University Museum on March 17, 2010.

Synagogues in Spain

Written on November 09, 2009

El Transito Synagogue, Eastern wall Toledo, Spain

A few weeks ago we stayed at a hotel in Seville, Spain called Las Casas de la Juderia, literally the houses of the Jewish Quarter.  It was beautiful, right next to an old church called Santa Maria la Blanca that was in medieval times a synagogue.  We had a terrace that overlooked the old church and the early morning air was filled with doves cooing.

Leipzig Machzor: A Vision from the Past

Written on October 22, 2009

Leipzig Machzor (ca.1300) Detail Eitan Courtesy Leipzig University Library

Seven hundred years ago in a synagogue in southwest Germany near the Rhine River, the chazzan opened a new machzor on Rosh Hashanah as he began Kol Nidrei.  The congregation glanced up and gasped as they saw the new prayer book he was davening from.