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Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed – The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination


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Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination
By Marc Michael Epstein, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 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. In The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination (2011), Marc Michael Epstein explores four seminal medieval Haggadot as paradigms of the creative relationship between sacred text and the Jewish visual imagination. The four – the Bird’s Head Haggadah (Ashkenazi ca. 1300), the Golden Haggadah (Sephardi ca. 1320), the Ryland’s Haggadah (Sephardi ca.1340) and its ‘Brother’ Ryland’s Haggadah (Sephardi ca.1340) – were created at “a crucial historical moment for the development of Jewish visual culture…[that] developed a renewed interest in narrative painting coterminous with the emergence of Christian narrative art.” Here I shall consider only his analysis of the mysterious Bird’s Head Haggadah (Israel Museum, Jerusalem MS 180/57), the earliest illuminated Haggadah we have, because it sets the fundamental tone and context for his research and conclusions. In future reviews, I hope to address his fascinating exploration of these other medieval Haggadot.

Esav and Yakov, fol. 12r, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

Epstein brilliantly deconstructs many assumptions and visual preconceptions we (and many earlier scholars) frequently bring to these medieval Haggadot in an analysis that returns us to their original social and religious contexts. He does this by insisting that we see the illuminations as an independent commentary to be understood in parallel with the Haggadah text, not subservient to it. Of course one of the greatest initial challenges he faces with the Bird’s Head Haggadah is the substitution of bird’s heads for almost all of the human heads in the manuscript. While other manuscripts around the turn of the 14th century, both Christian and Jewish, utilized this same motif, the vastly different contexts thwart a single understanding for all, and certainly not as a universal Jewish method of satisfying a halachic injunction against image making. Nonetheless here the visual affront is particularly difficult for modern eyes. Depicting Jews with bird’s heads is simply grotesque.

Many scholars see the use of bird’s heads in this southern German manuscript as indeed a negative pietistic concession to rabbinic censorship of Jewish image making. Only the Jews are depicted with bird’s heads while the non-Jewish faces (Pharaoh, angels, etc.) are depicted with no faces at all (any non-Jewish faces were later additions). Epstein identifies three halachic authorities in this region that provide the background for these distortions. Judah the Pious (1140-1217) is considered the founder of Chassidei Ashkenaz and strictly prohibited any image making. R. Meir of Rothenberg (1215 – 1293) disapproved of the practice as being a distraction from the text. Finally R. Ephraim of Ratisbon (Regensburg 1133 – 1200) prohibited only the human face but permitted depiction of animals and birds.

Moshe & Aaron & Akeidah, fol. 15v, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

In this context Epstein sees our Haggadah as a liberal approach to the issue of making human images. But then he notes that actually the heads depicted are composite creatures with many of the heads sporting strange mammalian ears! His conclusion is that what we have here is an extremely typical medieval composite creature found in many illuminated manuscripts: the griffin, a combination of the lion and an eagle. Naturally for Jews the composite creature of a lion (lion of Judah) and an eagle (on whose wings we will be redeemed from exile) would be a perfect choice. The griffin has an extensive iconography as a creature of honor and pride, Jewishly echoing the lions and eagles woven on the curtain on the Holy of Holies, those found on the divine Chariot of Ezekiel and even linked to the Ceruvim on the Ark of the Covenant. Far from a negative self-image, the griffin headed figures in this Haggadah are celebrations of Jewish identity, especially in contrast to the non-Jewish figures who literally have no substantive identity. The suitability of the griffin for the Jew’s heads in this manuscript, thought to have been created in the southern German city of Mainz, is further established by the text of a kinah for Tisha b’Av (Kinos; Rosenfeld, pg 133) by Kalonymus ben Judah (11th c Mainz) that mourns the destruction caused by the first crusade (1096); “For the noble ones of the esteemed congregation of Mainz who were swifter that eagles and stronger than lions.” Epstein’s analysis is breathtaking and convincing. The figures in the Bird’s Head Haggadah will never seem the same.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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