web analytics
April 28, 2015 / 9 Iyar, 5775
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post


Home » Sections » Arts »

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


McBee-033012-FrontPg

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


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed – The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Children asleep at the Kathmandu Chabad House in Nepal after the earthquake.
9 Israelis Still Missing in Nepal
Latest Sections Stories
Teens-Twenties-logo

The poetry slam required entrants to compose original poetry with powerful imagery and energetic rhythm bringing their poems to life – making it palpable to the audience.

Teens-Twenties-logo

“I was so inspired by the beautiful lessons I learned and by the holiness around me that I just couldn’t stop writing songs!” she says.

Schonfeld-logo1

But Pi Day is worst of all
I want the extra credit bad
But trying to remember many numbers
makes me sad.

Several thousand Eastern European Jews had escaped Nazi death and Soviet persecution by fleeing to Shanghai, China.

Now that we’re back to chometz, it’s just the right time to give thought to our wellbeing. Who doesn’t want to lose a few bulky matzah-and-potato pounds? Who wouldn’t like to eat smarter and feel better? If you’re like most people I know, these are probably the first things you’d like to address. It’s time […]

My mother-in-law and I have had our problems since the beginning of my marriage.

It was Lia van Leer who changed the image of filmmaking in Israel so that it is now seen as an expression of culture and not mere entertainment.

“People who never buy cookbooks are getting this one,” said Victoria. “They read it cover to cover and find it so interesting.”

We have recently witnessed how other minorities deal with even perceived danger aimed at their brothers and sisters. They respond in great numbers.

The Hebrew Academy students took part in all categories and used successful and innovative techniques to achieve their goals.

“The objective behind establishing small communities as places for relocation was a remedy for the excessive cost of housing and education in the large New York metropolitan market,” Mr. Savitsky explained.

Jewish Democrats did not entirely trust the son of Joseph Kennedy, a man broadly considered to be both anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi.

More Articles from Richard McBee
Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”

McBee-062014-Outside

He refuses to flinch from our painful history, perhaps finding a kind of solace in the consistency of irrational enmity directed against us.

“Vidduy: The Musical” breaks through the formidable barrier of repetitive confession to allow us to begin to understand what is at the heart of this fundamental religious act.

A fascinating glimpse into the rich complexity of medieval Jewish life and its contemporary relevance had intriguingly emerged.

Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in this column in “Brighton Beach Bible” (July 27, 2009).

Not surprisingly the guardians of synagogue tradition is male dominated in both Moses Abraham, Cantor and Mohel and Synagogue Lamp Lighters.

Neither helpless victims nor able to escape the killer’s clutches, the leaders had to make impossible choices on a daily basis in a never-ending dance with the devil.

Bradford has opted to fully exploit the diverse possibilities of the physical surface by concentrating on the three-dimensional application of paint (impasto) and other material.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/birds-head-haggadah-revealed-the-medieval-haggadah-art-narrative-religious-imagination/2012/03/29/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: