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


A similarly incisive analysis is extended to the Judenhut or Jew’s hat that is worn by only some of the bird-head Jews. By means of internal comparisons Epstein proves that the hat, only enforced as a punitive identifier of Jews later in the mid to late 14th century, was here used to signify adult males of substance and piety, i.e. superlatively Jewish! Therefore both the bird’s heads and Jew’s hat are positive, normative symbols of proud Jewish identity, contrary to much received scholarship and our initial impression.

One notable exception to this motif of depiction is the figure of Joseph seen in Egypt as Jacob and his sons are entering. Joseph has indeed a bird head like all the other Jews, but he is lacking the honorable Judenhut. Epstein reads this seeming contradiction as evidence of the illumination being in tension with the normative rabbinic view of Joseph as the paradigmatic righteous Jew. One defining factor of Jewish life at the time was the problematic phenomenon of certain Jews’ close relationship to the local rulers, precursors to the later Court Jews. This is of course the narrative truth of Joseph’s role in Egypt. He seemed so Egyptian in dress and speech that his brothers did not recognize him as a Jew at all. And indeed in a telling critical gesture the artist denied Joseph a Judenhut. As Epstein explains, “it is necessary to understand iconography as exegesis: commentary on the way scripture was read through the rabbinic lens, offered from the perspective of medieval experience.”

Splitting the Reed Sea, fol. 21v, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

In many aspects of his analysis Epstein links the specifics of the illuminations, their exact placement alongside the Haggadah text and the choice of certain episodes over others as a running commentary on tensions and conditions of the contemporary Jews of Mainz in the 14th century, both internally and in relation to the surrounding Christian culture.

Considering the fact that “in medieval Jewish visual culture there were few if any iconographic conventions,” the Jewish artist was forced to utilize the “common iconography of the period and place.” Therefore Epstein provocatively states, “the central program of medieval Jewish visual culture was radical reinterpretation” necessitating a “revolutionary and creative exegetical enterprise in and of itself, the tools of which were cutting, pasting and juxtaposition.” This concept casts Jewish art of the medieval period and, perhaps almost all periods, into a radically different and subversive light. It transforms the well-worn trope that generally Jews either do not possess or have only a weak visual culture into a complex and powerful tool to both create a vibrant Jewish visual art and simultaneously comment on our relations with the surrounding civilization.

While with the selective use and interpretation of symbols Epstein locates one level of meaning, his analysis of ‘clusters’ of subjects reveals the narrative sequence as a more expansive meaning source. Specifically he “believes the arrangement of the illustrations represents the singular genius of its particular authorships.”

Matan Torah fol 23r, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

In tracing three narrative clusters as they appear in the unfolding Haggadah text and additionally an interweaving of the Passover sacrifice and home observance, Epstein finds potent parallels to medieval Jewish life and concerns. The initial depiction of Esav opposite Jacob establishes “a parallel with or a response to Christian images of Ecclesia and Synagoga,” a persistent tension for 14th century Jews elaborated on at the bottom of the same page with Jacob and his sons entering Egypt and, one page away, the depiction of beardless, hatless Jewish slave labor building Pishom and Ramses; surely “images of displacement or alienation” all too familiar to medieval Jewry.

Next to the phrase, “We cried out to Hashem” Moses and Aaron are depicted praying to the Divine Presence as a blue cloud, in stark contrast to the text’s reference to the cries of Jewish slave labor. Epstein feels that this disjuncture indicates that the figures actually refer to Psalm 99:6-8 “Moses and Aaron…would call to the Lord and he would answer them…” At the bottom of this page we see the Akeidah stopped just in time under the words “and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.” Medieval Ashkenazi Jews, “reinterpreted the Akeidah narrative as a mirror of their own communal martyrdom, so fresh in their communal memory.” The artist therefore sees Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice that “becomes the basis of a [literal] covenant between God and Israel.” Guided by Epstein’s analysis, it is important to note that in this narrative cluster, the illuminations are specifically NOT illustrating the Haggadah text. Rather they are offering a supercommentary that presents a deeply contemporary parallel visual ‘text.’

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

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