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December 2, 2015 / 20 Kislev, 5776
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Christie’s Mahzor: At Home in Florence?

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

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

In its way the illuminated initial word “Hashkiveinu (Lay us down to sleep)” is clearer and more to the point. The homebound prayer of the bedtime Shema is here illustrated with a scene in a canopied bed. The husband is on the far side of the bed, his red kippah identifying him as he faces towards the rear wall ostensibly saying the bedtime Shema. His wife is seen on the near side of the bed, holding the covers up over her body and facing us with a startled and concerned expression. Piety and modesty in action.

Mahzor; “Blessing the Moon” illuminated manuscript (ca. 1490s). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2012

Perhaps another cross-cultural expression is to be found in the full-page illumination of “Order of Rosh Chodesh and Blessing the Moon.” The scene is set with a Renaissance nobleman, alone and elegantly dressed with cape and hands lifted in an approximation of prayer. He gazes piously, again bare headed, at the moon and the stars in a paradoxically daytime scene. The crescent moon is filled in by a face of a smiling ”man in the moon.” The religiosity shown in this simple image is but an approximation of Jewish ritual since both the rites of Rosh Chodesh and Blessing the Moon are notably done in the presence of a minyan.

On the more familial level the Passover Seder is notably illustrated by a depiction of the lifting of the Seder plate during the recitation of Ha Lachma Anya; “This is the bread of our affliction…” The table is laden with various loaves, implements and foods. What is being raised though is not an actual plate but rather a basket, a white cloth covering what appears to be various kinds of fruit. In the prominent foreground is a white dog gnawing on a bone. Much seems to have been lost in the translation.

Mahzor; “Lifting Seder Plate” illuminated manuscript (ca. 1490s). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2012

This manuscript presents many intriguing questions. Because many of the later illuminations evidence other artists and even non-expert hands, is this an example of a commission in which funding simply ran out and was patched together as best as possible in succeeding generations? Do the conceptual disconnects between the textual ritual and some of the illuminations, point to a failure of communication between the non-Jewish artist and the patron? Perhaps most importantly, was the Jewish patron satisfied with the final product? Was the comfort level perhaps more of an illusion on the Jewish side than the reality of the Renaissance Christian/humanist consciousness? Much further study is needed to uncover some of this manuscript’s mysteries.

It should be noted that while I only had 20 minutes to examine the machzor while it was in New York, the preliminary scholarship of Kay Sutton of Christie’s and Ilana Tahan of the British Library provided an invaluable foundation for many of my observations. I believe that this machzor provides a complex and fascinating example of Jewish/Gentile relations in Renaissance Italy and sincerely hope that the next owner will provide ample opportunity for future scholarly study.

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

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

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