web analytics
November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
IDC Herzliya Campus A Day on Campus

To mark IDC Herzliya’s 20th anniversary, we spent a day following Prof. Uriel Reichman, IDC’s founder and president, and Jonathan Davis, VP for External Relations, around its delightful campus.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library


Tripartite Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded With Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Tripartite Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded With Might” Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Jewish Museum: 1109 Fifth Avenue @ 92nd Street www.thejewishmuseum.org – 212 423 3200 Until February 3, 2013

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.

Nearby another German Mahzor (14th century) is open to the same piyyut,here illuminated in a simpler manner: Isaac is on the altar ready to be slaughtered, Abraham heeds the angel and a collection of medieval grotesques, animals and men react to the horrible event. God’s strength is reflected in the ability to summon obedience to a deadly command.

Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded with Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Two very different interpretations of the same piyyut probably created within decades of one another. And are both shown at the Jewish Museum’s “Crossing Borders,” an exhibition of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. This extraordinary exhibition presents the vibrant cross-cultural influences in the creation of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the context of both Christian and Islamic cultural production. Additionally it explores the fascinating relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with three radically different manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible from Tudela (or Soria), Spain by artist and scribe Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, (c.1300) displays the overwhelming Islamic decorative influence in Spain at the time. The facing carpet pages brilliantly shows interlocking abstract designs, one framed by a textual border, the other a heavy gold-leaf frame.

Michael Mahzor (1258) piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Next is the earliest known dated and illustrated Mahzor (1257-1258) from Germany open to the page with the special piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim. The initial word panel is illuminated with an intriguing stag hunt scene featuring the two hunters whose helmets cover their faces. This sensitivity about depicting the human face is seen throughout this Mahzor and likely reflects a lingering concern over the second commandment that flourished in southern Germany in the 1230’s. But most surprisingly is the fact that the whole charming scene is depicted upside down! One reason given in the original catalogue essay by Eva Frojmovic for this singular depiction has been attributed to a Christian artist’s mistake, being unable to read the Hebrew text, and assumed it worked better upside down with the image centered at the bottom of the page. The curator of the Jewish Museum installation, Claudia Nahson, more plausibly explains that this upside down scene may be a reflection of the piyyut being recited right before Purim, when everything is “turned upside down,” especially in the narrative of the oppressed and hunted Jews.

Finally, the “Even HaEzer” (1438) from the Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) reveals sumptuous early Italian Renaissance manuscript illuminations. Gold leaf abounds amid peacocks, exotic birds and fantastic creatures surround the text “It is not good for man to be alone…” echoing the depiction of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam lies asleep as a winged Creator, complete with halo, kneels next to him, about to extract Eve from his side. On the right we see Adam and Eve poised before the forbidden tree and the tempting snake. The extremely unusual depiction of the Deity in a Hebrew manuscript reflects the highly acculturated nature of the Italian Jewish community almost certainly working with a Christian artist.

In these intriguing examples one can treat the visual as decorative and incidental to the text, thereby discounting the inherent and potentially disruptive meaning of the images. Or one can attempt to integrate image and text and see them in a creative relationship, effectively arriving at a new meaning of both text and image. Considering the enormous cost of illuminating manuscripts, the competition with surrounding non-Jewish elites, and the fact that manuscripts with such subversive images continued to be prized and used, I cannot believe for a moment such images were anything but intentional.

Rambam, Commentary on the Mishnah, Temple diagram
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

One of the most exciting manuscripts here is the Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah Nezikim and Kiddushin that is open to a diagram of the Temple facing the text. It is thought to be an autograph copy from 1168. While diagrams in the text of the Mishnah are not unheard of, nonetheless to see the Rambam’s autograph text next to an image used to help explicate the actual layout of the Temple is a revelation. Everything about the Rambam summons the primacy of text and intellectual conceptualization. And yet here the Rambam does a drawing to explain the text!

This and many other manuscripts in this section validate how integrated text and image was in the Middle Ages. We see the visual approximations of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple in the commentary on the Bible by Nicholas of Lyra (Paris 1400), another by Richard of St Victor, as well as a Hebrew version of Rashi on Ezekiel. Additionally there are visual explorations of the exact form of the Temple Menorah and the arrangement of the tribal camps in the wilderness.

The exhibition is wonderfully curated into clear sections and subsections. Within the sphere of Islamic Influence is a Christian Bible in Arabic and a Quran displaying superb illuminated carpet pages. Nonetheless, in this section the Kennicott Bible overwhelms the surrounding manuscripts. Created in Corunna, Spain in 1476, it is a masterpiece of Jewish illumination combining Islamic and Christian motifs. Notably bereft of narrative illustration, the decorative elements are breathtaking. Dogs chasing hares with myriads of birds, foliage, gold leaf and Islamic arches, the text is constantly surrounded by visual agitation and stimulation. Delicate pinks, earth colors and vibrant blues dominate with sensitive touches of gold leaf. As beautiful as the two open facing pages are, one hungers to explore the rest of the 922 page manuscript. And the Jewish Museum has responded by creating a scanned version of the entire manuscript visible in the gallery and online. It is breathtaking and must be seen at www.kennicottbible.org. The Sefer Mikhol, a grammatical treatise that is included in this Tanach, is a masterpiece of Islamic-style illumination with page after page of different architectural motifs surrounding the text. All of the books of Tanach are punctuated with decorative grotesques tantalizingly echoing the narrative structure. This manuscript alone could consume a visitor for many hours.

Kennicott Bible (1476) Sefer Mikhlol
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

“How does Hebrew book production reflect a relationship with the non-Jewish world?” The Bodleian catalogue answers that it was close, even, very close. In the words of Piet van Boxel: “they display coexistence, cultural affinity as well as practical cooperation between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors.” The complexity of Jewish interaction with surrounding cultures is well explored here as well as the singular nature of Jewish manuscripts. The catalogue contrasts Latin manuscript production of the codex in the 2nd CE (i.e. a book as opposed to a scroll) with the Hebrew adoption of the codex in the 9th century. But once adopted, the Jews created codex manuscripts privately commissioned for public use that became luxury objects conveying social status and emulating the aristocratic wealth of non-Jews.

The exhibition “Crossing Borders” depicts a medieval Jewish world in which indeed many borders are crossed. While at times these images and cultural norms may make us uneasy, upon closer examination they inevitably tell us something new and revealing about our heritage and unique vision. They also point to a cultural attitude we could well learn from. The polyglot medieval culture these Jews found themselves in is in many ways terribly familiar to our own world. And in their engagement with this alien and yet fascinating culture, they made some of the great masterpieces of Jewish visual culture.

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 “Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Islamic State flag displayed from Arab residence
IDF Arrests Terrorist Linked with ISIS
Latest Sections Stories
Kupfer-112114

Divorce from a vindictive, cruel spouse can be a lifelong nightmare when there are offspring.

Astaire-112114-Horse

There were many French Jews who jumped at the chance to shed their ancient identity and assimilate.

L to R: Sheldon Adelson, Shawn Evenhaim, Haim Saban

As Rabbi Shemtov stood on the stage and looked out at the attendees, he told them that “Rather than take photos with your cellphones, take a mental photo and keep this Shabbat in your mind and take it with you throughout your life.”

South-Florida-logo

Yeshiva v’Kollel Bais Moshe Chaim will be holding a grand celebration on the occasion of the institution’s 40th anniversary on Sunday evening, December 7. Alumni, students, friends and faculty of the yeshiva, also known as Talmudic University of Florida, will celebrate the achievement and vision of its founders and the spiritual guidance of its educational […]

The yeshiva night accommodates all levels of Jewish education.

Recently, Fort Lauderdale has been the focus of international news, and it has not been about the wonderful weather.

Rabbi Sacks held the position of chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years until September 2013.

The event included a dvar Torah by student Pesach Bixon, an overview of courses, information about student life and a student panel that answered frequently asked questions from a student perspective.

It is difficult to write about such a holy person, for I fear I will not accurately portray his greatness…

“Grandpa,” I wondered, as the swing began to slow down, “why are there numbers on your arm?”

So the real question is, “How can we, as hosts, make sure our guest beds are comfortable?” Because your guests will never say anything.

It was a land of opportunity, a place where someone who wasn’t afraid of a little hard work, or the challenges of adapting to a different climate and culture, could prosper.

Rule #1: A wife should never accompany her husband to hang out with his buddies at a fantasy football draft. Unless beer and cigars are her thing, that is.

There are many people today with very little training who put out shingles and proclaim themselves to be marital coaches, shalom bayis helpers, advisers etc.

The two World Series combatants, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, were Wild Card teams (meaning they didn’t win their respective divisions) that got hot at the right time.

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/crossing-borders-masterpieces-from-the-bodleian-library/2012/11/09/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: