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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

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


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