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Golden Haggadah: A Unique Methodology

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Golden Haggadah, fol. 14v, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript, London, British Library. Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

This kind of interpretative analysis that Epstein offers liberates the images from merely illustrating biblical scenes. By virtue of diagonal visual relationships and repetitive motifs the artist creates a homiletical commentary that simultaneously relates back to the Haggadah text; “Originally our ancestor were…but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt” and elucidates free-standing insights on its own. The visual has become an equal partner with the ritual text as a reflection of scriptural complexity. What is perhaps most valuable in this kind of reading is that, by its very nature, it is only one of multiple possible meanings and its methodology can be applied wherever there are multiple images in juxtaposition to one another.

The last set of facing pages of the Golden Haggadah presents us with not only the climax of the Haggadah’s visual narrative but also a totally unexpected insight into a major underlying theme. The right-hand page begins with the Death of the First Born, proceeds to the Children of Israel Departing; down to the lower right the Egyptian horsemen pursue and finally the Egyptians are drowned in the Sea. The facing page begins with Miriam’s Song and then morphs into 3 scenes of contemporary medieval Jewish life; handing out Kimcha d’Pischa (literally matzoh dough), on the lower right cleaning house and finally slaughtering the Passover lamb.

Epstein reflects upon the unusually large number of women found in the Golden Haggadah. Over the course of 56 narrative panels there are “no fewer than 46 prominent depictions of women.” not the least of which are the women depicted in the Song of Miriam, all of whom tower over the surrounding panels and are proportionally the largest figures in the entire manuscript. Beyond this startling observation that had gone unnoticed by earlier scholars, is the fact that this number of women are more than found in any other Spanish Haggadah. Furthermore they are found in scenes fundamental to the halachically mandated narrative, “to tell about the Exodus from Egypt,” as well as more peripheral narrative panels. Considering the illuminations from Genesis and Exodus, the figures of Eve, Sarah, Lot’s wife and daughters, Rebecca, Potiphar’s wife, the midwives, and Miriam are not at all surprising. But then we notice “corroborative figures” whose presence has no compelling presence such as prominence of Noah’s wife and daughters in the scene of Noah and the Ark. Finally there are “incidental figures,” women who seem to be narratively no more than “extras,” such as Egyptian women afflicted with lice, female mourners over the dead first born and Israelite women at the Exodus and at the Sea of Reeds. Epstein believes the choice to include many scenes from Genesis, a book with many important women characters, was a conscious choice to increase and prioritize women’s roles.

Golden Haggadah, fol. 15r, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript, London, British Library. Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

Miriam’s Song is not narratively necessary (Moses’ song is textually recorded complete, while Miriam’s is a one-liner) nor is it always found in other Haggadot. But here it is accorded disproportionate prominence. It is not only visually dominant; it also forms the crucial transition from the Exodus narrative to contemporary medieval reality. They are featured as contextually abstract against the flat golden background, unlike any other figures in the Haggadah, “hence timeless.” I might add that the composition of these seven women itself is easily the most elegant, balanced and graceful of all the images.

Its companion panels are no less revealing. The principle mourners in the Death of the First Born are all women: including the woman in a pieta-like pose with a dead child in her lap, Queen of Egypt mourning and finally the black-clad women leading the funeral procession, all non-textual. Further along Epstein notices that the departing Israelites are led not by Moses, but by two women, one of whom is carrying an infant. Finally on that page the ‘Drowning Egyptian army in the Red Sea’ is contextualized by the fleeing Israelites, here led by a woman holding an infant accompanied by a man with a child on his shoulders. The ubiquitous presence of women is impossible to ignore.

Crossing over to contemporary medieval reality, the head of the household is seen as handing out matzah and charoset to a woman who has six children, reflecting the midrashic account of Israelite women who miraculously brought forth 6 children at each birthing. Not satisfied with the received notion of fecundity, the artist gave her an addition infant in her arms, pointing to a future age of even greater Jewish fruitfulness. In keeping with this kind of reading, Epstein believes that the last panel in the lower left showing Passover preparations alludes to the restored Passover sacrifice in messianic times. This is because the animal being prepared is in fact a lamb, forbidden for consumption on Passover after the destruction of the Temple, but permissible in messianic times.

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


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