Lisbon’s Hebrew Bible: Medieval Jewish Art in Context
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Exhibited from Nov. 22, 2011–Jan. 16, 2012
Within Shakespeare’s worldview, an assassination like Macbeth’s of King Duncan upset the so-called Great Chain of Being, or the cosmological organizational chart, in which power structures that were clearly articulated could only be disrupted at a cost. Immediately after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire in the murder of Duncan, there is a report from Lennox, a lord, that nature itself seems to be suffering the repercussions of the assassination (though Lennox doesn’t yet know that Duncan has been killed).
“The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say, Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth Was feverous and did shake,” Lennox testifies.
To which Macbeth responds, no doubt troubled, “’Twas a rough night.” Lennox adds passionately, “My young remembrance cannot parallel A fellow to it.”
The natural consequences of the disruption of the divinely-ordained order aren’t unlike biblical accounts—as in Leviticus 18:25—of the defiled land of Canaan “vomiting out” the sinners. It’s almost as if the holy land is physically allergic to sin, and the response is biological rather than spiritual. It is perhaps within this larger kind of framework that Joseph the Frenchman (Yosef ha-Tzorfati) illuminated the final paragraphs of the book of Deuteronomy, which details the death of Moses.
The late 13th century manuscript, the Cervera Bible, a designated National Treasure from the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon, which was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shows two monsters (“grotesques”) flanking the last lines of the text. In fact, the triangular regions occupied by the monsters become mountains—albeit mountains with floral peaks—that invade the textual region of the page. It’s almost as if the art is trying to slow the text down to keep Moses alive (at least textually) as long as possible. Or, since Moses’ death is recorded on the first line of the column, the scribe and the artist might have wanted to draw out the accolades of the prophet’s life as long as possible.
Beside the text is a lion, which the Metropolitan Museum show describes as sleeping in a tower. The label is correct when it points out that lions were “a favored device in both Jewish and Christian art” and that in Jewish art “they often served as a symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah.” I wonder why the lion is sleeping, though, if its head seems to be lifted and its eyes are open. Lions of course could also be symbols of the tribe of Dan (which has an image of a lion whelp in one of its blessings) and of Samson, who wrestled a lion to death.
In this instance, one wonders if the reference in the text to Joshua, who would succeed Moses as the leader and prophet, is paralleled by the lion, which might allude to Joshua’s partner, Caleb. While most of their contemporaries were killed for trusting the ill report of the spies, Caleb and Joshua opposed the evil spies and were thus spared. Perhaps the illuminator and scribe wanted, here, to show the transfer of power from Moses to Joshua, Caleb, and others. The curtain behind the lion might also be significant if it refers to the curtain (parochet) in the Tabernacle or Temple, which separated the Holy region from the Holy of Holies. In that case, the lion might either symbolize the divine, or someone communicating with the divine, who is hidden on the other side of the curtain.
On another page of the Bible, the artist Joseph the Frenchman devotes significant real estate to signing his work. As the Metropolitan Museum label points out, artists rarely identified themselves in medieval manuscripts, let alone using an entire (costly) page for their signature. But here Joseph writes—in playful grotesques arranged in the form of Hebrew letters: “I, Yosef ha-Tzorfati, this book [have] I drawn and completed.” In the Stars of David on the right page, the artist circumscribed a lion and a castle, the symbols of the kingdoms of Leon and Castile, where, the Metropolitan Museum curators speculate, the patron may have lived. It’s worth noting that the castle and the lion are also the symbols of the tribes of Simeon and Judah.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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