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.
The familiar scene of the rabbit hunt—which Vassar College professor Marc Michael Epstein has discussed at length and which I have addressed in several columns in these pages—appears on the top of another page of the Bible. Epstein has shown that the symbol of the hare hunt is more complicated than it might initially seem. Hares, of course, aren’t kosher and owing to their reputations for fertility, Epstein addresses the question of whether there might be a potentially anti-Semitic reference in the symbol of the hare hunt. It’s worth noting that in the Cervera Bible, the hare is nearly as large as the dog, which further complicates the predator-prey relationship.
On other pages of the manuscript are unicorns, harpies (winged women), and what the Met describes as “apes and goats playing musical instruments.” Some of the animals, even if their species is recognizable, seem downright demonic. Also depicted are centaurs with bows and arrows, a rooster and chicks, mermaids, and leopards.
In an announcement of the exhibit, the Metropolitan Museum stated that the manuscript offers “an exceptional glimpse of the community of Jewish artists and scribes working on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.” In fact, not only does the artist share rarely revealing information about himself, but the scribe also makes clear in the text that he wrote the manuscript while recovering from a broken tibia in the city of Cervera, Spain, between July 1299 and May 1300. Readers of The Jewish Press will also be interested to know that the margins of the pages contain commentary from Joshua bar Abraham ibn Gaon (and his name is hidden in the micrography 20 times).
The exhibit of the Lisbon Bible is part of a series the museum is conducting which set a medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscript in the larger context of the museum’s collection. Since most museums—even comprehensive ones like the Met—tend to have little if anything to say about Jewish art and Hebrew manuscripts, this kind of project is particularly commendable and exciting.
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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