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.