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March 30, 2015 / 10 Nisan, 5775
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Rain In Biblical Art


Wecker-Menachem

The role of water in Jewish art might be most controversial in the 1740 illustration of Yosef ben David in the so-called Leipnik Haggadah. On the page devoted to the humbling passage about the idolatrous past of the Jewish people, the artist, a Moravian scribe and artist who worked in Hamburg, shows a man bearing an axe (Avraham perhaps?) destroying idols. The idols that lie ruined in the foreground look almost like human carcasses, which is perhaps why some of the idolaters in the background sacrifice to other idols, which they confuse for powerful forces. (There might even be a pope posing on an altar.) But the most provocative element of the work is a bearded man wearing a crown, carrying a trident, and pouring water from a jar that feeds into a series of waterfalls.

Here is a reference to a river god, a visual element that surfaces in countless paintings by both secular and Christian artists, who often clung to pagan iconography and embedded it into religious contexts. At first blush, the river god might be part of the larger group of idols, but upon further inspection, the idols in the foreground are being decimated, while all the idols on the horizon are being worshipped by prostrated figures. The river god stands alone. He doesn’t seem to be destined for destruction, as he appears to be a real figure and not just a stone sculpture.

Schocken Bible: ms. 14840, fol. 1v: Detail of frontispiece to Genesis. Early 14th century. Southern Germany, Jerusalem: Schocken Library.

How this sacrilegious figure found his way into the section devoted to the stain of an idolatrous past is mysterious, but perhaps it has to do with the Prayer for Dew, offered on Pesach. Water plays such an important role in yetziyas Mitzrayim—the central episode of the Pesach narrative—but it also surfaces in the prayer offered for dew, which runs parallel to the rain prayer offered on Sukkot. Perhaps the crowned man who serves as the source of the river is no man at all, but the angel Afh-Bri.

Even with the holiday of Sukkot—with its Simchat Beit HaShoeivah and Prayer for Rain—behind us, it’s still worth pondering the dual nature of water, which can flood or can grow. If examined from the right perspective, even pagan river gods can start looking like angels. And besides, soon enough Pesach will be upon us, so why not get a head start considering the Prayer for Dew, the Red Sea, and the Nile.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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