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Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context


Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah
Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

From August 28 until the end of the exhibition on September 30 the pages depicting the Israelites Leaving Egypt, Pharaoh’s Pursuing Army and the Crossing of the Red Sea will all be on view. The strident nature of the Rylands Haggadah is again seen in Leaving Egypt with the emphasis on “The Children of Israel were armed when they went up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 13:18). With the exception of Moses, Aaron and one man with a kneading bowl, each of the 12 men is armed with a sword, pike (a very long thrusting spear) or halberd (a battle ax mounted on a pike). As Epstein observes, this is “a nation of warriors.” Just below, Pharaoh’s Pursuing Army brings the narrative to a fever pitch with the mounted Egyptian soldiers (actually medieval knights) led by the Pharaoh right on the heels of the armed but fleeing Israelites. Moments later on the next page the entire army will be drowned.

The strident militancy continues on the opposite page depicting the Crossing of the Red Sea where, with the exception again of Moses, Aaron and perhaps 2 others, all 20 others are armed to the teeth, a “military Exodus” for sure. No women, children nor flocks, just an army marching forward while individuals point triumphantly at the three surrounding bands of Egyptian dead in the sea. Through the flowing waters we see them, eyes closed, some grimacing even in death, horses and arms sunken along with Pharaoh himself floating face up and his golden crown breaking through the right-hand ornamental border. It is an unabashed triumph for the Jewish people over the wicked Egyptians. And, considering that both in costume and mindset the Egyptians in this Haggadah represent contemporary Christians, clearly this is a Jewish art that expresses the tension between Christian rulers and Jewish subjects in the difficult years of 14th century Spain.

While there is much to be said for all the images of the plagues displayed earlier this year (the exhibition opened March 27); the effective beginning of the narrative cycle, the Burning Bush and the Return to Egypt, demands special attention especially in the attempt to place medieval Jewish Art in context. The curators observe, “In medieval Europe, where art was prized as a means of storytelling, Jewish life and history were often represented visually.” To contextualize the Rylands Haggadah they have placed in adjacent cases examples of Jewish subjects found in Christian medieval art. One shows the Battle of the Maccabees, here prefiguring the Crusaders similarly fighting to save the Holy Land. Two illuminated Bibles are presented: one with an image of Judith beheading Holofernes, an episode dear to Jews but not found in our Tanach, while the other features the martyrdom of Isaiah by being sawn in half. This episode is also non-textual but well known in both the Talmud (Yevamos 49b) and the Pseudepigrapha.

Another case features two illuminated leaves from the Postilla Litteralis of Nicholas of Lyra (1360-80). This extremely important and much copied biblical commentary attempts to harmonize Rashi’s commentary within a Christian perspective! The illuminations here show the arrangement of the various tribes encamped around the Tabernacle and the curtains of the Tabernacle itself. The Rylands’ image of the Return to Egypt presents another kind of surprising interaction with the surrounding Christian culture.

In the Book of Matthew, Joseph and Mary flee with their child Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to murder a presumed child redeemer. Some scholars see this passage as a deliberate attempt to link the early history of Jesus with Moses the Redeemer, specifically the verses of the return to Egypt of Moses, Tziporah and their two sons seen in Exodus 4: 20-26. The artist of the Rylands Haggadah (as well as the Golden Haggadah) seized upon this Christian appropriation of a Jewish text, in turn appropriating the Christian depiction to depict the original Jewish theme. The results are revelatory.

Flight into Egypt, (ca.1311) Tempera on panel by Duccio
Courtesy Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

At the time of the creation of the Rylands Haggadah (ca. 1330) the visual motif of the Flight into Egypt had been well established and was ubiquitous. This subject depicts a female figure holding a child on a donkey, in profile, being led or followed by a male figure with a staff and is seen in major Italian works by Duccio (1311), Giotto (1306) and most notably a French Gothic illumination in the Book of Hours for Jeanne D’Evreaux (ca. 1320) currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters.

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


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