Latest update: June 10th, 2013
The exceptional quality of this Mishneh Torah cannot be emphasized enough. There are only three other illuminated copies of the Rambam text in existence and this one stands alone as presenting detailed illustrations of the actual halachic text. Six of the eight books (chapters) are graced with full-page frontispieces; gold-leaf initial word panels and illustrations of the pertinent subject at hand. Unlike almost all other illuminated manuscripts that are copies of earlier prototypes, the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah has absolutely no precedent. Each and every image was created specifically for this manuscript. Of equal importance is that the non-Jewish artist had to be instructed by the scribe or rabbinic authority as to what each image should depict. This was an intense creative partnership unlike any other in manuscript illumination.
The Avodah panel depicts the golden domed Temple (an octagonal building reflecting the Jerusalem Dome of the Rock) with first one priest slaughtering on one side and then another burning the sacrifice. Korbanot is represented by preparations for the first Passover Seder: men assembled with their staffs in hand stand around a set Passover table while a boy prepares to roast a lamb on a spit. Issues of ritual purity are explored in Tohorot with a well-dressed lad lying dead in a tent and two figures heatedly discussing the complications of “tent contamination.” In one of the most vivid images, Nezikin, a violent knife fight unfolds alongside a thief breaking into a house through a window and stealing clothing. Above, an ass falls into an unguarded pit, making the pit’s owner liable for damages, whereas the alleged scene of the goring ox is curiously pacific. While the ox seems to be only nudging the fallen person it thus reflects the Rambam in Halacha 10 that butting is a derivative of goring and also subject to damages. The intricacies of Kinyan are explored whereas on the right a man acquires a horse by leading it into his domain, while on the left two individuals discussing the purchase of a house effect nothing until money or a deed is exchanged. In each one of these images the artist has gone well beyond superficial illustration by consistently opening up the complexities of Jewish law that the Rambam elucidates, sometimes showing its application and at others its exceptions.
Shofetim is an excellent case in point. The defendant is standing before the court, held by two armed guards. Curiously there are four seated judges presiding. While we all know that the minimum court is made up of three judges, a court of four seems puzzling until we read Halacha 5 and 6 together.
“5. When a city does not possess two sages of great knowledge – one fit to teach and issue rulings with regard to the entire Torah and one who knows how to listen diligently and knows how to raise questions and arrive at solutions – a court should NOT be appointed for it even though thousands of Jews live there.
“6. When a court has two judges of this caliber; one capable of listening with regard to the entire Torah, and one capable of expounding, it is a valid court. If there are three, it is of intermediate esteem. If the court possesses four judges who can expound upon the entire Torah, it is a wise court.” It would seem that the artist is illustrating the requisite quality of the judges necessary to establish a valid court, making us closely read the halacha through the eyes of the Rambam.
After the sumptuous complexities of the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah (only some of which we have examined), it is hard to imagine an illuminated manuscript as fascinating. And yet the Illuminated Megillat Esther, lot 100, from mid-18th century northern Italy truly rises to the task. Judged as perhaps “the most important Esther scroll to come to the market ever,” it is indeed monumental at 21 inches in height, 202 inches in length and elaborately adorned with twisting columns, garlands, ornate cartouches, flying putti and floral decorations. Along the bottom panels imaginative scenes from the text are illustrated as well as crowned cartouches atop every other column. All that notwithstanding, what sets this Megillat Esther apart is that it is one of only seven surviving megillot in existence exhibiting an extremely significant allegorical program. Ten allegorical figures based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) are featured above every other column. Iconologia was a highly influential “handbook of allegories, personifications and symbols of vices and virtues” used extensively by writers, artists and poets well into the 19th century. It essentially created a commonly understood symbolic language of the educated European elite. Its use in a Jewish ritual object, alongside pertinent Hebrew quotations that echoed its allegories, was a major step of integration with emerging Enlightenment culture.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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