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January 24, 2017 / 26 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Bodleian Library’

Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Jewish Museum: 1109 Fifth Avenue @ 92nd Street
www.thejewishmuseum.org – 212 423 3200
Until February 3, 2013

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh Hashanah piyyut “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’spraise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God. The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded with Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Nearby another German Mahzor (14th century) is open to the same piyyut, here illuminated in a simpler manner: Isaac is on the altar ready to be slaughtered, Abraham heeds the angel and a collection of medieval grotesques, animals and men react to the horrible event. God’s strength is reflected in the ability to summon obedience to a deadly command.

Two very different interpretations of the same piyyut probably created within decades of one another. And are both shown at the Jewish Museum’s “Crossing Borders,” an exhibition of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. This extraordinary exhibition presents the vibrant cross-cultural influences in the creation of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the context of both Christian and Islamic cultural production. Additionally it explores the fascinating relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with three radically different manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible from Tudela (or Soria), Spain by artist and scribe Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, (c.1300) displays the overwhelming Islamic decorative influence in Spain at the time. The facing carpet pages brilliantly shows interlocking abstract designs, one framed by a textual border, the other a heavy gold-leaf frame.

Michael Mahzor (1258) piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Next is the earliest known dated and illustrated Mahzor (1257-1258) from Germany open to the page with the special piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim. The initial word panel is illuminated with an intriguing stag hunt scene featuring the two hunters whose helmets cover their faces. This sensitivity about depicting the human face is seen throughout this Mahzor and likely reflects a lingering concern over the second commandment that flourished in southern Germany in the 1230’s. But most surprisingly is the fact that the whole charming scene is depicted upside down! One reason given in the original catalogue essay by Eva Frojmovic for this singular depiction has been attributed to a Christian artist’s mistake, being unable to read the Hebrew text, and assumed it worked better upside down with the image centered at the bottom of the page. The curator of the Jewish Museum installation, Claudia Nahson, more plausibly explains that this upside down scene may be a reflection of the piyyut being recited right before Purim, when everything is “turned upside down,” especially in the narrative of the oppressed and hunted Jews.

Finally, the “Even HaEzer” (1438) from the Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) reveals sumptuous early Italian Renaissance manuscript illuminations. Gold leaf abounds amid peacocks, exotic birds and fantastic creatures surround the text “It is not good for man to be alone…” echoing the depiction of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam lies asleep as a winged Creator, complete with halo, kneels next to him, about to extract Eve from his side. On the right we see Adam and Eve poised before the forbidden tree and the tempting snake. The extremely unusual depiction of the Deity in a Hebrew manuscript reflects the highly acculturated nature of the Italian Jewish community almost certainly working with a Christian artist.

In these intriguing examples one can treat the visual as decorative and incidental to the text, thereby discounting the inherent and potentially disruptive meaning of the images. Or one can attempt to integrate image and text and see them in a creative relationship, effectively arriving at a new meaning of both text and image. Considering the enormous cost of illuminating manuscripts, the competition with surrounding non-Jewish elites, and the fact that manuscripts with such subversive images continued to be prized and used, I cannot believe for a moment such images were anything but intentional.

Richard McBee

The Physics Of Flame Combustion

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Just because the miracle of Chanukah defied physics doesn’t mean illustrations and illuminations of the Temple and Tabernacle menorahs haven’t grappled with the physics of flame orientation.

An analysis of dozens of ancient and medieval depictions of menorahs reveals that although most artists conceived of flames in scientific terms—the flames “point” upward, as one would expect real world fire to do, absent factors like wind—some artists seem to have been influenced by Midrashic or rabbinic interpretations of the directions of the Tabernacle and Temple flames.

English biblical commentary. C. 1463. Fol. 048v. Lower part of page of Exodus. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

According to Midrashic and Talmudic sources (e.g. Menachot 86b and 98b), the central flame of the menorah (what we now call the Shamash) had special significance, while the Ner Ma’aravi (western lamp), which might have been the flame closest to the Holy of Holies, also carried unique symbolism and prominence.

Various rabbinic interpretations (e.g. Rashi) on Numbers 8:2 observe that the biblical mandate to orient the flames toward “mul p’nai ha-menorah”—loosely the “face” of the lamp—suggests that the six wicks ought to face the central wick, or as Rashi explains it, “toward the middle one, which is not of a branch of the menorah, but its body.”

So, it seems, there is rabbinic and biblical precedent for flames to face toward the central wick (which might face upward, without any reason to face any other flame). All this comes with the caveat that the western lamp (which may have been the second candle from the east, depending which orientation of the menorah one subscribes to: north-south or east-west) might face toward the Holy of Holies rather than to the center.

Synagogue of Hamat; floor mosaic. 4th century. Hamat, near Tiberias.

In light of this context, it is worth observing the configuration of menorah wicks in a mosaic on the floor of the fourth century synagogue in Chamat near Tverya (image one). The mosaic, which also features two lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and shovels, interprets biblical verses literally when it represents parts of the arms of the menorahs as pomegranate shaped. And the flames emanating from the three arms of the lamps on either side all face the central bodies of the menorahs. The central wicks of each Menorah face opposite directions—but each points to the central architectural form: either a representation of the synagogue, Tabernacle, Temple, or the Holy of Holies of the Temple or Tabernacle.

If one examined the image from a literal perspective, one would likely assign the central architectural element to Solomon’s Temple, which was the only place to have multiple menorahs in residence. But whether it ought to be taken literally or metaphorically, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the artist intended both of the menorahs’ central wicks to face the synagogue-Holy of Holies.

It’d be one thing to suggest that the wicks facing the central branch were an artistic device of parallel structure and symmetry and had nothing to do with religious symbolism—that’d be a fine argument to make, except that having the wicks face upward would also be symmetrical—but the mirror-image reversal of the central wicks certainly seems intentional.

The same move doesn’t occur in several other menorah interpretations. All the wicks in a Byzantine mosaic (sixth century) at Chulda, which also represents a shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel and features a Greek inscription, “Praise to the people,” seem to point upward.

The menorah wicks also point upward in a drawing engraved into plaster on a lime floor in a first century house in Jerusalem (Israel Museum), as well as in several other manuscripts.

French Bible. Part I: Genesis to Ecclesiastes. 14th century. Fol. 049v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS. Bodl. 251.

A visual device that appears in a 19th century Mizrach (East) decoration—also in the collection of the Israel Museum—represents an interesting interpretation of the flames. The same move surfaces in a 14th century French Bible (image two), which is also in the collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The flames in these menorahs resemble hands, with multiple “fingers” reaching out in different directions. The “hands” actually resemble floral elements (or bells, or fleurs-de-lis) on the body of the menorah.

While it’s difficult to sustain the argument that the flames face the center, or even if some of the “fingers” face the center that the artist intended them to carry the kind of symbolism discussed above, it is a noteworthy depiction of the flames, in that they are represented as disjointed, rather than unified. Anyone who has watched flame carefully knows that there is tension in the “paths” that flame takes in space. Even if this artist had no Midrashic or Talmudic texts in mind, it’s worth pondering the possibility of wicks both facing the center and a more naturalistic or scientific trajectory simultaneously.

Menachem Wecker

Why Are Artists So Fascinated By The Branch Over The Prophet Yonah’s Head?

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

It’s easy to understand why artists have painted the navi Yonah early and often. There is no character more interesting than the man who, though blessed with the gift of prophecy, failed to grasp the responsibility he was charged with, literally turned his back on his divine mission and ran away, only to be devoured alive by a fish. After what must have seemed an eternity to the son of Amitai-in reality just three days and three nights-the fish, obeying a Divine commandment, vomited Yonah onto dry land.

Throughout the ages, artists have imagined the fish swallowing Yonah in a variety of ways. Some-like Claude Lorrain in his 1665Sea view with Jonah and the whale (British Museum)-drew a dragon-like fish, anticipating Falkor the luckdragon from the Never Ending Story: lots of fur, bushy eyebrows and a very large head.


Rembrandt van Rijn. “Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh.”

C. 1654-5. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white.

21.8 x 17.3 cm. Graphische Sammlung Albertina (Vienna)


Others-including Melchior Lorck in his 1553 Jonah coming out of the whale’s mouth (British Museum), a late third century fresco in a vault of the Catacomb of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus in Rome, an early fourth century mosaic from the floor of the Basilica of Bishop Theodore at Aquileia, a fourth century limestone relief at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and a c. 270-280 marble sculpture in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art-appended a fierce dog’s head to a fish’s body, reminiscent of medieval depictions of the mouth of gehennom as the jaws of a hellhound.

A c. 320 mosaic on the floor of the Basilica of Theodore in Aquileia, Italy, shows a sea monster with a duck bill so terrifying that the other fish flee from it, while a mosaic (before 1150) in the Duomo di Ravello represents a green lizard with scales that look like wings. An illumination in the Jewish manuscript, the Kennicott Bible (15th century), created by the scribe Moshe Ibn Zabara, depicts a fish with a spine running down its side (or perhaps an internal organ).



End of 12th to early 13th century manuscripts.

“Jonah under the gourd.” Bodleian Library, University of Oxford


But however bold and fanciful the portraits of the fish (which interestingly is rarely a whale) devouring Yonah are, there’s an even more bizarre aspect of the visual interpretations of the Yonah story that’s well worth pondering this High Holiday season-the kikayon.

Often translated in English as a gourd, the plant grew over Yonah and protected him from the sun, only to be killed by a worm. When Yonah contemplated suicide from heat exhaustion, the Divine voice rebuked him for caring more about the tree (which he mourned) than the people of Nineveh (whom he was rooting against).

A good metaphor and a brilliant way to end the book? Absolutely. But it’s surprising that so many artists have chosen to depict Yonah overshadowed by the kikayon. From Michelangelo to Rembrandt, and Maerten van Heemskerck’s (early to mid-16th century) drawing Jonah Seated under the Gourd to a 6th century ivory sculpture at the Hermitage, Yonah often appears seated beneath a tree.



“Jonah swallowed by the Great Fish.” Kennicott Bible.

15th century. Bodleian Library, Oxford, England


Sometimes it’s a single branch and other times it’s an entire tree. In a 14th century choir Psalter at the University of Oxford, Yonah even clings to a branch-presumably the kikayon-as he pulls himself out of the fish. In an Italian manuscript by Hugo de Folieto (12th century?), the tree above the head of the sleeping (or mournful) Yonah extends far to the right and becomes intertwined with several twisted roots which support a book whose page declares “Yonah’s complaint.” It’s almost as if the artist included the simply drawn Yonah just as an excuse to represent a detailed and dynamic illustration of the tree. Other depictions, like a 1562 engraving by Philips Galle, are irrational in their depiction of Yonah slumped under a small bush which is beneath a vast aqueduct. The small amount of shade the bush might have temporarily provided would never have left Yonah longing; the aqueduct would have more than protected him. Still, the artist couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the kikayon.

There are a lot of non-Jewish potential motivations that might explain the artistic obsession with the kikayon. Perhaps the tree hearkens back to the Edenic Tree of Life, so often depicted in medieval manuscripts. Some artists embed crosses inside the kikayon, reflecting Christian traditions of identifying Yonah’s three-day stint in the fish as a kind of death and resurrection. Indeed early Hebrew translations of the New Testament used the Hebrew word for tree-etz-to describe the cross.



Michelangelo Buonarroti. Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos:

Prophet Jonah. 1508-12


But there might be another narrative at play here. Just as people violating their assigned roles in Shakespearean plays upset the so-called Great Chain of Being, which causes nature to react strangely, there is an interesting interplay between people, animals and plants in the Book of Yonah. The prophet, who as a man is supposed to be a rational thinker, shirks his responsibility, only to be swallowed by a fish-which was divinely prepared-and then protected and subsequently abandoned by a plant. The plant and the animal have the good sense to obey their divine mandates (interestingly, the same Hebrew root m’n is used for the preparation of the fish, the tree, the worm and the oppressive wind); the man does not. One assumes that Yonah learns his lesson, but the book ends with the divine accusation.

Perhaps in the image of Yonah sitting beneath the kikayon, artists found a microcosm for the entire book. Yonah, after all, is truly bound by his nature, try as he might to deny it. Just as the tree literally transcends Yonah, the divine plan plows ahead despite his rebellion. And not only is the tree a microcosm for nature, but the shade it casts matches parallel biblical passages that compare the Divine arbitration in the world to shadows. Having attempted to flee his own shadow, Yonah again confuses the pleasures of the kikayon shadow with the source of the power behind the tree. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the kikayon has so mesmerized artists throughout the ages.


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

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/why-are-artists-so-fascinated-by-the-branch-over-the-prophet-yonahs-head-2/2011/09/21/

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