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April 23, 2014 / 23 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Haggadah’

Golden Haggadah: A Unique Methodology

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Golden Haggadah: A Unique Methodology
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination
By Marc Michael Epstein,Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2011

The Golden Haggadah was created in Catalonia, Spain sometime around 1320. So named because all the illustrations are placed against a patterned gold-leaf background, it is a ritual object of incredible luxury and expense. In light of Marc Michael Epstein’s analysis found in his recent book The Medieval Haggadah, this tiny masterpiece of Jewish art easily ranks among other towering works of complex narration including Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in Rome.

The text of the Haggadah is prefaced by 8 pages of double-sided illuminations, each side containing 4 narrative scenes. Since the 56 illuminations frequently depict more than one aspect of a biblical narrative, the overall scope of the illuminations is vast. The first 27 scenes are from Genesis starting with Adam naming the animals, the next 26 portray the Exodus itself and the final 3 scenes depict medieval domestic Passover scenes.

Golden Haggadah, fol. 4v, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript, London, British Library. Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

Superficially, the selection of these particular biblical stories has no explicit relationship to the Haggadah text that follows, other than in the most general – the stories of Genesis lead up to the Exodus. Epstein therefore insists that more substantive significance will be revealed if we see the illuminations in the light of two medieval exegetical models. “The narrative sequence of the biblical text is expressed via the conventional progression of scenes, corresponding to pshat, contextual exegesis, in medieval biblical commentary. But the moral, theological, and political themes that were important to the authorship and that they wanted to stress are found in the chiasmic [diagonal across the page or pages] readings, corresponding to drash, homiletic exegesis.” What is especially fascinating is that Epstein is linking different sequences of seeing to specific conceptual exegetical models. To complicate matters, these links may be positive echoes or negative contrasts of meaning. This may very well be a totally unique procedure in the analysis of visual art.

Golden Haggadah, fol.5rv, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript, London, British Library. Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

Epstein organizes the 56 illuminations on three levels: first the group of 4 found on one page, secondly the group of 8 seen on two facing pages and finally patterns he discerns throughout all the illuminations. In what he identifies as the Bifolium 2 (two pages facing one another), the narrative literally proceeds from upper right to upper left, then back down to lower right and finally to lower left, exactly as Hebrew is read. The subjects chronologically unfold as: Destruction of Sodom, Akeida, Jacob Steals Esav’s Blessing, and Jacob’s Ladder. On the facing page we see Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Joseph’s Dream, Joseph Sent to his Brothers and Joseph Encounters the Angel in the same zigzag pattern.

Epstein immediately observes the connection between the diagonal of Jacob’s Ladder that continues up through the ruins of Sodom. This chiasmic (diagonal) link contrasts the destruction of the evil city of Sodom with the eventual construction of the holy city of Jerusalem at the site of Jacob’s ladder. In a divergent manner the Akeidah operates as a typology (ma’aseh avot siman l’banim – the events of forefathers foretell the events of later generations) to Jacob’s stolen blessing, each confirming the Divine choice of which son was to carry forward the history of the Jewish people. Suddenly a simple Biblical progression of Lot, Abraham, Isaac to Jacob develops into a nuanced complex commentary about retribution, holiness and inherited divine mission.

Further nuances emerge as Epstein observes that in this page delineating the early Israelite family tree, the right side of each image is dominated by “negative” figures. Lot hastens off with his daughters who will produce Amon and Moab; Ishmael, forefather of the Arab peoples, stands next to the donkey at the Akeida, Esav, forefather of Rome (i.e. Christianity) rushes in on the right and finally at Jacob’s Ladder we see on the right the angel of Esav preparing to attack the sleeping Jacob.

The repetitive flow of angels across the two facing pages yields more insights into the unfolding narrative. On the left-hand page Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is diagonally mirrored by the (non-textual) angel Gabriel guiding Joseph; compositionally 2 figures on the right are placed in contrast to a group of 6 figures on the left. This again echoes ma’aseh avot siman l’banim to show that just as Jacob encountered an angel at a crucial juncture, so too his son Joseph’s fateful encounter with his brothers was precipitated by the direction of an angel.

Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed – The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Bird’s Head Haggadah Revealed
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination
By Marc Michael Epstein, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2011

The Dura Europos synagogue murals (245 CE) evidenced the first great flowering of Jewish visual creativity, quickly followed by the creation of at least 17 synagogue mosaic floors in Palestine. The next efflorescence of Jewish art was found in illuminated manuscript production in Spain and Germany over 600 years later. In The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination (2011), Marc Michael Epstein explores four seminal medieval Haggadot as paradigms of the creative relationship between sacred text and the Jewish visual imagination. The four – the Bird’s Head Haggadah (Ashkenazi ca. 1300), the Golden Haggadah (Sephardi ca. 1320), the Ryland’s Haggadah (Sephardi ca.1340) and its ‘Brother’ Ryland’s Haggadah (Sephardi ca.1340) – were created at “a crucial historical moment for the development of Jewish visual culture…[that] developed a renewed interest in narrative painting coterminous with the emergence of Christian narrative art.” Here I shall consider only his analysis of the mysterious Bird’s Head Haggadah (Israel Museum, Jerusalem MS 180/57), the earliest illuminated Haggadah we have, because it sets the fundamental tone and context for his research and conclusions. In future reviews, I hope to address his fascinating exploration of these other medieval Haggadot.

Esav and Yakov, fol. 12r, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

Epstein brilliantly deconstructs many assumptions and visual preconceptions we (and many earlier scholars) frequently bring to these medieval Haggadot in an analysis that returns us to their original social and religious contexts. He does this by insisting that we see the illuminations as an independent commentary to be understood in parallel with the Haggadah text, not subservient to it. Of course one of the greatest initial challenges he faces with the Bird’s Head Haggadah is the substitution of bird’s heads for almost all of the human heads in the manuscript. While other manuscripts around the turn of the 14th century, both Christian and Jewish, utilized this same motif, the vastly different contexts thwart a single understanding for all, and certainly not as a universal Jewish method of satisfying a halachic injunction against image making. Nonetheless here the visual affront is particularly difficult for modern eyes. Depicting Jews with bird’s heads is simply grotesque.

Many scholars see the use of bird’s heads in this southern German manuscript as indeed a negative pietistic concession to rabbinic censorship of Jewish image making. Only the Jews are depicted with bird’s heads while the non-Jewish faces (Pharaoh, angels, etc.) are depicted with no faces at all (any non-Jewish faces were later additions). Epstein identifies three halachic authorities in this region that provide the background for these distortions. Judah the Pious (1140-1217) is considered the founder of Chassidei Ashkenaz and strictly prohibited any image making. R. Meir of Rothenberg (1215 – 1293) disapproved of the practice as being a distraction from the text. Finally R. Ephraim of Ratisbon (Regensburg 1133 – 1200) prohibited only the human face but permitted depiction of animals and birds.

Moshe & Aaron & Akeidah, fol. 15v, (ca.1300) illuminated manuscript, Israel Museum Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein. Yale University Press, 2011

In this context Epstein sees our Haggadah as a liberal approach to the issue of making human images. But then he notes that actually the heads depicted are composite creatures with many of the heads sporting strange mammalian ears! His conclusion is that what we have here is an extremely typical medieval composite creature found in many illuminated manuscripts: the griffin, a combination of the lion and an eagle. Naturally for Jews the composite creature of a lion (lion of Judah) and an eagle (on whose wings we will be redeemed from exile) would be a perfect choice. The griffin has an extensive iconography as a creature of honor and pride, Jewishly echoing the lions and eagles woven on the curtain on the Holy of Holies, those found on the divine Chariot of Ezekiel and even linked to the Ceruvim on the Ark of the Covenant. Far from a negative self-image, the griffin headed figures in this Haggadah are celebrations of Jewish identity, especially in contrast to the non-Jewish figures who literally have no substantive identity. The suitability of the griffin for the Jew’s heads in this manuscript, thought to have been created in the southern German city of Mainz, is further established by the text of a kinah for Tisha b’Av (Kinos; Rosenfeld, pg 133) by Kalonymus ben Judah (11th c Mainz) that mourns the destruction caused by the first crusade (1096); “For the noble ones of the esteemed congregation of Mainz who were swifter that eagles and stronger than lions.” Epstein’s analysis is breathtaking and convincing. The figures in the Bird’s Head Haggadah will never seem the same.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/birds-head-haggadah-revealed-the-medieval-haggadah-art-narrative-religious-imagination/2012/03/29/

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