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November 24, 2014 / 2 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

Bill Aron’s Time Machines: Forever Young, Forever Old

Friday, September 7th, 2012

92nd Street Y: Milton J. Weill Art Gallery
1395 Lexington Avenue at 92ned Street
212-415-5563 for Gallery Hours
September 5 – October 22, 2012

Photographs seems like cruel slices from the past, frozen images of what will never be again. Since we assume the photographic image is, by and large, a factual view of some reality, it is inherently believed and trusted. But now be forewarned. It ain’t necessarily so. Bill Aron’s new images at the 92nd Street Y betray and beguile so as to force us to reassess the meaning of what we see.

The passage through time is a core human experience, not to mention a fundamental Jewish structure. Halacha is deeply time bound, changing every seven days to reflect Shabbos and cycling through the year to encounter holidays, memorials and reflections that make up the fabric of Jewish life. Each day-time demands different actions or restraints from Jewish life; when to pray, when to work or not, when to laugh and when to cry unfold in a constant flow of future, present and past. How this continuum encounters photography is the subject of Bill Aron’s current fascinating exhibition.

The majority of Aron’s photographs here are “multi-image panoramas.” They are created by taking multiple digital exposures, sometimes scanning a scene up to 360 degrees and at times revisiting it over several days, and then seamlessly stitching them together to create what at first seems like one unified image. He invented this technique in a thoughtful response to the challenge of contemporary digital photography. Western Wall Plaza at Night is an excellent introduction to this methodology.

The 9 ¾” by 40” wide photograph cannot be realistically seen in one glimpse. To do that one must stand back a few feet which causes much detail to become indiscernible. As you get closer it becomes necessary to scan back and forth to accommodate the photo’s width. Even that is not totally satisfactory and so walking along the image becomes the ideal way to take it all in, thereby forcing the viewer to mimic how an actual viewer of the scene would have to shift focus and position to take in the panorama. But it is in the very content of the image that time begins to flow.

The ancient Western Wall becomes the timeless pivot through which the dusk into night scene seems to evolve, passing from the glowing pink of sunset on the left to the rich darks of night on the right of the image. Significantly the dark sky is punctuated by a burst of fireworks that emphasize the complete arrival of nighttime. In this one image we have traveled through a halachically crucial time; what is called “Bein Hashmashos.” It turns out that this image is not about a specific past event, but thanks to the “eternal” nature of this architecture, i.e. the Western Wall, is about a perpetually recurring event, the interlude between day and night in Jewish practice.

Aron’s most intriguing images involve the dialogue between static architecture and people passing through a scene who by their multiple images, once we notice them, invoke the passage of time. Crucial to his methodology is the viewer’s tendency to view an image casually at first and to see repetition in a photograph as normative and not significant. With Bill Aron’s work that is a big mistake.

Western Wall Plaza During the Day (10 1/4 x 40) digital print by Bill Aron
Courtesy 92nd Street Y

Western Wall Plaza During the Day initially looks like a ragged-edged panoramic snapshot. Upon closer examination of the 10” x 40” image, (with all its complications described above) we notice a kind of visual echo reverberating through the image. Looking closely we see repetitions; three figures in red reappear approaching the Wall, first from afar and then closer and closer. Other random individuals reappear in other unexpected repeated positions. Perhaps these are simply individuals in a tour group dressed alike or yeshiva boys and girls, all dressed in a kind of uniform. But looking carefully these figures are too much alike. In fact in almost all cases, it is the same person at different locations literally advancing through time. The viewer slowly understands that this image is manipulated to drag us through time moving forward. This image transcends stop-time photography because the visual context overwhelmingly tries to convince us that it is but a momentary snapshot. It is not – neither internally in its own image nor when seen juxtaposed with Western Wall Plaza at Night, a nearly identical composition and perspective. They are both grounded in the eternal Temple Mount but radically separated by night and day depicting time’s passage itself.

Schatz’s Gambit

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Bezalel: Art, Craft & Jewish National Identity
Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica
One East 65th Street
Sunday – Thursday 10am – 4:30pm or by appointment
212 744 1400 x 313; museum@emanuelnyc.org
emanuelnyc.org/exhibits/bezalel
Until August 31, 2012

Boris Schatz (1866 – 1932) had a revolutionary vision. He believed that the creation of a new modern Jewish visual culture would become a major force to both articulate a Jewish national identity and sustain the Zionist enterprise. In 1904 he approached Zionist leader Theodor Herzl with the proposal to establish a national arts and crafts school in Palestine and got his blessing. Tragically Herzl died later that year, but the Zionist leadership in Vienna assumed responsibility for the project and its funding. In 1906 Schatz arrived in Palestine with two teachers and two students and set about to create not only a national school that would inspire the new Jewish identity, but also help sustain the fledgling pioneers by promoting tourism and creating an export commodity – Jewish craft. His heroic vision is expertly explicated for us by curator David Wachtel at the current exhibition at the Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El.

And what to call the new Zionist art school? “Bezalel,” of course, after the first Jewish craftsman who had the “spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in all kinds of workmanship” (Shemos 31:2) to fashion God’s dwelling place in the wilderness. Schatz established the cultural model wherein the biblical past authorized the future vision for a Jewish homeland and modern culture. Interestingly enough, as radical as his Zionist Art project seemed, it was at its core deeply conservative as a cultural movement, openly spurning the modernist revolution that was sweeping Europe in the early 20th century. The attempt to create a Jewish nationalist art needed other tools.

Schatz was born in Lithuania, went to yeshiva and then art school. While he was drawn to the early Zionist movement he studied art in Vilnius, Warsaw and Paris and developed into an accomplished sculptor. 1n 1895 he was invited by the King of Bulgaria to become the official court sculptor and establish the Royal Academy of Art, working to forge a Bulgarian national identity through art workshops and home craft industries. In the tumult following the horrifying 1903 Kishinev massacre, Schatz turned his attention again to Zionism, but this time with a vision of an art and craft movement that would lead the Jews to their homeland. Boris Schatz exclaimed “Art is the soul of the nation,” and this could have easily been the anthem of the new movement.

The school he established in Jerusalem promoted a late 19th century academic style in combination with aspects of Art Nouveau. It espoused a romantic view of Jewish life in Palestine, promoting an oriental exoticism of Jews in “biblical” garb, espousing the traditional religion even though the artists were mostly estranged from traditional practice or sensibility.

Tunisian Boy (late 1930s) by Moshe Murro (1888 – 1957) is typical of the style and craft produced by the Bezalel School. These plaques concentrated on Jewish themes and Jewish “types,” emphasizing the young man’s peyosand exotic turban as framed by arabesques of braided filigree silver. The school featured many different departments including workshops for metalwork, carving in wood, stone, ivory, and shell, ceramics, carpet weaving, basketry, lithography and photography. The initial goal was to provide employment for the “impoverished Jews of Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem by producing goods for local tourists as well as export to the Jews of the Diaspora.”

Damascene Vase & Plate (1913), Brass, silver & copper. Bezalel School Moldovan Family Collection

Highly skilled craft was a hallmark of the Bezalel style and this Damascene Vase & Plate (1913) is no exception. Inlayed silver and copper on a brass base and the intricate floral patterns evoke an eastern opulence within a sensuous Turkish form making it a very handsome export item. Good for business but questionable as the expression of a new Jewish sensibility.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925), one of the best known Jewish artists of the time, was an accomplished illustrator when he joined Bezalel as its first instructor. Although he only stayed in Palestine for a short while, he was extremely influential in forming the school’s dominant graphic style. The drawing, Sabbath (1906), seems to be emblematic of some aspects of the Bezalel approach. It depicts “the seventh day of Creation: ensconced in the celestial realm, the enthroned figure of God is flanked by two angels whose mighty wings obscure the Divine Countenance.” Adam and Eve below, here nude are sheltered “by the Tree of Knowledge.” The work is filled with contradictions, nudity aside. Adam and Eve were first expelled from Eden, had to clothe themselves and then came the first Sabbath, outside the Garden and away from the Tree of Knowledge. Either Lilian is representing a vision of an ultimate return to Eden or simply a confused chronology. Regardless, his idiosyncratic use of biblical imagery is radically outside the realm of traditional Judaism. And yet this is proposed as the basis of a new Jewish art for Palestine.

Kestenbaum’s Gems

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Kestenbaum & Company
242 West 30th Street, 12th floor, NYC
212 366 1197; kestenbaum.net
Fine Judaica: Printed Books, Manuscripts, Autograph Letters
Graphic & Ceremonial Art including the Cassuto Collection of Iberian Books
Exhibition: Sunday, June 17 through Wednesday, June 20th.
Sun: 12 noon – 6pm; Mon-Wed: 10am – 6pm: or by appointment
Auction June 21, 2012: 3pm

The exhibitions that precede Judaic auctions are rather special events for anyone who has a feeling for the fabric of Jewish life as it has been lived for the last 500 years. Not only is one afforded the opportunity to see a wide variety of Judaica, books, manuscripts and Jewish art of considerable historic importance, but if something strikes your fancy; intellectually or acquisitively, you can actually handle the objects. For most artwork the thrill is in seeing it up close and judging the brushstrokes and details of a painting or watercolor. One stands in the exact proximity as the creator did. But for books and manuscripts the joy is in leafing through the complexities of a survivor from the past. This was especially true at a Kestenbaum’s pre-exhibition preview of its June 21st auction featuring the “Ferrara Bible” as its star attraction. Jewish history can be held securely in the palm of your hand.

This “Ferrara Bible” was printed in 1553 in Italy and has been acclaimed by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi as “one of the great landmarks in the history of printing” because “it is the first printed Spanish translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, the work of Jews” for the Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal. Printed by Abraham Usque and Yom Tob Atias it became “virtually canonical” for Sephardic Jews for the next 300 years. The title page at first appears typical of Renaissance printed decorations until one notices the central scene of a three-masted galleon floundering in heavy seas. Sea monsters threaten in turbulent waters as the winds blow from both sides. The tall central mast has snapped in half and is about to fall into the deep. According to Yerushalmi the hobbled “ship represents the afflicted Jewish people, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, in their perilous search for a safe haven.” A truly moving image on the title page of the Tanach that would be their rock for generations.

Ferrara Bible (1553) title page detail, printed by Abraham Usque & Yom Tob Atias Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

The next gem I leafed through was a handwritten and illuminated Haggadah created in 1757 by Nathanel ben Aaron Segal. It was the personal possession of the noted Bezalel illustrator Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874 – 1925) and it is yet another example of the Jewish return to illuminated manuscripts in the 18th century. The illustrations are admittedly rather naïve, modeled on the famous 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah which in turn utilized many Judaized images from the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian (mentioned many times in these pages concerning early printed Haggadahs). However, the earnest spirit of the scribe’s images easily makes up for the clumsiness of much of the drawing. In many examples the scenes are changed to reflect the more humble landscapes his Jewish clients inhabited. Additionally the scribe is sensitive to nuances in the narrative. When the three Angels visit Abraham, Sarah steps forward as one of the angels directly motions to her, prophesizing her miraculous pregnancy; an emphasis not seen in earlier images of the same scene. Because of its simplicity, the artist’s depiction stresses the intense interchange between Sarah, Abraham and the Angels.

Sarah & 3 Angels (detail) (1757) ink & watercolor on parchment by Nathanel ben Aaron Segal Haggadah courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

In a number of images the artist added new material, such as the parasols shading Pharaoh’s daughter as she saves Moses; or creates what appears to be totally new images, such as the depiction of the Plague of Frogs. While in the 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah there is an image of the Plague of Frogs, it takes place in the interior of an Egyptian palace. In this Haggadah we see a Jewish man calmly walking along a balustrade with a black servant shielding him with an umbrella from the deluge of frogs, most of which litter the pathway he walks on. A young lad walks ahead of them to clear the way. This totally new image and concept dramatically shifts the pictorial point of view from simple description to seeing the plagues from the Jewish perspective of Divine protection.

Christie’s Mahzor: At Home in Florence?

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Christie’s Paris
Auction: Importants Livres Anciens, Livres d’Artistes et Manuscrits
Viewing: May 4 – 10, 2012
Auction: May 11: 2pm
9, Avenue Matignon
75008 Paris, France

The auction at Christie’s in Paris this May 11 of a Tuscan Mahzor, created and illuminated in the 1490’s, will be an extraordinary event. This rare example of illuminated Jewish art has not been seen publically in over 500 years and, aside from tantalizing internal suggestions, lacks conclusive identification of the scribe and illuminators. Because the gold-tooled goatskin binding was made about 50 years after the manuscript and has a different coat of arms than those found in the machzor, it is assumed that this prayerbook may have quickly changed hands. Aside from the 17th century censor’s notations, all that is known is that the manuscript was sold sometime before 1908 in Frankfort and then noted in Elkan Nathan Adler’s important Jewish Travellers in 1930. One thing that is certain, from both the style and content of the illuminations, the Jewish family who commissioned it were very comfortable in Renaissance Florence where they probably lived. Or were they?

The style of the frontispiece and the following 68 of 422 folios (pages front and back) are said to be characteristic of the noted Christian illuminator Boccardino il vecchio (1460 – 1529). His patrons included the Medici, rulers of Florence at the time, and Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists noted him as a master miniaturist. For a Florentine Jewish family to employ an artist of such renown is not surprising since the community was very close to the Medici family, so much so that Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449 – 1492), whose humanistic agenda supported Jewish scholarship, was considered a protector.

The frontispiece, “Yis’barach,” apparently the beginning a compilation of verses, is notable for the delicate floral decoration framing medallions of animals in landscapes and cameo heads. In another of the eight pages that feature significant decoration (including 4 full page illuminations), a liturgical poem is framed by a similar motif of floral decorations typical of Florentine Renaissance manuscripts. One can make out a snail creeping up the foliage as well as a delicate butterfly at the top of the left border. The portrait cameo features a noble profile with an armillary sphere and the name Dovid in Hebrew on the right. The armillary sphere was model of celestial objects orbiting the earth and was frequently used as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom that probably referred to the manuscript’s first owner, possibly named David. The equally elaborate initial word panel, “V’atah Hashem,” in gold leaf against a deep red ground, features an unusual Magen Dovid that may also allude to the first owner’s name. Additionally the fleur de lys above the name of God seems to refer to the city-state of Florence itself, notably identified by fleur de lys with the unique spikes between its pedals.

Mahzor; “Matzah & Maror” illuminated manuscript (ca. 1490s). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2012

Kay Sutton, Christie’s Director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and Ilana Tahan, head of the British Library’s Hebrew collections have examined this manuscript and feel that the illuminations after 68v were done by followers or the workshop of Boccardino. Additionally some images may actually be from an untrained Jewish hand, most notably the page in the Haggadah section depicting Matzah and Maror. It is clear the scribe left space for illustrations and all three works here exhibit an inexperienced hand distinct from the sophisticated images on the earlier pages. Both “matzah zoh” and “maror zeh” feature seated figures literally presenting the item at hand. The man with the maror is completely out of scale with the object that the maror is resting on. Both the chairs and the stand feature prominent Magen Davids at their base and the fantastical chair also sports a fleur de lys at its top.

The page featuring the Kedushah for Shabbos Shemoneh Esrei is typical of the more refined illuminations; the image of a crown (Kingship is a typical Sephardic designation of this section) announces that we effectively crown Hashem with the words of the Kedushah. The word panel “Moses rejoiced” is a charming image of a blond Moses, rays of light emanating from his head, kneeling and wearing a sumptuous red robe as he receives two tablets from the unseen Divine Presence in the upper right corner. Set in a pristine landscape the entire scene radiates optimism and joy that beautifully reflects the emotions expressed in this Shabbos prayer.

In these images, almost certainly done by non-Jewish artists, the imagery can present iconographical problems. The fully illuminated Kol Nidarim page (notice the Italian “Minhag bnei Roma” Hebrew version of the prayer) introducing the Yom Kippur evening service is bordered by two medallions with stock Renaissance portraits, two classical nude putti presenting a roundel with a seven-branched plant and finally one medallion with a peacock. The intended meanings, if any, are not clear. Above the gold leaf word panel “Kol” is an image of a scarlet robed individual, without tallis, head uncovered, pointing to the open Aron displaying an open, but blank, book. The idea in general is understood but without the specifics of a Jewish service.

Shuls On My Mind: Robert Feinland’s Paintings

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-774-9149
Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday

 

One thing is certain about Robert Feinland – he has shuls on his mind. His career has spanned over 40 years, exploring landscape, cityscape, sculpture and abstraction. For many of those years he has focused on the relentlessly changing urban landscape of New York, feeling the necessity to document and, in some way preserve, the physical fabric of the city he loves. A selection of recent paintings, most concentrating on the Crown Heights community, is currently at the Chassidic Art Institute. Many of the images are of shuls.

Brooklyn born, he was in a way typical of the 1960’s hippie generation until a chance encounter on the subway with a Chabad chasid changed his life. Seeing the way Feinland was dressed, the man simply said, “Hey man, you have to go talk to Rabbi Schneerson.” The man wouldn’t leave him alone until Feinland agreed. He went to Crown Heights and was very impressed with the totally unique world of Jewish religiosity. For a while he attended HaDar HaTorah, the newly founded Chabad yeshiva for baalei teshuva. While he never did speak to the Rebbe, he was, for quite a while, immersed in Jewish religious life. As the artist comments; “I did come in touch with my soul through my experience with 770 in the 1960’s.” Life has never been the same for him.

During the 1980’s Feinland began painting the Lower East Side, concentrating especially on the downtown synagogues. His technique, plein air painting (working outdoors in front of the scene, first favored by the early Impressionists), demands that he return over and over to the motif until he is satisfied with the painting. Perhaps out of the rigors of this discipline and the repeated confrontation with the physical presence of the scene, he has developed a unique approach to depicting urban landscapes. The curvilinear perspective he uses is at first unsettling, reminding the viewer of wide-angle (fisheye lens) photography. But of course his dedication to on-site observation is anything but unthinkingly photographic. Rather he is determined to fuse the optical effects of seeing a street scene up close with the attendant awareness of its inherent social importance. Incidentally, this technique was first discussed by Leonardo di Vinci, ca. 1500, and its multiple perspective points is paradoxically considered an approximation of how the human eye actually sees.

Synagogue For The Arts (2000) demonstrates the use of curvilinear perspective to visually situate a Jewish house of worship on an otherwise drab Soho street. When a visitor stands in front of the shul, one just sees it as an odd bulging structure sandwiched between 19th century cast iron facades. But of course in order to see the synagogue in context of its neighbors, one must scan the block horizontally and then up and down to get a sense of its physical presence. And that scanning of multiple points of view is exactly what Feinland is representing in his painting. By curving the street and its buildings he provides the experience of profoundly encountering this shul. The visual experience of the painting creates an approximation of confronting the incredibly anomalous and dramatic sculptural nature of the shul’s architecture. This is made even more dramatic since the painting depicts the shul in the late afternoon when it is in shadow, thereby emphasizing the mass of its form without the obviousness of morning sunlight.

Aside from this formal analysis, Feinland may be ironically commenting on how the shul actually came to be on White Street in Manhattan. Originally there was a synagogue for the civic center workers on Duane Street that was razed to make way for the Jacob Javits Federal Office Building. This shul was “imposed” upon the adjacent commercial properties as part of the eminent domain settlement. Thus the “distorted perspective” of urban planning and resulting need to address its consequences.

Feinland’s painting of the Millinery Center Synagogue (2005) is part of a similar social commentary. Here the narrative is one of valiant resistance. The forces of development, exemplified by the blurred rushing traffic in the foreground, confronted the brave little congregation of the Millinery Shul and, as is dramatically expressed in Feinland’s painting, it has become “the little shul that could” resisting the relentless real estate development of the late 1990’s. The leadership refused to sell its property in the face of a plan for the massive redevelopment for the entire block. It remains a synagogue there today. While it struggles, it continues to function providing multiple much needed Mincha and Mincha/Maariv services.

The image centers on two little buildings on Sixth Avenue just north of 38th Street, the Millinery Center Synagogue and its four-story neighbor to the right, surrounded by empty lots ready for development. A sidewalk bridge already threatens to the south and the empty northern lot’s diagonal crane reaches skyward pointing the way to the inevitable future. Pictorially, all of the towering forces in this urban environment are arrayed against this diminutive bastion of faith.

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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