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October 23, 2014 / 29 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Museum’

An Ancient ‘Obsession’ with Sukkot Iconography

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

In some ways, Sukkot is the most contemporary of holidays. Many pay good money and invest a lot of time and effort to obtain a beautiful etrog-indeed its biblical name is “fruit of the beautiful tree”-and the most visually appealing lulav, hadasim and aravot. There are various schools of thought on whether to refrigerate or not to refrigerate, to wrap in aluminum foil or wet paper towel, all with the goal of preventing the four species from spoiling and jeopardizing their smell and visual appearance. There is no specific requirement that the schach covering the sukkah be alive-indeed it cannot be made of something still attached to the ground-but the entire atmosphere of Sukkot is one of growth, natural living, and disengaging from our comfort zone. Indeed, it is on the extended Sukkot holiday that a prayer is offered for rain, the source of life.

 

But although Sukkot emphasizes the present-and a recently created annual design competition called Sukkah City has lent the ritual a postmodern thrust-there is something primordial about its symbols. The lulav and etrog, whether alongside each other or appearing separately, are some of the most prominent symbols in early Jewish art.

 

 


Byzantine mosaic at Huldah. Sixth century

 

 

A second century silver coin (image one), in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, shows a lulav and etrog (though it might look more like a flower vase or a lamp to modern eyes), while another silver coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt at the Israel Museum, also minted in 134-135 CE, depicts a bunch of grapes (with the paleo-Hebrew inscription “Simeon”) on one side, and a lulav (with the paleo-Hebrew phrase “For the freedom of Jerusalem”) on the other side.

 

Other Sukkot-related ancient pieces in the Israel Museum’s collection include fourth century glass and gold leaf beads discovered in Roman catacombs, and a fifth century Jewish tombstone, which was laid for a Hannah, who died on the eve of Pesach in 438 CE. The stone comes from the cemetery at Zoar, on the Dead Sea shores. On the stone, painted in red, are a menorah, a shofar, the Temple façade and a lulav.

 

 


Tetradrachma (Greek silver coin) with lulav and etrog. Minted 134 CE. Israel Museum

 

 

The beads, according to the Israel Museum website, were the bases of bowls or cups, which were made by affixing the gold to a glass disk and then creating another layer of glass on top of the gold leaf. “Of the hundreds of known bases, many bear Christian motifs, while some are decorated with biblical or general scenes,” according to an entry on the museum site by Yael Israeli. “Only about a dozen have Jewish features, incorporating most of the characteristic motifs of Jewish art in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, commemorating the Temple, its ritual appurtenances, and its ceremonies.” The beads depict an ark, Torah scrolls, menorahs, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog, among other symbols.

 

A fourth century Roman or Byzantine bowl fragment (image two) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which resembles the Israel Museum beads, shows two menorahs, a shofar, and an ark. According to the Met website, the circular object alongside the menorah could be matzah (one wonders whether that’s really a justified call to make), while an etrog flanks the other side of the shofar. The unlikely Met explanation, which more closely resembles an interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is that “this fragment of gold glass may have been the base of a drinking vessel used during the Passover festival and buried with its owner to bless him in the afterlife.”

 


Detail of floor mosaic at synagogue at Hamat, near Tiberias. Fourth century

 

 

The lulav and etrog, along with a shofar, a menorah, and an incense shovel, also appear in a Byzantine mosaic at Huldah (image three). The mosaic, which bears the Greek inscription “Praise to the people,” depicts the etrog with a pair of leaves attached to the stem (pittom). The etrog in the fourth century mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, near Teverya, does not include leaves growing on the etrog stem, which seems to emanate from a lulav. A shofar, incense shovel, and menorah also appear in the mosaic.

 

The lulav motif also appears in a fourth century Egyptian bronze lamp (with a menorah-handle, a shofar and an etrog), in second-fourth century Jewish medallions (in the collection of the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum of Archaeology, University of Haifa), and in a 500-629 hexagonal Byzantine glass bottle at the Metropolitan Museum.

 

 


Roman or Byzantine bowl fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark. Fourth century. Glass, gold leaf. Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

So why were Jewish artists and patrons so obsessed with the lulav and etrog? While the prospect that they might have simply fallen in love with the ritual of Sukkot is a tempting one to pursue, art history-and particularly religious art history-rarely works that way.

 

As Steven Fine explains in his book, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, the lulav form might have evolved from the symbol of the victory palm, which first appeared on coins between 480 and 445 B.C.E. “The date palm would have been an expedient choice for the Roman minters in designing coins to be used by Palestinian Jews,” Fine writes. “Jews might raise no objection to the date palm as a ‘graven image’ in violation of their tradition of ‘anti-idolism.’ Jews used date palms in their own artistic and literary creations, where it often held an important position.”

 

Fine cites Psalm 92:13 and its reference, “the righteous will flourish like a date palm ” as sources for Jewish fascination with the palm, which later “metamorphosed” from the victory palm into the lulav in Jewish coins during the first revolt against Rome. “The lulav represents the festival of Sukkot,” Fine writes, “and often was thought to represent victory in early literature.”

 

Although many readers might prefer a more “Jewish” explanation of the phenomenon, the lulav form does seem to have proliferated-at least in ancient times-with no small help from pagan symbolism. But what might have started as a pagan motif quickly became assimilated into a Jewish context and started to evolve its own identity. Ancient food for thought, perhaps, as we navigate the most contemporary of holidays.


 


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

An Ancient ‘Obsession’ with Sukkot Iconography

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

In some ways, Sukkot is the most contemporary of holidays. Many pay good money and invest a lot of time and effort to obtain a beautiful etrog-indeed its biblical name is “fruit of the beautiful tree”-and the most visually appealing lulav, hadasim and aravot. There are various schools of thought on whether to refrigerate or not to refrigerate, to wrap in aluminum foil or wet paper towel, all with the goal of preventing the four species from spoiling and jeopardizing their smell and visual appearance. There is no specific requirement that the schach covering the sukkah be alive-indeed it cannot be made of something still attached to the ground-but the entire atmosphere of Sukkot is one of growth, natural living, and disengaging from our comfort zone. Indeed, it is on the extended Sukkot holiday that a prayer is offered for rain, the source of life.

 

But although Sukkot emphasizes the present-and a recently created annual design competition called Sukkah City has lent the ritual a postmodern thrust-there is something primordial about its symbols. The lulav and etrog, whether alongside each other or appearing separately, are some of the most prominent symbols in early Jewish art.

 

 


Byzantine mosaic at Huldah. Sixth century

 

 

A second century silver coin (image one), in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, shows a lulav and etrog (though it might look more like a flower vase or a lamp to modern eyes), while another silver coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt at the Israel Museum, also minted in 134-135 CE, depicts a bunch of grapes (with the paleo-Hebrew inscription “Simeon”) on one side, and a lulav (with the paleo-Hebrew phrase “For the freedom of Jerusalem”) on the other side.

 

Other Sukkot-related ancient pieces in the Israel Museum’s collection include fourth century glass and gold leaf beads discovered in Roman catacombs, and a fifth century Jewish tombstone, which was laid for a Hannah, who died on the eve of Pesach in 438 CE. The stone comes from the cemetery at Zoar, on the Dead Sea shores. On the stone, painted in red, are a menorah, a shofar, the Temple façade and a lulav.

 

 


Tetradrachma (Greek silver coin) with lulav and etrog. Minted 134 CE. Israel Museum

 

 

The beads, according to the Israel Museum website, were the bases of bowls or cups, which were made by affixing the gold to a glass disk and then creating another layer of glass on top of the gold leaf. “Of the hundreds of known bases, many bear Christian motifs, while some are decorated with biblical or general scenes,” according to an entry on the museum site by Yael Israeli. “Only about a dozen have Jewish features, incorporating most of the characteristic motifs of Jewish art in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, commemorating the Temple, its ritual appurtenances, and its ceremonies.” The beads depict an ark, Torah scrolls, menorahs, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog, among other symbols.

 

A fourth century Roman or Byzantine bowl fragment (image two) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which resembles the Israel Museum beads, shows two menorahs, a shofar, and an ark. According to the Met website, the circular object alongside the menorah could be matzah (one wonders whether that’s really a justified call to make), while an etrog flanks the other side of the shofar. The unlikely Met explanation, which more closely resembles an interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is that “this fragment of gold glass may have been the base of a drinking vessel used during the Passover festival and buried with its owner to bless him in the afterlife.”

 


Detail of floor mosaic at synagogue at Hamat, near Tiberias. Fourth century

 

 

The lulav and etrog, along with a shofar, a menorah, and an incense shovel, also appear in a Byzantine mosaic at Huldah (image three). The mosaic, which bears the Greek inscription “Praise to the people,” depicts the etrog with a pair of leaves attached to the stem (pittom). The etrog in the fourth century mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, near Teverya, does not include leaves growing on the etrog stem, which seems to emanate from a lulav. A shofar, incense shovel, and menorah also appear in the mosaic.

 

The lulav motif also appears in a fourth century Egyptian bronze lamp (with a menorah-handle, a shofar and an etrog), in second-fourth century Jewish medallions (in the collection of the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum of Archaeology, University of Haifa), and in a 500-629 hexagonal Byzantine glass bottle at the Metropolitan Museum.

 

 


Roman or Byzantine bowl fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark. Fourth century. Glass, gold leaf. Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

So why were Jewish artists and patrons so obsessed with the lulav and etrog? While the prospect that they might have simply fallen in love with the ritual of Sukkot is a tempting one to pursue, art history-and particularly religious art history-rarely works that way.

 

As Steven Fine explains in his book, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, the lulav form might have evolved from the symbol of the victory palm, which first appeared on coins between 480 and 445 B.C.E. “The date palm would have been an expedient choice for the Roman minters in designing coins to be used by Palestinian Jews,” Fine writes. “Jews might raise no objection to the date palm as a ‘graven image’ in violation of their tradition of ‘anti-idolism.’ Jews used date palms in their own artistic and literary creations, where it often held an important position.”

 

Fine cites Psalm 92:13 and its reference, “the righteous will flourish like a date palm ” as sources for Jewish fascination with the palm, which later “metamorphosed” from the victory palm into the lulav in Jewish coins during the first revolt against Rome. “The lulav represents the festival of Sukkot,” Fine writes, “and often was thought to represent victory in early literature.”

 

Although many readers might prefer a more “Jewish” explanation of the phenomenon, the lulav form does seem to have proliferated-at least in ancient times-with no small help from pagan symbolism. But what might have started as a pagan motif quickly became assimilated into a Jewish context and started to evolve its own identity. Ancient food for thought, perhaps, as we navigate the most contemporary of holidays.


 


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

An Ancient ‘Obsession’ with Sukkot Iconography

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

In some ways, Sukkot is the most contemporary of holidays. Many pay good money and invest a lot of time and effort to obtain a beautiful etrog-indeed its biblical name is “fruit of the beautiful tree”-and the most visually appealing lulav, hadasim and aravot. There are various schools of thought on whether to refrigerate or not to refrigerate, to wrap in aluminum foil or wet paper towel, all with the goal of preventing the four species from spoiling and jeopardizing their smell and visual appearance. There is no specific requirement that the schach covering the sukkah be alive-indeed it cannot be made of something still attached to the ground-but the entire atmosphere of Sukkot is one of growth, natural living, and disengaging from our comfort zone. Indeed, it is on the extended Sukkot holiday that a prayer is offered for rain, the source of life.

 

But although Sukkot emphasizes the present-and a recently created annual design competition called Sukkah City has lent the ritual a postmodern thrust-there is something primordial about its symbols. The lulav and etrog, whether alongside each other or appearing separately, are some of the most prominent symbols in early Jewish art.

 

 


Byzantine mosaic at Huldah. Sixth century

 

 

A second century silver coin (image one), in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, shows a lulav and etrog (though it might look more like a flower vase or a lamp to modern eyes), while another silver coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt at the Israel Museum, also minted in 134-135 CE, depicts a bunch of grapes (with the paleo-Hebrew inscription “Simeon”) on one side, and a lulav (with the paleo-Hebrew phrase “For the freedom of Jerusalem”) on the other side.

 

Other Sukkot-related ancient pieces in the Israel Museum’s collection include fourth century glass and gold leaf beads discovered in Roman catacombs, and a fifth century Jewish tombstone, which was laid for a Hannah, who died on the eve of Pesach in 438 CE. The stone comes from the cemetery at Zoar, on the Dead Sea shores. On the stone, painted in red, are a menorah, a shofar, the Temple façade and a lulav.

 

 


Tetradrachma (Greek silver coin) with lulav and etrog. Minted 134 CE. Israel Museum

 

 

The beads, according to the Israel Museum website, were the bases of bowls or cups, which were made by affixing the gold to a glass disk and then creating another layer of glass on top of the gold leaf. “Of the hundreds of known bases, many bear Christian motifs, while some are decorated with biblical or general scenes,” according to an entry on the museum site by Yael Israeli. “Only about a dozen have Jewish features, incorporating most of the characteristic motifs of Jewish art in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, commemorating the Temple, its ritual appurtenances, and its ceremonies.” The beads depict an ark, Torah scrolls, menorahs, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog, among other symbols.

 

A fourth century Roman or Byzantine bowl fragment (image two) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which resembles the Israel Museum beads, shows two menorahs, a shofar, and an ark. According to the Met website, the circular object alongside the menorah could be matzah (one wonders whether that’s really a justified call to make), while an etrog flanks the other side of the shofar. The unlikely Met explanation, which more closely resembles an interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is that “this fragment of gold glass may have been the base of a drinking vessel used during the Passover festival and buried with its owner to bless him in the afterlife.”

 


Detail of floor mosaic at synagogue at Hamat, near Tiberias. Fourth century

 

 

The lulav and etrog, along with a shofar, a menorah, and an incense shovel, also appear in a Byzantine mosaic at Huldah (image three). The mosaic, which bears the Greek inscription “Praise to the people,” depicts the etrog with a pair of leaves attached to the stem (pittom). The etrog in the fourth century mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, near Teverya, does not include leaves growing on the etrog stem, which seems to emanate from a lulav. A shofar, incense shovel, and menorah also appear in the mosaic.

 

The lulav motif also appears in a fourth century Egyptian bronze lamp (with a menorah-handle, a shofar and an etrog), in second-fourth century Jewish medallions (in the collection of the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum of Archaeology, University of Haifa), and in a 500-629 hexagonal Byzantine glass bottle at the Metropolitan Museum.

 

 


Roman or Byzantine bowl fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark. Fourth century. Glass, gold leaf. Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

So why were Jewish artists and patrons so obsessed with the lulav and etrog? While the prospect that they might have simply fallen in love with the ritual of Sukkot is a tempting one to pursue, art history-and particularly religious art history-rarely works that way.

 

As Steven Fine explains in his book, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, the lulav form might have evolved from the symbol of the victory palm, which first appeared on coins between 480 and 445 B.C.E. “The date palm would have been an expedient choice for the Roman minters in designing coins to be used by Palestinian Jews,” Fine writes. “Jews might raise no objection to the date palm as a ‘graven image’ in violation of their tradition of ‘anti-idolism.’ Jews used date palms in their own artistic and literary creations, where it often held an important position.”

 

Fine cites Psalm 92:13 and its reference, “the righteous will flourish like a date palm ” as sources for Jewish fascination with the palm, which later “metamorphosed” from the victory palm into the lulav in Jewish coins during the first revolt against Rome. “The lulav represents the festival of Sukkot,” Fine writes, “and often was thought to represent victory in early literature.”

 

Although many readers might prefer a more “Jewish” explanation of the phenomenon, the lulav form does seem to have proliferated-at least in ancient times-with no small help from pagan symbolism. But what might have started as a pagan motif quickly became assimilated into a Jewish context and started to evolve its own identity. Ancient food for thought, perhaps, as we navigate the most contemporary of holidays.


 


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

Hailing Turner’s Pestilence: Is The Artist’s Fifth Plague of Egypt Really A Typo?

Monday, March 29th, 2010

In an instance of form following content, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” was recently exiled from its home at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the exhibit “J.M.W. Turner,” which was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, in association with London’s Tate Britain. According to the wall texts from both the exhibit and the painting’s permanent home in Indianapolis, the title Turner selected for his biblical study features one of art history’s greatest typos.

 

Noting that Turner might have created the “dark, tempestuous painting,” which the Royal Academy showed in 1800, in order “to impress British critics and viewers with his ability to handle serious themes,” the IMA description suggests that Turner was a little wet behind the earflaps of his beret. According to the museum, it appears that “the young painter mistitled his picture, as this canvas actually depicts the seventh plague of Egypt, when Moses stretched his arms toward heaven, and thunder, hail and fire rained on the pharaoh and his people.” Perhaps, taking its cue from the IMA, the exhibit wall texts also critiqued the painting’s title; though without the IMA’s humbler caveat that it only “appear[s]” to be a mistake.

 

But a careful study of the biblical text that Turner tackled in the work acquits the artist and reveals that Turner likely did portray the fifth plague.

 

J.M.W. Turner. “Tenth Plague of Egypt.” Engraving c. 1807

 

According to Exodus 9, Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh that God once again requests the Israelites be set free. If Pharaoh will not yield after blood, frogs/crocodiles, lice and wild animals, Moses declares, the “hand of the Lord” is sure to strike the cattle in the field, particularly horses, donkeys, camels, oxen and sheep with a “very heavy plague,” which will selectively attack Egyptian flocks but spare Jewish ones. God then sets a particular time for the plague’s commencement and sure enough the Egyptian flocks die while the Jewish ones continue to graze. Note: Moses does not stretch his hands heavenward for this plague as he does in Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt.”

 

This seems to indicate that Turner did indeed err in his work and the seventh plague of hail seems a logical subject for the depicted scene, as the IMA wall text suggests, since Moses does stretch his hands to begin the plague in Exodus 9:22 and to end the plague in verse 33. Several lightning-blasted tree trunks in the foreground seem to have been destroyed by hail. Also, Moses indicates in verse 29 that he intended to exit the city before praying to God to end the plague – either to spare Egyptian embarrassment or to avoid praying in an impure city, according to various commentators – so perhaps Turner’s decision to set his painting outside the city is intentional.

 

Several elements point away from the plague of hail. First, the cattle in the foreground are already dead, suggesting the plague has already ended or at very least is underway, yet there is neither hail nor lightning visible. Per Exodus 9:23-24, we would expect to see fire, since the hail contained embedded fire and ice. Further, Exodus 9:31-32 makes a big deal about the decimated flora: flax and barley were struck; wheat and rye survived, since they were newly planted and presumably closer to the ground. If the plague has already ended and the flax and barley were struck, why does Turner include an entire forest of trees standing firmly? Surely those would have been destroyed.

 

It is worth noting that Turner was a bit of a bible buff whose repertoire includes Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham with the three angels, Sodom, Jacob, Moses and David. This is a painter who took the bible seriously, even if he was not an expert. It will not do to “chalk up” any of Turner’s decisions to lack of familiarity with the bible or interest in being faithful to its narratives.

 

Although there has been very little scholarly attention to the painting, James A. W. Heffernan claims in “Self-Representation in Byron and Turner” (Poetics Today, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1989) that Turner, whom he thinks did mistitle the work, presents a self-portrait as Moses, since the Moses figure appears out in the work’s “lower-right portion,” traditionally the “locus of self-signification, the place where the artist represents himself in a diminutive or subordinate position.”

 

In this move, Turner, according to Heffernan, has presented himself as “the prophet speaking in pigment, the ambitious young artist who stretches out his arms to recreate on canvas the fiery turbulence of thunder and hail, subverting the Poussinian stability of the central pyramid by surrounding it with an inverted triangle that points to carnage in the foreground and opens out in the distance to the swirling of clouds, to the first hint of the elemental vortex that would become Turner’s graphic signature, a sign of his eponymous power to turn-and over-turn.” This claim fails, however, if Moses is not intended to be the work’s hero at all, but if he is a mere bystander in a work that is far more ambitious than just representing one plague. 

 

 

J.M.W. Turner. “Fifth Plague of Egypt.” c. 1800

 

Perhaps the most convincing evidence against the seventh plague is the dust that Moses seems to be throwing from his hands, which points to the narrative from Exodus 9:8-12 or the sixth plague of boils. God instructs Moses and Aaron (who may be the kneeling figure beside Moses in Turner’s work) to throw handfuls of ash toward the heavens, which will settle on Egypt and give forth boils. If this is indeed the scene that Turner depicts, the title of the work could still stick as the dead animals lying in the foreground would have died in the fifth plague (thus the title) while Moses sets the sixth plague in motion. The work would then really be Plague 5.5 or the aftermath of the fifth plague. The stormy skies could point not toward the seventh plague that was passing, but they could foreshadow the hail that was yet to come.

 

There is precedent for this sort of collapse of history (in anticipation of Picasso). A 17th century version of Martin Luther’s bible that I found online shows a joint illustration of the fifth and seventh plagues. A seventeenth century bible illustration merges the second and third plagues; another joins plagues eight and nine. It seems to have been a common practice – perhaps to save space – to illustrate several plagues together and the so-called Golden Haggadah (17th century) has four plagues per page (though sectioned off as separate illustrations). Turner may have been aware of this practice and decided to add a modern (or postmodern) flavor to it.

 

This move of conflating plagues five through seven would also respond to the important question of how cattle could have died in plague seven if they were all killed in plague five. Surely some Egyptians who feared God safely moved their flocks inside in anticipation of plague five and saved their cattle, but why would those people, after successfully saving their animals, lose faith in God and expose their property to loss two plagues later? Turner might be hinting at this question in his work that bridges the dead animals of the pestilence with stormy skies of the plague of hail.

 

The IMA description on its website suggests that Turner’s work, which he executed at age 24, was of “the most venerated category of his craft: history painting, which celebrated significant events, usually based on a well-known written source.” The museum further explains that the work should be treated primarily as a landscape which is “devoted more to the action of nature than to human activity. Although the figure of Moses can be discerned at lower right, he is cast in shadow and dwarfed by the vastness of the setting. The dramatic color effects Turner used to capture the thunder, hail and fire become the true subject of this exotic scene.”

 

This argument is problematic in light of an intaglio print on paper titled “The Fifth Plague of Egypt” in the collection of the Tate which Turner created, though not a study for the painting according to the Tate’s dating of 1808. Turner’s print clearly reveals a second figure at Moses’ side (probably Aaron), and the city is comparatively much closer to the foreground than it appears in the painting. The print shows very little attention to the sky, which suggests that the stormy reference to hail was not an essential element of the piece.

 

There is more at stake in this discussion than simply the title of Turner’s painting. If the artist did in fact reflect deeply enough on the biblical story that he depicted plague five-and-a-half, as I argue here, Turner ought to be hailed (no pun intended) not as a landscape artist who dabbled in bible studies, but as one of history’s great artists of religious works.

 

Turner also painted “The Tenth Plague of Egypt” (1802) in the collection of the Tate, which shows the aftermath of the plague against the Egyptian firstborn. As I argue for the fifth plague, Turner depicted not the moment of the angel of death attacking the first born, but of mourning mothers carrying their dead children outside the city limits.

 

By closely examining Turner’s “Fifth Plague of Egypt,” which does truly appear to be the fifth plague, it becomes clear that Turner was a careful student of the text and just as his landscapes paid unusually close attention to nature, the artist read the biblical accounts closely. Not only does Turner deserve the benefit of the doubt in his titles, but he should not be written off as a landscape artist who used the bible as just a prop. Turner deserves the sort of attention that biblical masters like Rembrandt and D?rer enjoy.

 

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

Robert Frank’s Empathetic Photographs At the Metropolitan Museum

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans


Through January 3, 2010


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, N.Y.C.



 

 


In a 2008 photograph by Spencer Platt (Getty Images), a pedestrian wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and jeans and carrying a backpack walks down a rundown Detroit street. Behind him, graffiti covers the red and white brick buildings. Scrawled on one wall in enormous thick black letters, which are much larger than the figure, is the word “Help.” In thinner lettering, partially obscured by the other graffiti inscription, someone has written: “It don’t exist,” presumably responding pessimistically to the call for help.

 

Platt’s photo can be seen as potentially optimistic – the pedestrian is in motion, and as it’s impossible to know where he is headed, one might speculate his walk might represent progress – but a pessimistic reading of the image seems more appropriate. The photograph appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s website in November 2008, during the same week that representatives from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors traveled to Washington to seek government money to stave off bankruptcy. The shabby street and the pedestrian are stand-ins for Detroit’s catastrophic economic woes.

 

 


Trolley-New Orleans, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 21.9 x 33.2 cm (8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and

Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005 (2005.100.454)

 

 

If MPR had looked to its archives, it could have conveyed a similar effect with a photograph from the mid-1950s. Robert Frank was such a visionary photographer that images from his “The Americans” series, in which he drove all over the country in his Ford in 1955 and 1956 and took thousands of pictures, could populate many of the news stories filed in the past two-and-a-half years on the financial crisis – particularly his photographs from New Orleans and Detroit.

 

Born to a Jewish family in Switzerland in 1924, Frank was a young man when, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he drove 10,000 miles through 30 states and took more than 27,000 photographs of blue collar Americans. Frank was an outsider looking in at America with fresh eyes – and “Looking In” is a very appropriate title for the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit of Frank’s work – as being Jewish contributed to his being an outsider.

 

 


Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 21.3 x 32.4 cm (8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.). Private collection, San Francisco

 

 

Although it is tough to spot blatant Jewish content in Frank’s photographs, his faith was a very important and very unfortunate part of the process of creating the photographs. Police officers in McGehee, Ark., arrested Frank on November 7, 1955, for driving a car “heavily loaded with suitcases, trunks and a number of cameras” that bore New York plates, and for being “shabbily” dressed and clearly a “foreigner.” An officer explained that one of the police’s mandates was to “watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly being in the employ of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations.” Frank had also been arrested previously in Detroit.

 

Frank’s Jewish identity (he was asked why he, as a Jew, returned to Europe after World War II) and his children’s “foreign” names (Pablo and Andrea) also came up in the hours of questioning, according to several of the essays in the Metropolitan Museum catalog. This ethnic and religious profiling made quite an impression on Frank, who said it gave him extra “compassion for the people of the street.” “But they did far more than that,” writes Sarah Greenough in the catalog, “they amplified his anger, sharpened his eye, and transformed his previous affinity for those on the margins of society into an almost visceral engagement with them. They also made him fearless.”

 


Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954

 

 

Frank’s “Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954″ is the only image in “The Americans” to depict obviously Jewish subjects (though a textiles shop bearing the name Rudolph Levy in “The Fruit Peddler, Early Afternoon, 1951″ could also include an implied Jewish subject). In “Yom Kippur,” Frank photographed a group of Jews standing outside overlooking the East River. The men wear hats, and it is hard to count how many people are actually depicted (five men and one child might be a good guess), as the group blends together and appears to be a single organism. Across the river, a bridge can be discerned through the fog.

 

The Metropolitan museum catalog makes a big point of mentioning that the men look away from the camera (the boy is seen in profile). A review in the Forward by Benjamin Ivry calls the boy’s gaze “dewy-eyed,” while Eric Herschthal, writing for the New York Jewish Week, notes that “you could not argue easily that Frank was shunning his own flock,” even though Frank rarely photographed Jews, since they would not have been prominent in the many places he stopped on his trip.

 

 


U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955.” Gelatin silver print. 33.7 x 21.9 cm (13 1/4 x 8 5/8 in.)

Mark Kelman, New York.

 

 

But neither writer nor the catalog to the Metropolitan Museum show asks what the Jewish men and boys are doing on the High Holidays, standing beside the river. A lone comment on the Forward’s website asks, “Isn’t it more likely that the people in this photograph have gone to the river to celebrate Tashlikh (casting bread into the river) on Rosh Ha’Shana?” I agree completely with the Richard who posted that comment. The photograph is probably incorrectly labeled, and should read Rosh Ha’shana. The men are clearing symbolically casting their sins in the river, and rather than turning their backs on the viewer out of arrogance, humility, shame, self-preservation or any other such emotion, they are no doubt specifically facing the water as they cast the bread into the water.

 

The notion of New York Jews casting their bread-sins in the water could have carried particular significance to Frank, who immigrated to America and who was arrested and persecuted for being a foreigner and a Jew. Just a bread-sin’s throw away from the location of the tashlich stands the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, a very important symbol of Jews and immigrants. The Jewish men and boys reciting the prayers stand firmly on New York (and thus American) soil, but they can be viewed as turning their backs on New York and looking out on the water – perhaps symbolically looking back to Europe.

 

It might not be too speculative to consider their “sins” not only their literal deviations from the Torah law, but also the same “sins” for which Frank was harassed so many times on his photographic voyage – the misdeed of being different and Other. If Frank said the persecution he felt as a foreigner and a Jew helped him better sympathize with working Americans throughout the country, perhaps the ritual depicted in “Yom Kippur – East River, New York City, 1954″ might be the greatest microcosm for considering the entire series of “The Americans.”


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Why Was The Prato Haggadah Left Unfinished?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages

Through August 23, 2009

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City

http://www.metmuseum.org

 

 

When the Cistercian abbot Stephen Harding commissioned an illuminated bible in 1109, he wanted to ensure its accuracy. So he did what any good scholar (but very few medieval Church leaders) would do; he sought rabbinic counsel so that he could have access to the original Hebrew. The so-called St. Stephen’s Bible, which can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibit, Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages, represents a rare collaboration of rabbinic and Christian scholarship.

 

Unfortunately, the exhibit missed the opportunity to show whether any of the illuminations in the 12th-century manuscript actually reflect rabbinic biblical interpretations. The only page from the bible that appears in the exhibit is the opening page to the Gospel of John, which shows a giant eagle clawing out the eye of the third-century heretic Arius. It is hard to imagine the rabbis would have had much insight for the C?teaux monastic community on New Testament passages, though it is worth noting that certain books from Christian scripture, like the book of Matthew, were rumored to have been composed originally in Hebrew. There is thus a remote possibility that rabbinic wisdom might have been relevant even for New Testament passages.

 

 

Page with “Ha Lachma Anya.” the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

 

 

Either way, another manuscript in the Pen and Parchment exhibit is surely worth addressing in Jewish terms. The Prato Haggadah, which dates to 14th century Spain, was mysteriously abandoned mid-project. The first page, “Ha Lachma Anya (This is the bread of our affliction”), which does not appear in the exhibit, boasts a very expansive palette: gold leaf, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and brown. The page features a rabbit hunt and “grotesque” hybrid forms – what appear to be dogs with human or horse legs and dragons eating leaves. Surrounding the enlarged initial “Ha” is an architectural structure, a typical element in Christian miniatures. And it might even have a church spire in the center.

 

Later pages like “Avadim Hayinu (We were slaves)” feature other grotesques. One might be a sphinx, which is surely interesting given the centrality of Egypt in the Haggadah narrative – though this sphinx has wings, which appears to be a feature of Greek rather than Egyptian sphinxes. Another illustration depicts two dragons, their long necks intertwined, biting each other’s wings. (Strangely the red-headed dragon has a green wing, while the green-headed dragon has a red wing.) As the reader proceeds through the book, the grotesques grow even stranger. On the page “Tzey U’limad (Go out and learn),” a bird has a human head, with a tall hat, and a long flowing beard. The hybrid either has long hair or sidecurls that might hint to a Jewish identity.

 

By the time readers get to the page “V’avarti (And I [God is speaking] will go out),” they encounter forms in the margin that are simply outlined, and the gold leaf is incomplete. Pen and Parchment focuses on the unfinished parts of the manuscript, and instead of showing the brilliant colors and rich symbols, the exhibit contains just two unfinished pages. “The resulting incomplete state is revelatory,” the curators explain, “as the various stages in the process of the illumination of a manuscript, including the accomplished underdrawing, are visible. Many of the letters show the next stage, in which gesso was applied in order to prepare the parchment for an application of gold leaf.”

 

 

Paschal Lamb; Rabban Gamaliel Teaching Students. From the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478.

 

 

The Metropolitan curators’ suggestion that the Haggadah presents an opportunity to examine materials and process in its unfinished state is echoed on the website of the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, which owns the manuscript. The JTS site calls the reasons for the uncompleted state “obscure,” and adds that the “unfinished nature of the codex” allows for viewing the stages of producing an illuminated manuscript: “the scribal arrangement of the text; the artist’s preparatory drawings; the application of gesso to cushion gold or silver leaf; the addition of the leaf; the painting of a wide variety of pigments; and the outlining of the illuminations with ink.”

 

This column will not present a reason for the Haggadah’s incomplete state where the curators at the Metropolitan Museum and the librarians at JTS say it is unknown. But there is another curious incompleteness to the Haggadah – this one intentional – that will be obvious to readers who are very familiar with the text of the Haggadah. The illuminator, whether he knew Hebrew or was simply copying from a preexistent text, truncated many of the words in the Haggadah.

 

 

Dayyeinu Text and Hybrid Creatures. From the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478.

 

 

Wherever a word has been cut short there is a vertical line above the final letter. This suggests to the reader that there are missing letters, sort of like the Hebrew grammatical device of the Dagesh Hazak Mashlim (the strong, compensatory vowel), which hints to the reader that a letter had been deleted. In the Dayyeinu Text and Hybrid Creatures pages, eight words are truncated (three repeated): “hama[n],” “hashaba[t],” “hichnisa[nu],” “l’ere[tz],” and “yis[rael].”

 

Throughout the manuscript there are many such shortenings of words, some of them on relatively obscure words. This begs the question as to whether the intended reader (presumably the patron) knew the Haggadah by heart, or whether the manuscript was intended to be decorative rather than functional. Writing on the early 16th-century Floersheim Haggadah, which also features truncated words, in the 2005 edition of Ars Judaica, Yael Zirlin notes different notations in the acronyms designed to avoid writing G-d’s name in the manuscript. She is thus led to believe that different parts of the manuscripts were composed at different times. But she does not address the truncated words.

 

 

Book of the Maccabees Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, Cod. Perizoni F 17, f. 21v-22r, Battle Scene c. 850-925 St. Gall, Switzerland Ink on parchment, with some paint8 7/8 x 6 15/16 in. (22.5 x 17.6 cm) Leiden University Library, (F 17, f. 21v-22r)

 

 

The JTS website helps a bit. “Although it includes the standard biblical, talmudic, and midrashic texts, as well as the liturgical poetry common to other Spanish Haggadot, the Prato Haggadah lacks all elements associated with the Passover meal,” it states, noting the absence of kiddush, blessings for matzah and marror, or any instructions for the Seder. “Scholars have suggested that Haggadot of this kind may have been written to be read publicly in the synagogue, after which people would return to their homes for the meal.” In fact, this format, where a Haggadah would be read in synagogue for the benefit of those who could not lead or attend a Seder, is found in other Spanish Haggadot, the JTS site explains.

 

Perhaps the Prato was intended to be read in a communal setting by someone who knew the text so well that he could decipher word parts rather than complete words. What is clear, though, is that the manuscript that the Metropolitan Museum is now showing might be as thought provoking in the elements it lacks as it is in the ones it contains.

 

Note to readers: I encourage everyone interested in this topic to view the Prato Haggadah at the following link: http://www.jtslibrarytreasures.org/prato/prato.html.

Also please visit the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit blog at http://blog.metmuseum.org/penandparchment/

 

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Why Was The Prato Haggadah Left Unfinished?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages


Through August 23, 2009


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City



 

 


When the Cistercian abbot Stephen Harding commissioned an illuminated bible in 1109, he wanted to ensure its accuracy. So he did what any good scholar (but very few medieval Church leaders) would do; he sought rabbinic counsel so that he could have access to the original Hebrew. The so-called St. Stephen’s Bible, which can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibit, Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages, represents a rare collaboration of rabbinic and Christian scholarship.

 

Unfortunately, the exhibit missed the opportunity to show whether any of the illuminations in the 12th-century manuscript actually reflect rabbinic biblical interpretations. The only page from the bible that appears in the exhibit is the opening page to the Gospel of John, which shows a giant eagle clawing out the eye of the third-century heretic Arius. It is hard to imagine the rabbis would have had much insight for the Cîteaux monastic community on New Testament passages, though it is worth noting that certain books from Christian scripture, like the book of Matthew, were rumored to have been composed originally in Hebrew. There is thus a remote possibility that rabbinic wisdom might have been relevant even for New Testament passages.

 

 


Page with “Ha Lachma Anya.” the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

 

 

Either way, another manuscript in the Pen and Parchment exhibit is surely worth addressing in Jewish terms. The Prato Haggadah, which dates to 14th century Spain, was mysteriously abandoned mid-project. The first page, “Ha Lachma Anya (This is the bread of our affliction”), which does not appear in the exhibit, boasts a very expansive palette: gold leaf, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and brown. The page features a rabbit hunt and “grotesque” hybrid forms – what appear to be dogs with human or horse legs and dragons eating leaves. Surrounding the enlarged initial “Ha” is an architectural structure, a typical element in Christian miniatures. And it might even have a church spire in the center.

 

Later pages like “Avadim Hayinu (We were slaves)” feature other grotesques. One might be a sphinx, which is surely interesting given the centrality of Egypt in the Haggadah narrative – though this sphinx has wings, which appears to be a feature of Greek rather than Egyptian sphinxes. Another illustration depicts two dragons, their long necks intertwined, biting each other’s wings. (Strangely the red-headed dragon has a green wing, while the green-headed dragon has a red wing.) As the reader proceeds through the book, the grotesques grow even stranger. On the page “Tzey U’limad (Go out and learn),” a bird has a human head, with a tall hat, and a long flowing beard. The hybrid either has long hair or sidecurls that might hint to a Jewish identity.

 

By the time readers get to the page “V’avarti (And I [God is speaking] will go out),” they encounter forms in the margin that are simply outlined, and the gold leaf is incomplete. Pen and Parchment focuses on the unfinished parts of the manuscript, and instead of showing the brilliant colors and rich symbols, the exhibit contains just two unfinished pages. “The resulting incomplete state is revelatory,” the curators explain, “as the various stages in the process of the illumination of a manuscript, including the accomplished underdrawing, are visible. Many of the letters show the next stage, in which gesso was applied in order to prepare the parchment for an application of gold leaf.”

 

 


Paschal Lamb; Rabban Gamaliel Teaching Students. From the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478.

 

 

The Metropolitan curators’ suggestion that the Haggadah presents an opportunity to examine materials and process in its unfinished state is echoed on the website of the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, which owns the manuscript. The JTS site calls the reasons for the uncompleted state “obscure,” and adds that the “unfinished nature of the codex” allows for viewing the stages of producing an illuminated manuscript: “the scribal arrangement of the text; the artist’s preparatory drawings; the application of gesso to cushion gold or silver leaf; the addition of the leaf; the painting of a wide variety of pigments; and the outlining of the illuminations with ink.”

 

This column will not present a reason for the Haggadah’s incomplete state where the curators at the Metropolitan Museum and the librarians at JTS say it is unknown. But there is another curious incompleteness to the Haggadah – this one intentional – that will be obvious to readers who are very familiar with the text of the Haggadah. The illuminator, whether he knew Hebrew or was simply copying from a preexistent text, truncated many of the words in the Haggadah.

 

 


Dayyeinu Text and Hybrid Creatures. From the Prato Haggadah. Spain, ca. 1300.

The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478.

 

 

Wherever a word has been cut short there is a vertical line above the final letter. This suggests to the reader that there are missing letters, sort of like the Hebrew grammatical device of the Dagesh Hazak Mashlim (the strong, compensatory vowel), which hints to the reader that a letter had been deleted. In the Dayyeinu Text and Hybrid Creatures pages, eight words are truncated (three repeated): “hama[n],” “hashaba[t],” “hichnisa[nu],” “l’ere[tz],” and “yis[rael].”

 

Throughout the manuscript there are many such shortenings of words, some of them on relatively obscure words. This begs the question as to whether the intended reader (presumably the patron) knew the Haggadah by heart, or whether the manuscript was intended to be decorative rather than functional. Writing on the early 16th-century Floersheim Haggadah, which also features truncated words, in the 2005 edition of Ars Judaica, Yael Zirlin notes different notations in the acronyms designed to avoid writing G-d’s name in the manuscript. She is thus led to believe that different parts of the manuscripts were composed at different times. But she does not address the truncated words.

 

 


Book of the Maccabees Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, Cod. Perizoni F 17, f. 21v-22r, Battle Scene c. 850-925 St. Gall, Switzerland Ink on parchment, with some paint
8 7/8 x 6 15/16 in. (22.5 x 17.6 cm) Leiden University Library, (F 17, f. 21v-22r)

 

 

The JTS website helps a bit. “Although it includes the standard biblical, talmudic, and midrashic texts, as well as the liturgical poetry common to other Spanish Haggadot, the Prato Haggadah lacks all elements associated with the Passover meal,” it states, noting the absence of kiddush, blessings for matzah and marror, or any instructions for the Seder. “Scholars have suggested that Haggadot of this kind may have been written to be read publicly in the synagogue, after which people would return to their homes for the meal.” In fact, this format, where a Haggadah would be read in synagogue for the benefit of those who could not lead or attend a Seder, is found in other Spanish Haggadot, the JTS site explains.

 

Perhaps the Prato was intended to be read in a communal setting by someone who knew the text so well that he could decipher word parts rather than complete words. What is clear, though, is that the manuscript that the Metropolitan Museum is now showing might be as thought provoking in the elements it lacks as it is in the ones it contains.


 


Note to readers: I encourage everyone interested in this topic to view the Prato Haggadah at the following link: http://www.jtslibrarytreasures.org/prato/prato.html.

Also please visit the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit blog at http://blog.metmuseum.org/penandparchment/

 

 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/why-was-the-prato-haggadah-left-unfinished/2009/08/19/

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