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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’

Is There A Jewish Tradition About The Shape Of The Tablets Of The Ten Commandments?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Nearly six and a half centuries before McDonald’s first introduced its iconic logo designed by Jim Schindler, artists had already invented the double-humped shape. The Flemish painter Michiel van der Borch’s 1332 manuscript illustration “Moses receives the Tables of the Law” shows a haloed prophet, his hair twisted into horns, carrying his staff and wearing a red robe as he reaches out to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Hundreds of medieval manuscript illuminations, as well as dozens of paintings by Chagall, feature the same rounded layout.


But when Ghiberti sculpted Moses receiving the tablets of the law for the bronze Gates of Paradise for the eastern door of the Florence Baptistery (1425-52), the Italian artist depicted Moses receiving two unconnected rectangular tablets from God, surrounded by angels. Moses is poised to accept one tablet in each hand; Ghiberti has captured the exact moment where the tablets are still firmly in God’s hands and Moses is just reaching for them.


Lorenzo Ghiberti. Gates of Paradise;

Left Door. Florence Baptistery. 1425-1452



With the holiday of Shavuot on the horizon, it is important to ask: Is there a uniquely Jewish aesthetic tradition for the depiction of the tablets? Were they connected or separate stones? Were they rectangular or rounded?


Biblical and rabbinic texts seem to have avoided the question of the shape of the tablets for the most part. There are discussions about how the stones miraculously read properly from both sides (Exodus 32:15), since the letters were carved straight through the stone. There are event sources that say that some letters – like the somach – were miraculously suspended in midair. But the shape of the tablets does not seem to have made a tremendous impression on the biblical commentators.


The midrash in Exodus Rabbah (section 41:8) clearly states that the tablets were two separate stones to symbolize a variety of things including: heaven and earth, bride and groom, this world and the World to Come. The tablets were also made of sapphire, the midrash states, to remind those assembled at Sinai that if they did not obey the laws they would be subject to the death penalty of stoning with rocks as hard as the sapphire tablets.


Moses receiving the law. Sarajevo Haggadah. C. 1350



The depiction of the giving of the law at Sinai in the Sarajevo Haggadah (c. 1350) shows Moses, dressed like a medieval monk (though Richard McBee has called the “hooded gowns” a “characteristic of Barcelonan Jewry”), standing on a short hill surrounded by the Jewish people. A man, who seems to be reading a book and standing halfway up the hill closest to Moses is probably Joshua. Moses, still partially engulfed by the divine cloud, holds two attached tablets which have slight humps. One could make the argument that the tablets are rectangular and the artist has overcompensated in the perspective and shading but the more natural position is that the tablets are rounded.


Moses with tablets of the law. Alba Bible. Toledo Museum of Art. 1422-30



The Alba Bible, a 1430 translation from Hebrew to Castilian, shows a bearded Moses in a striped tunic playing a Jewish version of Atlas. Instead of bearing the weight of the world, the Alba Moses holds up two enormous, rectangular tablets for the Jews at the foot of the mountain to inspect. The tablets seem positioned to squash Moses’ head, and if one examines them carefully, one notices that the text – which is not carved into the rock, but painted on top of it – sometimes overflows the allotted space and hangs midair, particularly in the third commandment. It is almost tempting to read the white space surrounding the letters as empty space, in which case the artist has interpreted the forms of the letters as all being miraculously suspended.


Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai. C. 1320. Tripartite Maḥzor 



The c. 1320 German Tripartite Machzor shows Moses receiving a rectangular, singular tablet from God as Aaron and the Jewish people look on (the women looking like birds and cats). Trumpets and shofars can be seen above, setting the mood, and the French symbol of the monarchy, the fleur-de-lis, can be seen throughout the image. The Ten Commandments are depicted as compartments on a larger metallic frame, though, strangely, there are slots for 12 rather than 10 commandments. The Tripartite Moses seems to have received the framed version of the commandments, perhaps ready to hang on the wall of his tent.


During one of my family’s sedarim, I observed that the depiction of the tablets in our Haggadah (illustrated by a Moroccan painter), which resembled the McDonald’s logo, was a Christian rather than Jewish interpretation of the scene. What should be clear by now is that I was wrong about there being such a clean separation of the Jewish and Christian traditions.


There are many different versions of the commandments in Christian art as well. In a 1408-1410 work, Italian painter Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni) shows Moses bearing two separate rectangular tablets, inscribed with pseudo-Hebrew. Moses also has two pseudo-Hebraic rectangular slabs in Cosimo Rosselli’s 1481-83 “Scenes from the Life of Moses.” Francesco Bassano II’s bizarre 1576 painting “Autumn (Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law)” shows Moses kneeling in the top left corner of the painting receiving two pointy tablets. The foreground is occupied by peasants going about their daily chores, oblivious to the monumental scene occurring in the distance.


Moses gets two separate but humped tablets, with true Hebrew, but an unnatural composition, in Guido Reni’s 1624-5 “Moses with the Tablets of the Law.” Several early 13th-century Psalters show Moses with a singular, humped tablet, but the illuminators made a point of painting the tablets small enough that they could be carried in one hand. A sculpture attached to an 1170 Gothic column shows Moses carrying a single tablet which is rounded on the top, while a 6th- or 7th-century woodcut depicts Moses with a single (seemingly rectangular) tablet and a basket of manna. The Master of Echternach’s c. 990 carved ivory Moses bears two rectangular tablets and a 15th-century woodcut seems to show a rectangular set of tablets attached but folded almost like a diptych. A 526 mosaic in Italy shows Moses receiving a scroll (the Torah?) rather than stone tablets at all and though the mosaic may be the first such interpretation, the scroll surfaces in several medieval manuscripts such as the Grandval Bible (c. 840), and in a mosaic at San Vitale (c. 547). More than a millennium later, Rembrandt, known for collaborating with biblical scholar Menasseh ben Israel, showed Moses carrying two separate, rounded tablets.


            Perhaps most inventively, the Begensburg Pentateuch (c. 1300, true Hebrew) shows Moses receiving two separate (rectangular) tablets and then attaching the two as he descends from Sinai. In fact, the Divine Hand gives the first tablet to Moses atop Sinai; Moses hands the first tablet to another Moses, who stands midway up the mountain; Moses II receives the first tablet from Moses I and hands tablet two to Moses III, at the foot of the mountain; and Moses III hands the joined tablets to Moses IV, who stands with the Jewish people. (Alternatively, Moses IV could be a different figure, like Joshua, as he wears a different color, but Moses IV and Moses I seem to have the same attire). One would expect the progression to go the other way – for Moses to receive the tablets whole, and then to dash them on the foot of the mountain upon discovering the Golden Calf – but the artist chose to reverse the process.


This is by no means an exhaustive (or scholarly) approach to the question of what shape Jewish tradition records for the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But it should be clear that the claim Jews envision the tablets in the rectangular while Christians hold them to have been rounded does not stand. For the most part, Jewish artists do seem to have followed the grammar of the biblical phrase luchot avanim (tablets of stone) or luchot ha’brit (tablets of the law), which is always presented in the plural, while many Christian artists attached the two tablets to each other. Surely, more work can be done on whether there are theological implications to these aesthetic decisions.


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

The Sarajevo Haggadah The Choice Of Images

Friday, May 2nd, 2003

The Sarajevo Haggadah – Facsimile edition, printed in Bosnia, 1983,
commentary text by Eugen Werber.

Available at Joy Schonberg Galleries;
255 West 88th Street, New York, NY; 212-877-3369



All Jewish Art depends upon the choice of subject as the primary vehicle to elicit meaning. Style, composition, form and innovation operate in the context of the theme drawn from Jewish texts, commentaries, Midrashim and history. For the artist, that initial choice inevitably influences the artistic agenda of what follows. In the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most treasured masterpieces of the Jewish people, the artist’s choice of Biblical passages molded the intellectual shape and tone of this 14th Century Catalonian masterpiece.

The Sarajevo Haggadah was created in Barcelona, circa 1350, for a prominent Jewish family. Evidence of the family’s connection with the rulers of the Kingdom of Aragon is shown by the heraldic crests found on the title page. It is likely that the Haggadah left Spain during the Expulsion of 1492. From marginal notations we know it was sold in northern Italy in August 1510, and then examined by an Italian ecclesiastical censor in 1609. Subsequently it was brought to Sarajevo, Bosnia where the Jozef Kohen family sold it in 1894. Housed in the Bosnian National Museum, its fame attracted the interest of the Nazi invaders in 1941, which resulted in its being hidden in neighboring villages until after the war.

During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), just days before the National Gallery was bombed, it was once again removed and hidden. In December 2002, the first permanent public display of the newly restored Haggadah inaugurated the National Museum of Bosnia as a symbol of the hope for peace and democracy in the new nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The fame of this Haggadah arises from its great age, beauty and sheer quantity of textual decorations and illuminated miniatures. The handwritten manuscript, written on vellum (calf skin similar to klaf used for a Sefer Torah), begins with 34 pages of miniature paintings. They are painted on one side of the vellum to prevent any bleeding of the paint from one side to the other. On these pages there are a total of 68 panel paintings that depict the Biblical narrative from the creation of the world through the death of Moses. The story of Joseph is given special attention in 17 panels.

After this breathtaking introduction, the main text is written in a bold Sephardic script on both sides of the next 50 pages. The text is a wonder of decoration and embellishment displaying more than 50 ornamented and gilt word panels, assorted grotesques and floral decorations. Four additional miniatures depicting Rabban Gamaliel, Matzah, Maror and a Spanish Jewish
family at the Seder enhance this section. The remaining 58 pages are relatively unadorned piyyutim, Biblical readings and prayers for the holiday.

According to the venerable Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, “it would seem probable that the illuminator of the Sarajevo Haggadah was a Jew” because of his “cognizance and sympathy for the text.” Other details, such as the tendency of individual panels to narrate from right to left (Lot flees leftward and Abraham walks left towards the Akeidah) echo Hebrew reading and point to a Jewish artist. The sophisticated integration of Midrashic and Biblical material and local Jewish costumes of the time (hooded gowns characteristic of Barcelonan Jewry) reinforce this view.

The miniature cycle is fascinating on a number of levels. The sheer multiplicity of images allows the artist to develop sub-narratives. They are played out on opposing pages as the codex is laid open. The shape of the ark is repeated in Noah in the Ark and Noah offering a thanksgiving sacrifice. This is contrasted with the strong diagonals in the scene of the drunken Noah and the builders of the Tower of Babel found on the opposite page. The theme of the righteous and dutiful man following G-d’s instructions is sullied by his foolish abuse of wine and mankind’s vanity in the Tower’s construction. The artist has composed the entire four-panel suite to nurture a new perspective on the text. The steady pattern of alternating blue and sienna red backgrounds framed in blue borders is repeated throughout.

In section after section, the sub-motifs proliferate into a running commentary by the artist. Rebecca gives birth to Jacob and Esau while simultaneously we see the brothers as an adult hunter and Torah scholar. Below, the stolen blessing is engineered by Rebecca and is then followed on the opposite page by Esau’s heartfelt plea to Isaac for his blessing. That page finishes with the revelation of Jacob’s dream. This set provides a stark examination of Isaac’s actions as a father, Rebecca’s manipulations and the contrasting qualities and merits of each of their sons. In the context of a mere four panels, a concise and complex family history that much of humanity shares is explicated.

Ultimately, it is the extraordinary emphasis on the Joseph story that establishes the fundamental perspective of the illuminations. Similar to other Catalonian Haggadahs such as the Golden Haggadah in the British Library, the story of Joseph is predominant, occupying over 25 percent of the miniature panels. These 17 illuminations detail his dreams, conflicts, sale, trials, role as ruler of Egypt and final reconciliation with his brothers and father. As the procession to bury Jacob is paired with the burial of Joseph, the last set illustrates the midrash of a Joseph’s coffin that was sunk in the Nile. The Nile/Aron motif is continued with the finding of the basket with the infant Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter. The death of the patriarch Jacob in proximity with the death of the righteous Joseph and the birth of the man who will lead the Jews out of bondage creates a pictorial equation that demands us to believe in redemption even when all seems lost.

The fluid and sometimes dangerous political situation for the Jews in mid-14th century Spain demanded political acuity on the part of the Jews in positions of power, much like the savvy Joseph. However such a practical program was not always sufficient. When all was said and done, a broader perspective for communal survival was necessary. The artist reveals this in the
last three sets of facing pages.

Dominated by full-page illuminations, these passages have a powerful effect on the reader. The collection of the heavenly manna and the sustenance of the wells at Elim are facing the image of Moses in the midst of the fire, smoke and shofar blasts while receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. Torah seems to climax with the foregoing narrative. Yet the next set of miniatures depict the teaching of the Torah to the people and the transmission of Torah leadership to Joshua ben Nun. This pair is facing the full-page image of “The Holy Temple, which will be built soon, in our days.” The splendid medieval edifice allows us to see inside and glimpse the wings of the cherubim guarding the Holy Ark.

In the next and final set of illuminations the artist brings us back to the present with the serving of haroseth and matzot to guests assembled for a Sephardi Seder. A simple depiction of the synagogue interior, ark doors open to reveal three Torahs, climaxes the pictorial program. The congregation is leaving, families fortified by the blessings of a Torah community, ready to face the vicissitudes of life in an unredeemed world.

The artist has established his theme. The Law revealed at Sinai will lead, through daily practice in the synagogue community, to the redemption of the Jewish people and the restoration of the Third Temple. That is the final message the artist embedded in the Sarajevo Haggadah by his critical choice of subjects for illumination. We are the benefactors of his splendid choices.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art.
Please feel free to email him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

CORRECTION: Regarding Richard Mcbee’s column of last week (3/28/03) “Celebrities Observed – Sima Ariam: Portraits,” a most important photo of Sima’s was inadvertently omitted, in which Mcbee contrasts her photo of Avedon with his self-portrait. The two photos and the paragraphs describing the comparison are reprinted here. We apologize for the omission.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-sarajevo-haggadah-the-choice-of-images/2003/05/02/

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