While I have only touched on a few of Epstein’s insights, one salient fact needs to be elucidated. Almost all of the underlying assumptions concerning the Bird’s Head Haggadah are scholarly educated guesses. We have no factual or documentary proof of either date or location or community of creation of this Haggadah, only stylistic comparisons and learned deductions. Now of course that is not at all unusual in research about many medieval manuscripts. But what is especially dramatic about Epstein’s analysis is the courage of his scholarly conclusions. His erudition in terms of that which we do know, i.e. biblical, Talmudic and legal texts along with surviving historical records, is truly staggering. But he consistently pursues his arguments further in giving voice to the independent meanings of the images themselves. Hand in hand with his scholarship is an artist’s eye for visual narration and meaning. And by doing this he liberates his work from being a simple historical analysis.
Epstein’s methodology provides a paradigm for contemporary Jewish art. By lauding a medieval Haggadah for its integration of text, tradition, visual exegesis and contemporary meaning, he has shown it to be a model for 21st century contemporary Jewish art to be subversive, interpret “against the grain” and engage in our vast Jewish subject matter with courage and insight we never thought possible.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org