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:

Also please visit the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit blog at



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