Interviews

Just in Time for Passover: 6 Questions for Met Museum Curators About Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts

by Hrag Vartanian on April 14, 2014

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Beginning of Exodus (folio 47v) from a Hebrew Bible (1450–96 CE), tempera, ink, and gold on parchment, Spanish and Portuguese (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lent by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, L.2013.18)

Two medieval Hebrew manuscripts have gone on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to coincide with the beginning of Passover (sundown today, Monday, April 14).

A newly conserved Haggadah by renowned illuminator of medieval Hebrew manuscripts Joel ben Simeon is being presented alongside an ornate 15th-century Hebrew Bible. The works are on loan from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Hispanic Society of America.

I asked Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, both curators in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, about the context for these religious texts, and what visitors should notice about these beautiful works of art.

*    *    *

Joel ben Simeon (active in Italy and Germany, 1400s), Arcade Supported by Animals, from a Haggadah (Written and painted about 1454), tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment Italian (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, L.2014.20a)

Joel ben Simeon (active in Italy and Germany, 1400s), Arcade Supported by Animals, from a Haggadah (written and painted about 1454), tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment Italian (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, L.2014.20a)

Hrag Vartanian: What differentiates medieval Hebrew manuscripts of this era from those of other periods artistically?

Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb: Sadly, there are no surviving illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from the early Middle Ages to compare these later books to. We do have few examples from the 13th century, but it’s really not until the 14th and 15th century that we have a sizable number of surviving decorated manuscripts painted by or for Jews. In that sense, both of the manuscripts on view are products of a moment in which there would seem to be an uptick in Jewish patronage of illuminated manuscripts.

It is noteworthy to us as medievalists that the Haggadah as a standalone book is utterly a product of the Middle Ages, and that illuminated Haggadahs from the 14th and 15th centuries survive in relative abundance. Our Haggadah is thus representative of a Jewish art form we associate with the later Middle Ages.

HV: What was the purpose of this manuscript? Was it for private worship or was there a communal aspect to its function?

BB and MH: By definition the Haggadah is a service book for the Passover seder, the ritual banquet that commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt as recounted in the Torah. The seder is a home service, and the wear one often sees in such manuscripts is an indication of its regular use at the table. The Bible is another matter. We are less certain of whether it might have been for a synagogue or a private individual. Whoever commissioned and saw to its rich embellishment certainly had the financial means to support what would have been an expensive endeavor.

Joel ben Simeon (active in Italy and Germany, 1400s), Arcade Supported by Animals, from a Haggadah (Written and painted about 1454), tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment Italian (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, L.2014.20a)

Joel ben Simeon (active in Italy and Germany, 1400s), Arcade Supported by Animals, from a Haggadah (written and painted about 1454), tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment Italian (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, L.2014.20a)

HV: The 15th century is most commonly associated with the Renaissance in the popular imagination, and I see a lot of Renaissance elements in these works, particularly in the flourishes. But how engaged were Jewish scribes and illuminators in the Renaissance? Was there an active back-and-forth or was the interaction more limited?

BB and MH: The line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is far more fluid than some historians would have us believe. If we must adhere to those temporal divides, we would say these works straddle both eras. There are elements in the page of the Bible that is on view — the lion in the corner and dragon in the corner, for instance — that would feel at home in a medieval manuscript, while the floral decoration in the borders one might characterize as late medieval/early Renaissance. Joel ben Simeon works within a longstanding scribal tradition and his later work in particular shows familiarity with developing pictorial trends, for instance in his organization of the picture space.

We know from these and other manuscripts — the 15th century Mishneh Torah recently acquired jointly by the Met and the Israel Museum especially comes to mind — that Jewish patrons and book illuminators are very much aware and often appreciative of the prevailing aesthetic trends. The creativity of Hebrew manuscripts often resides in how they adapt the motifs and techniques we see in Christian and secular books to the particular requirements of the text.

HV: Are there any features here to suggest they were incorporating Christian or secular elements in their work?

BB and MH: The lush and richly colored foliage, and the peacock, lion, and dragon that we see in the borders of the Hebrew Bible page might easily be found in Christian and secular manuscripts of the day.

The nature of the decoration in this haggadah, which is largely embellishment of the text, makes it hard to characterize as Christian, secular, or Jewish. Later work by Joel ben Simeon’s — for example the Washington Haggadah from the Library of Congress, which the Met displayed a few years ago — is replete with tableware and textiles that recall the common material culture of both Jews and Christians.

Beginning of Exodus (folio 47v) from a Hebrew Bible (1450–96 CE), tempera, ink, and gold on parchment, Spanish and Portuguese (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lent by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, L.2013.18)

Beginning of Exodus (folio 47v) from a Hebrew Bible (1450–96 CE), tempera, ink, and gold on parchment, Spanish and Portuguese (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lent by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, L.2013.18)

HV: Who were the artistic influences of Joel ben Simeon Haggadah and who did he in turn influence?

BB and MH: If one examines the entire oeuvre of Joel ben Simeon, it is clear that he is influenced by the world around him. We are able to match many of the ceramic vessels, glassware, and textiles that frequently appear in his manuscripts with contemporary examples in our own collection. We do get the sense that Joel ben Simeon is part of a network of scribes, illuminators, and others artists who are looking at and inspiring one another, and indeed a number of Joel’s works are collaborative endeavors. Because he was an itinerant artist, regularly moving back and forth between Germany, his place of birth, and Italy, where a number of his patrons seemed to reside, he himself served as a vehicle for the transmission of artistic motifs between these two communities.

HV: Is there anything unique about the visual interpretation of Passover in these manuscripts?

BB and MH: We can confidently attribute seven Haggadot to Joel ben Simeon, and every one of them is different. Every manuscript is handmade, and therefore unique. This one is unusual in the way the artist chooses to embellish particular words. In the page on view right now, for instance, he sets the instructions for the Passover meal within an elaborate architectural frame. With more than a trace of whimsy, the artist presents tiny turrets atop striped columns, which are in turn carried on the backs of carousel-like animals, as well as two crouching men. Elsewhere in the book, on the Ha Lachma page, which serves as an invitation to the seder, the Hebrew words are set within a marvelous gallery of portrait heads. We wouldn’t want to read too much into them, but they are an unmistakable indication of the wit and creativity we expect from any work by this artist.

Both the Haggadah by Joel ben Simeon, which was lent by the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Bible by an unknown artist, lent by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until at least May 1, when the Bible will return to its home at the Hispanic Society of America. 

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