The Montefiore Mainz Mahzor is a rare medieval Hebrew prayer book that will be restored with support from The European Fine Art Foundation. (all images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The Montefiore Mainz Mahzor is a rare 14th-century Hebrew festival prayer book that was used during the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in 2018, the illuminated manuscript just received a grant from the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) Museum Restoration Fund, which will go towards its conservation. It will also be on view at the fourth edition of TEFAF New York, an art fair running at the Park Avenue Armory. 

“It’s an impressive book, with some beautiful illuminations and extraordinary Ashkenazic calligraphy, that’s survived from the 14th century until today,” Gary Tinterow, director of the MFAH, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “Yet it has all the scars of its use during the holidays early in its life, and then the scars of its peregrinations throughout European history, as it suffered many of the catastrophes that the Jewish people suffered in Europe.” 

The prayers were read by a congregation for the Jewish High Holidays

The Mahzor is handwritten and adorned with painted decorations. At 16 by 11 inches in size, its pages are almost twice the size of a sheet of standard printer paper; words are inscribed in black and red ink into over 299 parchment leaves of the codex. The text forms the prayers that would be read by a quorum of at least ten men, who would recite them with edits that conformed to the specific holidays and celebrations. 

A book like the Montefiore Mainz Mahzor would have been showcased to and used by an entire congregation. Originating from Germany’s Rhineland, where important trade routes ran and where Jewish communities resided, the prayer book’s pages are well-worn. The towns of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms housed synagogues and were important centers for Jewish learning and cultural life in medieval Europe. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Jewish communities thrived in the Rhine Valley, where Charlemagne and successive rulers welcomed Jews to settle. But they suffered greatly when Crusaders campaigned through the region in 1096, in a massacre often considered to be the first wave of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. Despite this, Jewish communities continued to flourish, as evidenced by their production of this immaculate artifact. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the book had resurfaced in Italy, before it made its way to a Jewish theological seminary in eastern England in the late 19th century. 

Some of the pages of the book have been lost to incisions, likely as a result of censorship

A feature of the artifact that could be easily overlooked by the layperson yet which carries fascinating interfaith history is that many pages in the book have been incised and cut away. Many illuminated Hebrew manuscripts like this one, Tinterow explained, were produced by a Jewish calligrapher writing in Hebrew script, working alongside a Christian illustrator. That was because many practitioners of the Jewish faith rejected idolatry. (With some manuscripts that originated in the Iberian Peninsula, a Muslim artist might even contribute ornamental arabesques to embellish the manuscript, he added as an aside.) Later, people who found such images inappropriate might have censored them by removing them from the book. “These prohibitions altered over time and by communities,” Tinterow said. Alternatively, Tinterow offered that Christian illustrators sometimes depicted individuals in unflattering ways which often aligned with anti-Semitic tropes, so perhaps later inheritors of the text chose to remove pages for that reason. 

“This extraordinary manuscript is one of a very few surviving examples from Medieval Germany, and is all the more remarkable because it was actively used by congregants for centuries,” Tinterow said in a statement by the museum. “When we acquired the Mahzor in 2018, it was the first piece of Judaica to enter the Museum’s collection, and has prompted the endowment of a new gallery for Judaica.”

As the first piece of Judaica to enter the museum’s collection, the book will be restored “using culturally appropriate methods” so that it can eventually be shown as part of the World Faiths Initiative at the museum. The TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund offers grants to support conservation efforts at museums and institutions globally, and this represents the first time the fund has received an application for a Jewish artifact or a manuscript.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.