Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2013
Piet van Boxel and Sabine Arndt, eds. Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures Exh. cat. Oxford: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2010. 128 pp.; 70 color ills. Paper £24.99 (9781851243136)
Exhibition schedule: Jewish Museum, New York, September 14, 2012–February 3, 2013
Michael Mahzor, scribe: Judah ben Samuel, called Zaltman, Germany, 1257–58. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Mich. 617, fol. 4b.

Illuminated manuscripts offer the best-surviving evidence of Jewish artistic production in the Middle Ages, bearing witness to the tastes of their Jewish patrons, the skills of Jewish scribes, and the aesthetic acuity of Jewish readers and viewers. Jews did not live in isolation, and the artists responsible for the decoration of their books—who were not necessarily Jewish but may have been—both drew from and contributed to the artistic conventions of the dominant culture. Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries, an exhibition held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2012–13 and online via the Jewish museum website, provided an opportunity not only to see important, often beautiful examples of rarely shown Hebrew manuscripts, but also to explore the fascinating, complex intellectual and cultural relations between Jews and non-Jews of medieval Europe.

The last exhibition in the United States to feature such riches of Hebrew manuscript illumination was A Sign and a Witness: 2,000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts, held at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 1988, in which extraordinary loans from around the world augmented the library’s own holdings. NYPL used the occasion to argue for the importance of the Hebrew book as a topic. Even today the catalogue remains a basic primer on the history and development of this art form. It is perhaps an indication of how established the field is now, as well as the wider interest in cultural exchange, that the Jewish Museum exhibition includes nearly as many non-Hebrew books as Hebrew ones. Its focus is not the achievement of Hebrew books but, as the website states, “a story of intellectual exchange and cooperation among Jews, Muslims, and Christians.” It wisely narrows its chronological range to the Middle Ages and largely, though not exclusively, features works from Spain, Italy, and Western Europe.

The works in the exhibition were drawn principally from the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Indeed, the Jewish Museum exhibition was a variation on one presented there in 2009–10. A catalogue, edited by Piet van Boxel and Sabine Arndt, accompanied the original Bodleian show. As some works seen in the Oxford venue could not travel, the works exhibited in New York did not always correlate with those discussed and illustrated in the catalogue’s intelligent and useful collection of essays. Faced with this practical challenge, the Jewish Museum reorganized the show somewhat and added a coda focusing on aspects of the Bodleian collection that have particular relevance to its own institutional history.

The Bodleian treasures were handsomely arranged in four galleries. The cases used throughout the installation were well suited to viewing. The manuscripts were placed in unobtrusive Plexiglas cradles. Magnifying glasses were provided to allow visitors closer inspection. The labels, however, were lit by a skewed spotlight, and consequently were sometimes difficult to read. Discreetly placed iPads, which allowed viewers to digitally browse the pages of some of the most lavishly illustrated books, were a welcome inclusion.

Crossing Borders offered both the opportunity to see a rich sampling of treasures and a serious presentation of ideas. These two assets were not, however, always complementary. Some of the treasures did not fully contribute to the stated aims of the show. This was particularly evident in the introductory gallery. The sixteenth-century Portolan map of Bartolomeo Olives of Majorca provided the introduction to the first gallery. This is a mesmerizing object—a trade map that features countless ports of the Mediterranean, the European coast as far north as the British Isles, and extending far enough east to include the entire Black Sea, not to mention a number of important rivers; a charming menagerie decorates its edges. It is a pleasure to look at this map and to imagine the busy maritime trade of the sixteenth century, but it tells us nothing about Hebrew manuscript illumination. The label gamely attempts to justify its inclusion, telling us that most Majorca cartographers were Jewish or conversos and indicating that the map shows most of the main regions of medieval Hebrew manuscript production.

Fragments from the Cairo Genizah figured prominently in the first gallery as well, and garnered considerable attention from visitors. The Genizah, comprising several hundred thousand pieces, unquestionably represents an extraordinarily rich source for the study of Jewish history and scholarship, and indeed of the Mediterranean medieval world. The Bodleian fragments chosen for the exhibit covered a range of dates, from the third to the fourteenth century CE. The decision to include them in the exhibition is evidence of the historical and cultural reach of Crossing Borders. Indeed, from this and other curatorial choices, it is clear that the criteria for selecting manuscripts for the exhibition extended beyond purely aesthetic considerations.

The geographical and chronological range of the exhibition was reinforced by the side-by-side display of several Bibles dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries. Though these works were largely undecorated, they convey the polyglot nature of the Mediterranean world. A Bible, a mahzor (festival prayer book), and a book of laws were also juxtaposed to showcase the principal forms of Hebrew books. In all of these instances, works of widely disparate dates, uses, and locations were used to set the stage.

The theme of the second gallery was the artistic dialogue among Christian, Islamic, and Hebrew manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Noteworthy was the juxtaposition of a fine Hebrew Bible, a New Testament in Arabic, and a richly decorated Qur’an manuscript. The Hebrew Bible was the earliest of the three. Created in Spain circa 1300, its decorative scheme was also the most restrained. The New Testament in Arabic had been copied by a Christian scribe in Damascus, Thuma Ibn al Safi Ibn Yuhanna, in 1342 CE. The Qur’an manuscript, of the second half of the sixteenth century from Safavid Persia, also conformed to the overall exuberant geometric patterning of the “carpet page.” There was no intention on the part of the organizers to suggest a chronological progression among the three manuscripts, but it was somewhat unfortunate that the example representing Islamic tradition, from which the aesthetics of the other two derive, was the latest in date.

Lavishly decorated Hebrew manuscripts inevitably prompt questions from visitors about the creed of the artists who illuminated them and the relationship between artists and scribes. So little is known about the circumstances of the manuscripts’ production and the mechanisms by which commissions transpired that one is often left to speculate. Crossing Borders presented a number of spectacular Hebrew manuscripts that open a window on that mystery. The Michael Mahzor is the earliest dated mahzor known, as well as the earliest illuminated mahzor. A colophon reveals the name of the scribe—Judah bar Samuel, called Zaltman—and that the book was completed between September 1257 and September 1258. Scholars do not know the name of the artist responsible for its exuberant decoration, but the inverted hunting scene that adorns the opening hymn for the “Sabbath of the Shekel” suggests the artist could neither read the text nor discern the proper orientation of Hebrew letters. The mahzor was most likely created by a Christian artist working alongside a Jewish scribe.

The Kennicott Bible, on the other hand, proudly proclaims the name of the scribe and artist, both of whom were Jewish. With its extravagant and sustained program of illumination that elegantly combines both Islamic and Christian motifs, it is justly the most celebrated manuscript in the exhibition. In seeking to present the book as “the most lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible to survive from medieval Spain,” as stated on the website, opportunity was lost to make a larger point about the working methods of its artist. No mention was made of the intimate relationship of the Kennicott manuscript to the early fourteenth-century Cervera Bible belonging to the National Library of Portugal, despite its familiarity to New York visitors from its exhibition the previous year at the Metropolitan Museum. Joseph ibn Hayyim, the artist of the Kennicott Bible, often followed the Cervera Bible, painted by Joseph the Frenchman, scene for scene. The survival of these two inextricably connected and profusely illustrated Hebrew Bibles is extraordinary in itself. The chance to raise the issue of the copying of an esteemed model and the power of tradition—phenomena widely discussed in the case of Christian medieval manuscripts—was sorely missed.

The best explorations of cultural interaction are subtle enterprises, and the exhibition rewarded patient looking and careful reading of the labels. A case in the third gallery drawing attention to the script styles of eight distinct manuscripts provided a primer in paleography. More immediately discernible to visitors were the visual arguments presented in a case devoted to the theme of the maiden and the unicorn. A stunning North Italian Pentateuch was the star witness to both the stylistic and iconographic links between Hebrew and Christian manuscripts of the Renaissance. Meant for synagogue use, but apparently illuminated by a Christian, the Pentateuch introduces the book of Genesis with an image of a maiden with a unicorn resting in her lap. A slightly earlier Christian book of hours from Delft, and written in Dutch, served as an example of the same scene in Christian art, while a Book of Fate used in fortune telling, in Italian, provided a reminder that images of unicorns are not always Christian metaphors.

The exhibition was successful in demonstrating that Jews and their books stood at the very center of cross-cultural exchange in the Middle Ages. The final gallery examined instances of dialogue in the realms of science and literature. The science section, though historically fascinating, was visually less than spectacular. Copies of Elements of Geometry in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin underlined the idea of a shared interest in scientific learning and in classic scientific works. These books, not unsurprisingly, inspired little in the way of artistic creativity. Far more visually engaging was the section devoted to fables, tracing their movement from India to Europe, via translations in Middle Persian, Syriac, Arabic, and Latin, and attributing a vital role to Hebrew translations and translators. The winning image of animals in the Kalila wa-Dimna by Ibn al-Muqaffa served as the icon of the exhibition.

The exhibition concluded with the tradition of Christian Hebraists and collectors of Hebrew books that includes Sir Thomas Bodley himself. An informative section featured the history of the Bodleian collection’s formation, with additional key manuscripts as representative examples. Certainly the most beautiful among these was the Tripartite Mahzor, created in Germany in the early fourteenth century. The book was open to the word panel for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, an exquisitely conceived miniature with a ram, painted in blue, one gilded horn caught in a thicket, rearing on his hind legs and turning gracefully but unmistakably panicked, legs tensed, mouth open. In sheer beauty, originality, and artistic ambition, this manuscript was one of the finest presented.

The inclusion of the Jewish Museum’s own engraved portrait of David Oppenheimer, chief rabbi of Prague, whose collection ultimately passed to the Bodleian, was particularly resonant, giving a face to the great scholar and linking the Bodleian and Jewish Museums in a learned circle to which the New York and Oxford exhibition Crossing Borders is a resoundingly important testament. In that regard, Crossing Borders takes its place in the tradition of historical exhibitions that are central to the Jewish Museum’s mission, a worthy follower to such groundbreaking projects as Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy (1989) and Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain (1992).

Barbara Drake Boehm
Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Melanie Holcomb
Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art