Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 21, 2018
Marc Michael Epstein, ed. Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 288 pp.; 278 color ills.; 11 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780691165240)

The making of this book extended over twenty years. The full story of the precious works of art it explores will perhaps be told one day. What we gather from the foreword by the editor (who also wrote most of the text) is that from the beginning the book was intended to reach the uninitiated public and not aimed at a restricted club of specialists. The result, now on our tables, is spectacular. Princeton University Press, under the directorship of Dr. Brigitta van Rheinberg, permitted the scholars to rely on 278 color reproductions, some of them never seen before in such clarity (e.g., fig. 16, p. 13). Professor Epstein, for his part, is blessed with talents that enable him to simplify complexities and to hold the attention of the reader. In explaining how Christian art objects were recast in a Jewish “key,” he starts, like any good teacher would, with the following phrase: “Let’s look at some of these status objects and try to understand their function in the social context for which they were designed” (219). Then follows a long, clear explanation.

The book deals with art created in “the four corners of the medieval Jewish world” (47). Evidence stretches from the Atlantic coast to the shores of the Ganges River and, starting with the tenth century, covers a period of more than one thousand years. Neither the editor nor his collaborators introduce any of the monuments created in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. The frescoes of the Dura Europos synagogue of ca. 240 CE receive not more than five lines (109). On the other hand, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Passover Haggadot for the seder, as well as other sacred and secular manuscripts, are among those that are brought to the attention of readers. Illuminations from the Middle East, mostly from Persia but also from other Mediterranean, African, and Asian regions, are presented, analyzed, and explained in great detail. That the influence of the aesthetic values in different regions determined the shape of Jewish art is obvious and is taken for granted by scholars. However, the fact that such art was created for Jews and dealt with contents that mattered to Jews places its examples all under the same roof.

Scholars have much to learn from this book, much more than just how to lighten the discourse and simplify the exposure of their ideas. Several of its chapters cover material that has escaped until now the attention of editors of similar histories of Jewish art. Barbara Wolff’s contribution to the third chapter, “The Illuminated Page: Materials, Methods, and Techniques,” provides the first example (40–45). Focusing on the unfinished Spanish Prato Haggadah of the fourteenth century, kept today in the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, in which some folios were left incomplete in different stages of work, Ms. Wolff invites us to map the procedure that must have been followed in the creation of a medieval illuminated page. Materials, techniques, and methods are not only described but also presented through a series of seventeen pictures (figs. 48–64). Pens made from quills and reeds are presented first, followed by recipes for producing the ink that specify the chemical procedures that artists had to execute in order to obtain the right colors and shades. The actual production of the piece starts by drawing the design; this is followed by a careful, probably long, procedure of coloring. Painting starts with the production of a gilded page, which is dominated by an enlarged Hebrew word, but also requires paying attention to the leaves and flowers, to an animal and two birds, as well as to many other, abstract decorations. Then comes the challenge of keeping the balance between the two major triangular spaces, one blue, the other red, that serve as the setting for the piece as a whole.

The invention of printing did not halt or detain the Jewish fascination with illuminated books and other ceremonial cult objects. Such attachment was demonstrated by some of the “court Jews” of the eighteen century. These powerful individuals in service of the then-emerging absolutist states and principalities in central Europe (215–25) left for future generations beautiful Baroque monuments, many of which were the work of Joseph Bar David of Leipnik, a Moravian Jewish artist. No less astounding is the return of our own contemporaries to illuminated manuscripts. This may be attributed, at least in part, to the achievement of the scholarship of the twentieth century and particularly to the publication of facsimile editions of illuminated Passover Haggadot, scrolls of the Esther story, and, mostly, illuminated marriage contracts (ketuboth). It would seem that young couples these days agree, before the nuptials take place, that an illuminated ketubah (otherwise a dry legal document) should be part of their future family treasures. In addition to ketuboth, the last chapter of the book (229–53) offers marvels such as modernized illuminations by Barbara Wolff (figs. 281 and 282) and very sensitive folios painted by Malla Carl (figs. 265 and 266). Four of the twenty-three pieces displayed here were created in 2014, just a year before the book’s publication.

That Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink is not yet another general history is manifested by Professor Epstein’s contribution to the fifth chapter of the book (97–104). He offers a new explanation to the mystery of one of the most important illuminated Haggadot, kept in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, known as the Birds’ Head Haggadah. Since the publication of its facsimile in 1967, and even before, no one who had observed thirteenth-century Jews covered in pointed hats doubted that they are represented in this Haggadah with the heads of birds. This Haggadah has been considered as yet another relic of the struggle German Jews conducted against figurative presentation in general and their avoidance of painting human faces in particular. And since animal heads replace human ones in other Hebrew manuscripts of the period, the only enigma left was to explain the choice of birds by the medieval artist (or by his patron). It is at this point that our colleague has a surprise for us: to him these are not at all birds but rather griffins, animals of legend. Conducting a close and careful observation, Professor Epstein noticed that a considerable number of the heads of the depicted birds had ears, yet these were not the ears of humans but rather of lions. The same is found for the ones who wear beards: they are leonine, not human. The griffin, if we follow the fantasy of the time, would have been an animal with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle (see fig. 129). To have the head of such a vigorous creature as a symbol of the Jews must have been flattering and encouraging. Given this analysis, the suggestion is made in the book that—as this is one of the most important monuments of Jewish art—there should be a change of title: not the Birds’ Head Haggadah but rather the Griffins’ Head Haggadah. Scholars will have to debate the value of this discovery and its implications. Meanwhile, the answer to the question “Does the world need yet another all-embracing book on Jewish art?” is a definite “Yes”—on the condition, however, that it is edited by Marc Michael Epstein and published by Princeton University Press.

Joseph Shatzmiller
Smart Family Professor Emeritus in Judaic Studies in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University

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