The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts by Gabrielle Sed-Rajna by Evelyn Cohen
The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts by Gabrielle Sed-Rajna

Volume 3 , Issue 1


Over the past several years there has been a strikingly increased level of interest in books dealing with Jewish art in general and illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in particular.A beautiful addition to these publications is found in The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, a sumptuous, oversized book containing 180 illustrations,of which 60 are tipped‑in colorplates.Gabrielle Sed‑Rajna, has published several works on different aspects of Jewish art and illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. Her approach in The Hebrew Bible is innovative and interesting as the book is organized as a ?biographical cycle? in which illustrations from the lives of different Biblical personages are explored. The author devotes a chapter each to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Aaron, David, and Solomon. Figures are paired when their lives are often illustrated by scenes in which both appear. Less frequently represented personalities are dealt with at the end; the chapter entitled ?The Man of God? examines Samson, Job, Jonah, and Daniel, while the final chapter ?The Woman of Worth? studies Miriam, Ruth, Esther, and Judith. By means of this approach, a representative sampling of illustrations created in the major centers of Judaism from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries is presented.

The material is organized in a uniform manner throughout. Each section begins with a brief summary of the legends concerning the different biblical characters, and a recounting of the earliest artistic images that deal with these figures. This is followed by a lengthier description of the scenes found in Hebrew manuscripts that are reproduced at the end of the chapter with accompanying texts from the Bible and various midrashim. With the exception of the Biblical quotes, the texts are not always illustrated by the paired illumination, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Medieval Hebrew Bibles were sometimes, but not usually illustrated. Haggadot from fourteenth‑century Spain provide one of the richest sources of biblical scenes, as the texts were frequently accompanied by pictorial cycles beginning with stories from Genesis, and generally continuing until after the Exodus from Egypt. Sed‑Rejna relies primarily on images from three of the most famous examples of this type of book. Of these, the British Library's ?Golden Haggadah?, which derives its name from the elaborate gold‑leaf decoration found on many of its pages, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful extant Hebrew manuscripts. The ?Sarajevo Haggadah?, perhaps the best known of all illuminated Haggadot, is also featured extensively. This work, which has been reproduced in several facsimile editions, contains the most complete cycle of events, beginning with scenes of the Creation, and continuing until the transference of power to Joshua.

Another source of bible illustrations that is presented in this book is the machzor, or festival prayer book. Bibles and miscellaneous texts containing relevant depictions are included as well. It is in the discussion of these less well‑known works that the author has made some factual errors that should be corrected. Sed‑Rajna assumes that a manuscript of the Sifrei emet (Psalms, Job and Proverbs) in the Israel Museum contains the only example of David decapitating Goliath to be found in a Hebrew manuscript. David is shown standing on the giant's body, in a pose symbolizing virtue victorious over vice. A related fifteenth‑century manuscript from Italy of the same text, housed at the Beinecke Library of Yale University shows the courageous youth in a similar pose, now holding the dismembered and bloody head of Goliath. Similarly, the author's supposition that the only illustration of the Book of Ruth appears in the volume of the ?Tripartite Machzor? in the British Library is inaccurate, as another Ashkenazic manuscript, the ?Ambrosian Bible? in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan includes a scene of Ruth and Boaz at the end of the text of this book. Sed‑Rajna's presumption that in Hebrew manuscripts Daniel is always shown with only two lions is incorrect as is evidenced in the ?Washington Haggadah? of 1478 in the Library of Congress, which will be published in a magnificent facsimile edition later this year. Some of the misstatements in The Hebrew Bible occur due to the author's insistence that there was a continuous tradition of Jewish art dating back to the third century. Her arguments are not always convincing and it should have been noted that although some illustrious art historians maintain this theory, in spite of the absence of the works of art themselves, many others do not.

The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts is a handsome book that will be of interest to many types of readers, despite its textual flaws. The biographical approach employed makes the material extremely accessible. For the lay reader interested in Jewish art, and for specialists of Christian art who are beginning to explore related Jewish material, this book will be found to be quite useful.Everyone will find it a visual delight.

Evelyn M. Cohen, is the Curator of Jewish Art at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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