Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Ilana Tahan, Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image. London: The British Library, 2007. Pp. 160; figs. 142. ISBN 978-0-7123-4921-9. $35.00.
Reviewed by Rachael Goldman, City University of New York - Graduate Center

Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image is an impressive addition to the few scholarly monographs and catalogues about Hebrew manuscripts and ephemera available in English. Ilana Tahan's survey of the Hebrew manuscript collection in the British Library is a catalogue of that impressive collection. It measures up to the generally high standards for photographic imagery of the British Library's publications. This is a valuable addition to the literature that is already well-known to Judaica scholars but that has not received due attention from the general public.

The book is divided into two major sections: a short introduction and the catalogue. The catalogue of the manuscripts is divided by categories of related subject matter: Biblical works, liturgical works (prayer books and hagadot), legal codes, French miscellany, philosophical manuscripts, micrography and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts from the 16th-19th centuries. A short glossary of terms precedes the bibliography. This catalogue is a remarkable aid in the study of Sephardic and Ashkenazi illuminated manuscripts, which are usually presented separately, but here studied side-by-side. This is an especially welcome addition to the literature on Hebrew manuscripts because the scholarship of the last two decades has featured only selected examples from the British Library, only with black and white plates and accessible only to Hebrew and French speakers.1 The catalogue entries in publications to date are directed at scholars in the field.

The introduction and catalogue descriptions are concise and entertaining. The introduction establishes the subject, describes the types of manuscripts, and explains the geographical and time range of the study. From the outset the author's objective is to highlight the vibrant interplay between text and image and the development of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi lettering. She emphasizes the various art forms that developed and flourished such as micrography, which was a script unique to Jewish manuscripts and comprised designs outlined in miniscule lettering. These Hebrew illuminated manuscripts were produced in Jewish Communities in the diaspora and survived despite persecution and largely thanks to Catholic Library collections.

The first group of manuscripts that Tahan examines are Biblical manuscripts found in the Cairo Genizah in 1882, illustrated with carpet pages. The San'a Pentateuch comprises the largest part of this section and illustrates the scribal process of micrography, or the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. Tahan explains how the various leaves of the manuscript are to be read together. The author analyzes the pigments and describes the colors in detail. The illustrations of the San'a Pentateuch are stylized knots, which often denote a magical context, as they were adapted from standard designs in Arabic manuscripts. The author amply explains the direct relationship of the Medieval illuminated Jewish codices to those of the surrounding culture. Tahan suggests that the authors of the San'a Pentateuch wanted the designs to evoke the classical tradition of the sage and the speaker that is so prominent in Arabic manuscripts. Readers will note how the interlocking patterns are repetitive; thus making the blessings part and parcel of the decorations.

The chapter on European Illuminated Hebrew Bibles presents a completely different artistic sensibility. Tahan highlights several unattributed Hebrew Bibles and then describes in depth the Duke of Sussex's Italian Pentateuch from the 14th-15th century. Two well-known manuscripts in the Gothic style, the Duke of Sussex's Catalan Bible and the Harley Catalan Bible, probably from the same workshop, are often included in the canon of Jewish Illuminated Bibles. The two Bibles are related in style and iconography, one folio illustrating the holy temple and its ritual vessels and complicated iconography. The other folio is shown with gilded decorations including the menorah and ritual objects that pertain to its use. Several pages of the Lisbon Bible are shown and describe the illustrations of how the decorations became restricted to the borders of the page and are primarily decorative in nature.

The last example of the section on Biblical works illustrates Bibles from Germany with the text of Rashi's commentaries. These Bibles are characteristic of the assimilation of cultures particularly with the addition panel decorations such as a blue coat of arms showing a white lion rampant, a red grotesque mask and a stylized foliage all in gold that illustrate images based in secular folkloric tradition and mythology, which would make their way into Hebrew liturgical manuscripts. While previous authors generally neglect these decorative intrusions, Tahan discusses in some detail how they make each piece distinctive to its region. This book functions more as a guide to the Hebrew Manuscripts than a scholarly treatise.

The next two sections deal with Prayer Books and Hagadot where Tahan illustrates a variety of texts including the Hagadah which is one of the most commonly illustrated texts. Tahan's selection of the British Library manuscripts is excellent because she includes such a wide array of manuscripts from diverse regions and illustrates the full page of the manuscript rather than focusing on details as do many other publications of Jewish manuscripts. For example The Sister Hagadah is one where "the imagery displays Franco-Gothic and Italian elements, the latter reflected particularly in the architectural and sartorial details such as turban-like headgear and caps" (99). The reader will appreciate her comments on the socio-historical aspects so often ignored by other authors.

The next section, Legal Codes, is a complex array of illustrated and multi-colored legal documents. Among the documents discussed is the Lisbon Maimonides, which is one of the few complete examples. The next four illustrations are devoted to the works of Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed, one 14th century Yemenite example, a 13th century Italian folio and two folios from a 14th century Catalonian manuscript. The next chapter is devoted to Northern French Miscellany and discusses the best-known folio, the image of King David playing the harp, dates to the 13th century and is attributed to a Parisian workshop as denoted by the royal blue diapered background.

Tahan devotes considerable space to the manuscript pages illustrated in the form of decorative micrography, an art form not generally included in illuminated manuscript literature. To some art historians and palaeographers micrography is considered a graphic art form and used in prints. The book concludes with selections of Hebrew manuscripts dated from the 16th-19th centuries which are not as detailed with decoration or brilliant in color, suggesting much about the skill of the artists and their relationship to their patrons. There is no overall theme to the manuscripts in this section. Among the more interesting of these works in this chapter are three ketubot, or marriage contacts (nos. 147, 148, and 149) featuring an example from Modena, Italy which is decorated with micrography in a repeated lover's knot on the outer edge. The inclusion of the signs of the zodiac in the red lining shows the scribe's return to the ancient symbols found in Judea and a resurgence of older forms that had long passed out of knowledge. Tahan also notes that there were some changes in the dating of the contract : "perhaps in an attempt to increase its value, the contract's original date of 1757 was changed to 1557." (146)

The author is to be praised for her choice of folios and the quality of her illustrations. Rather than serving as a cursory study of Hebrew manuscripts, this is a close examination of the most sought-after books. It would be interesting to see what portions of the works were not included in this volume, although she tries to include more of the obscure and lesser known examples from the daily prayer book "Coat of Arms of Daniel Harofe." One criticism is the lack of distinct separation of the chapters as the shift from one section to the next is noted only at the top of the page. The inclusion of the Hispano-Moresque Hagadah is particularly noteworthy. Two of the folios illustrate the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs (maror). These two folios are particularly interesting because the ruled lines of the page layout are visible. Another charming folio in this Hagadah illustrates the baking of the unleavened bread, which shows the bakers wearing traditional clothing in medieval Spain. This volume is a testament to the vibrancy of Jewish life in the Diaspora.


1.   See Evelyn M. Cohen. 'Hebrew manuscript illumination in Italy', in: Gardens and Ghettos: the Art of Jewish Life in Italy, edited by Vivian B. Mann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989): 92-109. J. Gutmann, Hebrew Manuscript Painting, New York: G. Braziller, 1978. Bezalel Narkiss, The Golden Haggadah (London: the British Library, 1997). Idem, Hebrew Illustrated Manuscripts (Jerusalem, New York, London, 1969). The works by Bezalel Narkiss were the first examples of their kind and function as large display books designed for the novice or enthusiast. There is little explanation of each folio presented in his texts. His works have also been translated from Hebrew and present a less than perfect narrative.

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