Most books on Jewish illuminated manuscripts seem to be written for the wealthy collector of manuscripts or for the pedantic cataloger. In a recent book Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein (along with many contributors), we finally have a Jewish art book for the rest of us. The book explains the meanings of the decorative arts as a whole, their history, how to read the metonymy of the images, and even the process of ink and dye by which the manuscript was illuminated. This is the best Jewish art book out there, worthy to give as a gift to friends and to keep a copy for oneself. Marc Michael Epstein is Professor of Religion and Visual Culture on the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) & Norman Davis Chair at Vassar College has a unique position in that he teaches both Jewish thought, especially Kabbalah as well as Jewish visual culture. This is what makes the book interesting in that he asks conceptual questions of his manuscripts.
How did they conceive of God? What was their cosmology? Why is there Christian iconography? Why is God depicted as a hand or a face? What was their map of the world? Why are there nudes? Why men given faces and the women are not? The manuscripts were chosen for their unique content and form, not that they just happen to be in the patron’s or museum’s collection. One should read the book twice, first just for the wonderfulness of the pictures and then a second reading for the narrative. The book does not force answers to these question and many times leaves the issues open. Here is the introduction to the book as pdf.
Even the introduction is worth reading and has reproductions of many illuminations including those depicting God, but notice on pages 11, where he gives two side by side illuminations of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, how he calls on the reader to make her own judgement about how each community interpreted the events and in the latter illustration the role the communities gave to God, Moses, or the people Israel.
These questions frame the book as a whole and produce a usable history of the past that focuses on culture, self-perception, and wealth. Rather than some of the Jewish art books of prior decades that highlighted persecutions, history, and yearned for messianic redemption, this volume is more about Jewish thought patterns and their use of metonymy to record these patterns.
For years, I have also contacted Marc M. Epstein when I wanted basic information that no one else had such as: What do Griffins eat? Griffins (the legendary creature with the body and legs of a lion with the head, wings and talons of an eagle) are ever present at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a vast collection of griffin illustrations and sculpture spanning Spain to China. After, an afternoon of looking at medieval bestiaries, if I want to know about what do griffins eat, he has the answer. (According to Herodotus, they eat horses. But the manuscripts show that they had a wider diet). More importantly, Epstein changed Jewish art history by showing that the well-known “birds-head” images in medieval Ashkenaz manuscripts are really Griffins.
The book could be a textbook in a course on the visual culture of the Jews. The interview below mainly focuses on the medieval elements in the book but the volume has much more. The novelty of the book is that includes Persian Jewish illuminations, Yiddish works, as well a solid chapter on contemporary illuminated manuscripts. Among the contemporary artists, he naturally includes Arthur Syzk and David Moss, but he also includes Siona Benjamin from Bombay, Archie Granot’s paper cuttings, and JT Waldman from the JPS publications. His volume concludes with a discussion of the current 21st century flourishing of the illuminated Ketubah. The contemporary chapter does not engage in the same cultural analysis offered of prior centuries. This decade may be too close to ask about its self-representation and cosmology, but it leaves the reader to ponder what will be explainable to future generations about our images.
- What is unique and different about your book?
It’s the first comprehensive survey of Jewish manuscript illumination in several decades, the first to use the very highest quality digital imagery.
In terms of content, traditional surveys of what have been called “Hebrew illuminated manuscripts,” (but which also contain Yiddish and Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic and Persian books) generally begin by explaining why Jews have art in spite of the infamous Second Commandment, then go on to provide a brief survey of illumination by time and country of origin, followed by a chronologically organized collection of single openings from thirty or forty manuscripts facing codicological and paleographic descriptions, descriptions of style, national characteristics of the manuscript in question, and the iconography of the particular image shown, and ending with some bibliography.
People bought such books for the beautiful illustrations (nobody, myself included when I purchase a book for a wedding, bar mizvah or host/ess gift is very much interested in enumerations of pickings, quire gatherings and blank sequences.) They were of little use for getting to know what manuscripts were, how they were created, organized, how they functioned as books, what they have to tell us about history, sociology, theology and a myriad of other topics. This book is the first to discuss these wonderful books topically and in depth, addressing questions from how one makes a manuscript to what iconography has to say theologically and polemically. It is a book that is uniquely positioned to speak both to established scholars, students, and lay people. 2. How did you become involved in Jewish illuminated manuscripts?
My interest in medieval art generally dates back to my earliest expeditions with my father, an artist (who had himself left behind the world of his of Slonimer and Lubavitch origins, ending up as a student of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College and the Art Students’ League) to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, trips that were pilgrimages that always culminated in the wonderful room of the Unicorn Tapestries. Those tapestries—in the richness of the interplay between their “reality”— the details of the flora and fauna, the hunting paraphernalia, and the expressions of the protagonists—and the consummate irreality of the depiction of the hunt of a mythical beast; the powerful symbolism of the beast and its hunt; and the illusionistic three-dimensional, volumetric depiction of all the figures by means of the magic literally woven by warp and woof threads— intrigued and cast a spell over me.
At Oberlin College I pursued the study of medieval art, but grew more and more discontent with its pervasively Christian contents. So in my junior year of college, I took a year in Jerusalem, to try and figure out what “my guys” were doing in the Middle Ages.
When, at the ripe old age of 17, I approached the late Professor Bezalel Narkiss at the Hebrew University regarding working on animal symbolism in medieval art made for Jews, he told me “Mr. Epstein, I have been studying Hebrew illuminated manuscripts for over 50 years, and I can assure you that no image of any animal in these works has any significance beyond the decorative.”
Stunned, I asked him “Does this mean you won’t support my research?” “On the contrary,” he intoned, “I will OPPOSE it!” And for over 30 years, until his death, he did. Ironically, having a door slammed in my face inspired me to go on and work hard to demonstrate that iconography concerning which the “last word” had been written by scholars of Narkiss’ generation still might yield interesting and compelling food for thought.
As unhelpful as Narkiss was, during my sojourn at Sothebys’—first as an intern, and later as the director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of the Judaica Department I had a colleague, Jay Weinstein, whose wisdom, experience and humor were inspirational, and under whose guidance I was able to experience and explore first-hand a wide range of manuscripts that would otherwise have been inaccessible to me.
- Was there a tension between the verbal culture of the Jews and their visual culture?
The visual culture of Jews is an extension and amplification of their verbal culture. For Jews, art doesn’t merely serve to illustrate text or exegesis, it actually becomes exegesis in and of itself. The illustration of the plague of frogs in the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, probably Barcelona, c. 1320, London, BL Add. MS 11639, fol. 12va) simultaneously illustrates 1) the biblical text, 2) the midrash that speaks of the gigantic frog that emerged from the Nile, which “they beat” and from which the other frogs emerged, and finally, 3) the invention of the authorship in order to polemicize against the “Pharaohs” of their own time—the distinctly scatological detail of the horde of frogs emerging from the gigantic frog’s rear end.
Or—from the ridiculous to the sublime—the opening folio of the Book of Numbers in the so-called Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, illuminated in the Lake Constance region around 1300, (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v) on which four knights hold banners with the symbols of the major tribes camped around each of the four sides of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle is represented as a word — the opening word of the Book of Numbers, Va-yiddaber: “and [he — (God)] spoke.” It is thus the word of God manifest as the sacred center of everything. It literally stands in for the Tabernacle in the center of the Israelite camp, which was, after all, built to enshrine the Tablets of the Covenant: a physical manifestation of God’s word. It represents, by extension, the centrality of scripture — of God’s words to Moses — in the Israelite experience, in this biblical book, in the entirety of Pentateuch, and in subsequent Jewish tradition. This concept is profound in itself, but it is most fascinating that the creators of this manuscript chose to represent this concept visually: they chose to represent the primacy of the word in the tradition via the image.
- Why use bird’s heads and what are their relations to griffins and Jews?
My contention is that the heads that people usually call bird’s heads in the illuminations of the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, made possibly in Mainz, around 1300 (Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57,) are not birds’ heads at all—they have manes/beards and animal ears. They are, thus, lion-eagle-human hybrids and evoke both the kruvim on the Ark of the Covenant, and the martyrs of Mainz (where this manuscript was likely made) who are described liturgically as “lighter than eagles and bolder than lions” to do God’s will. They represent symbolically those qualities of Jews that would otherwise be difficult to depict visually. My reconsideration of these images has begun to cause a shift from referring to the manuscript as the “Birds’ Head Haggadah” to calling it the “Griffins’ Head Haggadah.”
- How can the illustrations depict God, isn’t it against Judaism?
The amount of iconoclasm depended upon the relationship between the illustrator and the patron. In some cases, we are talking about Jews creating the images; in other cases it was non-Jews working for Jews. In some cases there was extraordinarily close collaboration, and in other cases it was very little collaboration. In some cases the book was ordered and accepted as it was because the patron was unconcerned about the iconography. In other cases, the patron was very involved and returned the book for revision of the illustrations.
The hand of God appears in medieval art made for Jews, just as it had in antiquity (see, e.g. The Griffins’ Head Haggadah, Jerusalem, Israel Museum, MS 180/57, fols. 22v and 23v, depicting the giving of the Tablets of the Covenant, and the descent of manna and quails respectively). Whether this demonstrates that the authorship of these images viewed God as somehow embodied is an interesting question—minimally it indicates that they sought a solution to the connection of the Divine and earthly realms that was minimally corporeal and that had classical antecedents (transmitted via the mediation of Christian iconography).
An interesting case in point that addresses the sort of negotiation discussed above is that of the RaShI commentary, illuminated in the Würzburg region of Germany and completed in 1233 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbiliothek, MS Cod. hebr. 5/I–II, fol. 47v). The illuminator was given an instruction (or just a translation) of the opening of Exodus 6, “And the LORD spoke with Moses.”
For this verse, the non-Jewish illuminator, probably following an instruction translating the phrase “And God spoke [to Moses]” depicted God—in the form of Jesus, no less—conversing with Moses. In this extreme case, the book was sent back and the offending image was scraped and a replaced by a gold semicircle.
The manuscript as it exists now shows a burnished golden semicircle to indicate the presence of God, but it is flaking and beneath it one can make out the image of Christ. Obviously what happened is that the manuscript was delivered to the patron, who took one look at that image and sent it back. Again, you can imagine the conversation, “Yeah, well we don’t do that. No way. I don’t care what you do, scrape it off, put some gold there, anything, but we can’t have that image!” So images were effaced, erased (sometimes post-facto by people seeking to magically neutralize them.) But images were also configured to display animal heads in place of human heads, presenting the viewer with a richer and more nuanced set of associations than a blank or effaced head, as in the case of the depiction of the revelation at Sinai in the second volume of the Tripartite Maḥzor made in the Lake Constance region around 1320. (London, British Library, MS Add. 22413, fol. 3r). Here, the men and women, per midrashic interpretation, stand separately at Sinai, but interestingly, the male protagonists have human heads, but women are given the heads of various animals.
Why are the images of women’s faces not depicted? The reasons for this are unclear—a horror of the female face or a desire—as in the case of the griffin heads—to represent women symbolically in ways and for reasons that are unclear, ambiguous or ambivalent? This is a fabulous example of the fact that each manuscript employing facial distortion needs to be interpreted on its own. There are no universal solutions to questions of interpretation.
The relationship between Jews and potentially problematic images like this enables us to trace a variety of responses, and thus strata, of patronage configurations, and of Jewish receptive audiences, from the rich and oblivious to the rich and involved (it’s always the rich, given that these are very expensive books).
- What was the secular realm opened up in the High Middle Ages to allow illustrations?
Around 1300, with the growth of more urban centers, manuscript illumination now moved from monasteries, to which Jews would have been unlikely to apply for illuminated works, to secular workshops on the high or cathedral street of nearly every important European city, often directly proximate to the Jewish quarter. Jews could now go into shops and order liturgical books that in form imitated the sort of things their Christian neighbors were using.
We might even imagine them paying for instruction for their sons or daughters with the proviso that the work would be for home consumption only, and would not infringe upon the prerogatives and the market of the guilds of illuminators. In some workshops Jews worked alongside Christians, but even when—as in the majority of cases—Jews ordered iconography from Christian craftspeople, it always involved an interesting conversation between the parties. “Well, I need an illustration of Moses, Zipporah, and their two kids fleeing Midian on their way to Egypt, and meeting Aaron on the way. So, give me that illustration of what you call ‘The Flight Into Egypt,’ but give me two babies, take out the halo on the woman, and put another, older male figure at the left. Oh, and put Moses’ shepherd dog in as well.”
- Do Jews have unicorns? Killer rabbits? Demons?
Art made for Jews contains all manner of creatures, from the naturalistic to the phantasmagoric. We see unicorns—representing the Messiah in Jewish contexts, just as they represent Christ in Christian settings (Pentateuch, Brabant, 1310. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Levy 19, fo1. 97r,). We see hares triumphing over pursuing dogs, for instance in the page from the Barcelona Haggadah with the rubric “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, ” the lower margin and central illustration depicts the slaving Israelites, while at top, a hare is served a drink by a dog, perhaps articulating the wish that “one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us.” (London, British Library, MS add. 14761, fol. 30v.) And we see demons of various kinds, representing the forces of darkness and destruction (London, British Library MS 15282, fol.179v). Many of the creatures in manuscript illumination are symbolic in nature: the weak wreak vengeance on the strong, the powerless are vindicated. Fantastic beasts are a way of visually manifesting ideas and highlighting concepts that are either so inherent that they require rearticulation in a striking manner, or so subversive that they require encoding.
- What surprising images did you find?
There are many images that are initially surprising: how could such-and-such an image appear in Jewish art. But then one realizes that “Jewish art” is merely “art” and that regardless of ultimate origin, nobody totally owns iconography. By re-purposing classically Christian iconography, the Jewish authorship calls attention to its reconfiguration of the values of that imagery.
The dove of the Holy Spirit repurposed as the quails descending in the wilderness in the Griffins’ Head Haggadah (fol. 22v) is an excellent example of such a turn: Although the image assuredly originated simply as a downward flying bird that was available to the (Jewish) authorship in a (Christian artists’) model book, the dove representing the Holy Spirit is an indisputably familiar image expressing a distinctively Christian theological concept. By adopting and adapting it, the Griffins’ Head authorship makes us think about the role of Divine Providence in a Jewish context. Since the Holy Spirit represents the active outreach of the works of God in the world, it is in fact a perfect symbol for Divine Providence in the desert journeys of the Israelites. Holy Spirit stripped of its Christological, Trinitarian context, is an appropriate, (if edgy) analogue to Ruah HaKodesh. The image thus both answers Christianity and articulates something important for Judaism.
- How were they syncretic?
Jews always both adopted and adapted, but they did so selectively. Sometimes, as in the case of the Eucharistic wafers and the dove of the Holy Spirit becoming the manna and quails in the wilderness, the adaptations were contextual and thus prompted to occur in the mind of the viewer. In other cases, there were particular adjustments—haloes removed, figures added or altered.
In the Golden Haggadah, during the cattle plague (fol. 12v), two Egyptians stand flanking a strongly vertical tower with a horizontal visual element, as they lament and mourn their dead livestock in positions and with emotions identical to the mourners around Jesus’ cross. This is a clear example of the exegetical potential of adaptation, in which a radically re-envisioned mourning serves to comment both on the ancient Egyptian enemies of the Israelites and parodies contemporary Christians.
- How could they allow nudes?
Attitudes towards nudity were different. In some ways, the utilitarian nature of nudity trumped its eroticism. The human mind can make anything erotic.
We have this myth of modesty—that is, that earlier ages were much more discrete about uncovered body parts. This is actually not the case. But they tended to de-eroticize body parts, particularly breasts, in a way that we do not do nowadays. So if nudity was didactic (medical charts), demonstrative (an image of a woman in the mikveh illustrating the blessing for the mikveh), or functional (a mother nursing, an illustration of a biblical verse, a narrative illustration) in some way, it wasn’t thought of as erotic—or at least not exclusively erotic.
In Agnes Vető’s intriguingly titled essay on “Naked Ladies in the Haggadah,” the nudes illustrating the quote from Ezekiel16:6-7 contained in the exegesis of the haggadah, (where Israel is depicted as a pubescent girl) have theological import, similar to the nudity of the infant Jesus, as discussed by Leo Steinberg in his controversial book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (1983) and as responded to by Carolyn Walker Bynum in the book’s second, revised edition in 1996.
- Did they have a different sense of space of visualization than we did?
In many medieval manuscripts made for Jews a different perspective on history—a world seen from the end of time—allowed patrons to envision a future in which the pursued could triumph over their pursuers. This influenced the physical and spatial organization and configuration of the images, in which different actions in different time frames—and their consequences—could all be depicted within a single frame of illustration.
In the various registers of this single page, viewers are often confronted with the past, the present, and the eschatological future. Images, thus, can simultaneously unfold in three different though interrelated chronological spheres. I’m particularly interested in the concept of what I’ve dubbed “implied ensuing motion,” in which a given image is a “slice of time,” before which something would have happened, and after which something else will occur. If the image invites us to contemplate—but not actually see— that future “something” and that “something” is subversive, we will have committed a thought crime only—neither the image nor the viewer is culpable for the sedition implied but not actually articulated in the present state of the image. A hunting party, for instance, is depicted in the upper margins of double-page spread in the famous Cervera Bible, illuminated by Joseph the Frenchman in Cervera, Spain, 1299–1300 (Lisbon, Biblioteca Nacional, MS II. 72, fols. 444v–445r). On the right-hand page, we see a commotion. An armed man is drawing a sword and running toward the scene—we presume—of some great battle, or of the hunt of some dangerous beast requiring the coup de grâce of the sword. He is urged on by another man, who points him in the direction of the left-hand side of the two-page spread. There, expecting to see some scene of carnage or of a dangerous beast cornered and needing to be subdued and dispatched by the sword, we are surprised to see only two hunters attacking a little black bird, which has come momentarily to rest on a parapet, just having folded its wings.
The image is a bit of comedy on the theme of the threat of outrageously overdetermined violence. What I read here politically—I would not presume to say is what is “going on” in the minds of the authorship—seems to be that Israel, the abject raven (in medieval Spain, Jews often portrayed themselves in liturgical poetry as small, abject, darkened by sin and awaiting redemption) is hunted by various overpowering means. And there are always outrageously overmilitarized onlookers, ready to sweep down even more heavy-handedly at a moments’ notice to administer a fatal blow that is unnecessary and would be almost comedically exaggerated if it were not so cruel. So much firepower against so little a threat!
But what is important here is not what is going on in the image, but what will go on in the next moment, in the action that will ensue: In just another second, the little black bird will soar off, eluding the deadly but too heavy crossbow bolt and the swift—but not swift enough—hawk alike. And the armed hunter with his sword will arrive on the scene, earthbound, only to watch the little black bird sail away on the breeze, cawing in triumph at its escape. Since the potentialities and consequences of the implied ensuing action are constructed only in the mind of the enlightened viewer, there is no trail of evidence that could lead to the indictment of such a viewer on charges of sedition or heresy. Images employing a strategy of implied ensuing action enable intelligent readers with a thirst for uncovering subversive agendas to commit the perfect crime, a thought-crime only, one for which there is no visual—but only imaginal—evidence.
- How have you changed your field of scholarship and what are your future plans?
In some superficial ways: I’ve added new terms to the discussion. These have included reframing what has usually been called “Jewish Art” as “ art made for Jewish patrons and audiences” to foster broad inclusivity, and to deal with the question of the religious affiliation of the (often non-Jewish) artists, placing (properly, I think) the emphasis on the Jewish patrons.
I’ve introduced “authorship” to describe the constellation of actors—patrons, rabbinic advisors, scribes, preparatory workers, drafts people, illuminators, artists, etc. who worked together to produce manuscripts. I talk about “implied ensuing action” per the above.
But most importantly, because of my experience with Narkiss and the repercussions of his herem for my own career, I’ve been particularly careful to attempt to create multiple opportunities for conversation between and among scholars. I’ve tried to be responsive to every query regardless of how “amateur”, and to every young scholar, regardless of how unseasoned. I’ve attempted to bring a breath of fresh air, a lack of pretentiousness, and most of all, I think, an openness both with my materials and my ideas for all who want to learn about this stuff. Being an “expert” in my field is kind of like living in the penthouse apartment of a one-story building—it’s no big deal, and everyone who wants to share both the (very minimal) glory and the (considerable pain) of being involved in it is welcome.
For example: when I was asked to write Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink, nearly twenty years ago and several publishers before Princeton University Press, I saw immediately the error of the several previous authors who had attempted and failed to write the book. While I know quite a bit about what I know, I’m certainly not expert in every area of manuscript illumination made for Jews. And so I decided to delegate: to gather a roster of star scholar-writers, and rather than write the whole thing myself, to supervise and edit what I hope is a scholarly, entertaining and engaging book.
I think the greatest achievement of the book is the achievement for which I have striven all my career—its balance of tone between the accessible and the rigorously scholarly. For me, scholarship is an enterprise of translation. I need to translate my sometimes abstruse and ingrown ideas into words that intelligent lay people can understand and enjoy. In a way, this is an extension of the main pillar of my personal philosophy: “if it encourages conversation, it is good; if it limits conversation, best to avoid it.”
Apropros this, I’m currently involved in the creation of the envisioned gorgeous multilayered, dynamic visual database of the most beautiful and important Jewish illuminated manuscripts that would become the global standard for virtual interface. This would be an online, web-browser accessible interface in which one could, of course, “turn the pages” of the manuscript at highest possible resolution, click on an image or a detail, see it at whatever size and resolution one desired.
Now this is old hat in terms of the presentation of manuscripts online. But in our system, all analogues to the image or detail one hovered over would come into view (this image looks like that one but reversed, here’s an earlier example of this iconography etc.), at the bottom of the page, and all the scholarship on the image or detail in question would be available.
But there’s more: Any member of the public could access these books and notice things: “Why are these three angels barefooted, but the fourth one is wearing sandals”? and an actual living scholar (or a number of scholars, each with a different opinion) could weigh in on the answer, which along with the question (and the name of the questioner) would then go into the treasure trove of knowledge regarding the image. This would be a fabulous resource, on which we can envision working with multiple institutions.