Everything is illuminated

The Hebrew University's 'mahzor detectives' unlock the secrets of the scribes behind ornate Middle Ages prayer books.

October 7, 2008 10:05
Everything is illuminated

Machzor 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

'We work as detectives," says Michal Sternthal, head of the Section of Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts at the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University. "We look for clues hidden within the ancient hand-written books that will identify the scribe, the artist, and the patron." Clues are as scant and mystifying as a cat's hair, wine stains, and a dark-skinned girl that tell the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah in the recent best-selling fiction novel The People of the Book. "Tracking down information about all aspects of the manuscript, it's possible to glean a wealth of information about the life of the Jews in a particular place and time, customs that became a part of tradition, internal and external political issues and the relations between Jewish communities and their Christian neighbors," said Sternhal. "There are hardly any surviving Jewish artifacts from the Middle Ages besides illuminated manuscripts. As such, they provide us with important visual history." The CJA manuscript sleuths have documented more than 1,000 manuscripts, as part of the mission of the Center for Jewish Art founded by Israel Prize-winner Bezalel Narkiss more than 30 years ago to create a virtual museum of Jewish art through the ages that would be accessible to all. The center, located on the university's Mount Scopus campus, has sent field missions to endangered Jewish communities around the globe to document and photograph Jewish art and architecture - in synagogues, on tombstones, Torah ornaments, ritual objects, and illuminated manuscripts. "The result is the Jerusalem Index of Jewish Art (modeled on the Princeton Index of Christian Art), which has become the most comprehensive research and educational tool of the Jewish visual heritage in existence," said Prof. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, the dynamic head of the center for many years. The visual collection of the CJA presently holds tens of thousands of digital photographs. "The problem at the moment is that the center does not have the proper funding in order to create an on-line database for public use, which is our main mission and Prof. Narkiss's life-long dream," said Dr. Rina Talgam, the center's current director. "Narkiss's great love for Hebrew manuscripts, his amazing contribution to the research of this field, and his development of a unique research methodology together with Prof. Cohen-Mushlin has been a major source of inspiration to us," says Sternthal. This inter-disciplinary research includes text research, paleography (analysis of the writing), codicology (the physical makeup of the manuscript) and, most important, artistic research into the style and iconography of the illuminations, as well as comparisons with Jewish and Christian art. "Our staff is made up of art history graduate and doctorate students, who receive special training in researching illuminated manuscripts. Specializing in the artistic aspects, we often get assistance and advice from research centers that study Hebrew manuscripts on other levels, such as The Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts and the 'SfarData,' the Codicological Database of the Hebrew Palaeography Project. "Only through a holistic approach to the manuscript can we get a clear picture of the nature of its production and its travel through history. The clues are there, we just have to find them and put the picture together." JEWISH RELIGIOUS authorities apparently had varying attitudes toward illumination. Rabbi Isaac of Majorca, known as the Profait Duran (1361-1444), believed that a book written in elegant script and decorated with beautiful illuminations enriched the soul of the reader. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, the greatest halachic authority for Ashkanazic Jews at the end of the 13th century, disapproved of illustrating prayer books - not because the art itself was prohibited, but rather because of the distraction that the illustrations might cause the reader while his heart and mind should be on prayer. There are also stricter opinions against the depiction of human figures. Nontheless, the practice of illuminating texts dates far back into Jewish history. "The opportunity to open the parchment pages of the earliest known Hebrew illuminated manuscript was one of the most poignant moments in my career," said Sternthal. Recalling an expedition to St. Petersburg in 1991, she related: "I was filled with wonder touching this Oriental pentateuch, written and decorated over 1,000 years ago." Such manuscripts originating from the Orient later influenced the Spanish schools of illumination that flourished from the 13th century on. Ashkenazi and Italian schools of illumination developed around the same time, each with individual iconographic and stylistic traditions, which sometimes influenced one another. Despite the fact that Jews were prohibited from joining the Christian guilds during the Middle Ages, Jewish artists worked on many illuminated manuscripts. Christian artists in secular, urban workshops were often involved in the making of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. What has not been well known is that close working relationships existed between these Christian artists and Jewish scribes. A comprehensive study of the visual dialogue between them has recently been published by Dr. Sarit Shalev-Eyni, one of Narkiss's star students. A few years ago, Sternthal's team was commissioned by the Austrian National Library in Vienna to work on the 61 Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in its collection. "Although the collection is not large, it contains manuscripts on a wide variety of topics - medicine, halacha, science, philosophy and others. Medieval mahzorim (prayer books) for the High Holy Days are among its most important treasures." Some of the manuscripts in the Vienna collection are richly illuminated, on a high artistic level, reflecting the desire of wealthy Jewish patrons to "be like the Christians," and own beautiful works of art. An example of this is a magnificent mahzor written and illuminated in the Upper Rhine between 1344 and 1347. Ironically, it was produced during a time of impending disaster, with blood libels leading to persecution. "We know, for example, that only a few years after the production of this luxurious mahzor, the Christian belief that the Jews were responsible for the Black Death (1349) brought about the complete annihilation of the Jewish communities in towns throughout southern Germany," said Anna Nizza, who worked intensively on this mahzor. A TESTIMONY to how the illumination of manuscripts continued even in the midst of horrific and disastrous events is found in the pages of a decorated bible housed in the Austrian National Library, which was produced in Germany in 1298-99. Writing in artistic micrography, Aberzush (the text vocalizer and massorator) bears witness to the notorious Rindfleisch Massacres in southern and central Germany. He dedicates this "perpetual memorial" to his own family and thousands of fellow Jews killed in the atrocities, "…when the sacred synagogues were destroyed and my beloved ones slaughtered within the sanctuary, and when in the villages too the Jewish communities to the number of 146 were pillaged and nothing remained. "As for miserable me, Aberzush! My wife, my two children, a daughter and a son… my bachelor brother… and maiden sister, a beautiful girl, were massacred…" Such persecution and destruction of Jewish communities, as well as the burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books, greatly diminished the wealth of textual and visual culture from these periods and the surviving manuscripts are unique remnants of a lost heritage. "One of the most interesting manuscripts documented by us in our last trip to Vienna is a mahzor for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur produced in 1415," said Sternthal. This is one of only a small number of manuscripts which survived from the flourishing community of Vienna which existed in the Middle Ages. "We were lucky to find a hint in the scribe's note that mentions the custom practiced in the city of Vienna, to open the Torah ark while reciting the piyyut (liturgical poem) "Melah Elyon" prevailing in Austria during the 14th century. This was an important factor in determining the origin of the mahzor." Lavish illuminations with many colored initial word panels also supplied clues to the origin of this unusual manuscript. The panels are typical of the Ashkenazi tradition of book illumination produced on the shores of Lake Constance one hundred years earlier, in the 1320s. "Our conjecture is that the Viennese artist used a model that was brought to Vienna by Jews who escaped the Lake Constance region after the destruction of those communities," Sternthal said. Clues that this manuscript moved from one owner to another are found in marginal notes added over time. For a period, the codex was owned by the Rothschild family in Frankfurt. In 1842, records show that Salomon Mayer of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family purchased the manuscript in Nuremberg as a gift for his son for 151 gold coins. DURING THE Middle Ages, the scribe was held in higher esteem than the artist. This is reflected not only by the fact that the scribes often sign their names, but also by the salary paid to the scribe - more than double the amount the artist received for his work. Trying to assess the time it took to produce a manuscript in the Middle Ages, Ilona Steimann commented: "According to rare testimonies, when copying a significant manuscript, scribes were able to copy an average of one page per day. Of course, we don't know if they worked full or part time. In the decorated Worms mahzor from Wurzburg, presently housed in the Jewish National and Hebrew University Library, the scribe Simcha writes that he copied the mahzor within a period of 44 weeks, finishing it on the 1st of January, 1272. As the manuscript contains 272 folios, we can calculate that in this case the scribe copied a little under one page a day, assuming he worked six days a week." Who could afford to commission a sumptuous prayer book? The CJA detectives succeeding in tracking down the patron of The Vienna SeMaK (Sefer Mitzvot Katan), a manuscript originally illuminated by Christian artists in an urban Christian workshop. This magnificent codex also includes a siddur for the entire year. "In this case, the colophon stated that the scribe Menahem ben Eliezer copied the manuscript for Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Asher Halevi. An archive search in the Main County of Karlsruhe revealed a deed stating that this patron was one of three Jews from Überlingen, on the Northern banks of Lake Constance, who sold a vineyard to a citizen of their town. The document, signed in Constance in 1332, bears a seal shaped like a shield enclosing three Jewish hats, surrounded by his name in Hebrew," said Sternthal. After the entire Jewish community of Überlingen fell victim to disastrous events in the year 1431, the manuscript somehow survived and ended up in Northern Italy, where a second stage of illumination was added. "Most likely, this was the work of Joel ben Simeon, a German Jewish scribe and artist who traveled and worked in various cities in Germany and Italy. He is one of the few Jewish medieval artists whose name is actually known; usually only the scribe's name is given," said Sternthal. "In researching illuminated manuscripts, we often focus on historically tracing the possible models that may have influenced the artist, affecting his choice and design of illustrations and decorations," said Estherlee Ebner. "We study art like people study handwriting. We try to catch the artist in his uniqueness. The Vienna Mahzor for the High Holidays, Sukkot and Shabbat Bereishit is a wonderful example of this type of detective work." This 14th century Ashkenazi mahzor from southern Germany does not mention the name of the scribe or artist. However, the scribe's name, Moshe, is hinted by the fact that this name is emphasized in large red letters where it appears within the text, a common method of medieval Jewish scribes to indicate their name. It seems that in this mahzor, the scribe performed a double role as both scribe and artist. This is based on the intertwining connections between the text and decorations, and the fact that the artist displays an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew text. The decorations of the mahzor illustrate several of the rituals and customs practiced on the High Holidays. For example, there is a depiction of a man blowing the shofar with one foot raised up on a small stool. The custom of raising a leg on a stool while blowing the shofar seems to have been common in Germany in the Middle Ages and is often depicted in Ashkenazi mahzorim. The reasons for this custom are still somewhat unclear. One opinion is that the purpose of raising the foot was to separate between the man blowing the shofar and the ground he stands on, from which Satan draws his power. Another opinion holds that the custom is symbolic of the wish to elevate the sounds of the shofar as much as possible, in order that they reach the heavens. Another illustration of customs appears in the margin of the prayers for Yom Kippur depicting a bearded man, wrapped in a tallit, and bowing down in prayer. He is barefoot, in adherence to the precept against wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur. "One of the most exciting discoveries of my research was that I was able to do a fast-forward trace to reveal the direct influence of this Medieval mahzor on the decoration of a haggadah produced nearly 400 years later," said Ebner. The scribe-artist of the 18th century Italian Haggadah used exactly the same zoomorphic and anthropomorphic letters as those used in the Vienna Mahzor for the initial word 'Then.'" Ebner pointed out that a revival of the art of Hebrew illuminating manuscripts occurred during the 18th century, after several centuries in which this art almost completely disappeared after the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century. "No other known manuscript features this distinct design and it appears to be unique to these two manuscripts, produced centuries apart. This reveals to us that the German manuscript must have traveled to Italy at a certain point in time, where it was seen by the Italian artist of the 18th century, who was so taken with the design that he copied it several times," said Ebner. She plans to publish this finding, and hopes to find more links between the two manuscripts during her doctorate research. THESE KINDS of discoveries add to the excitement of the exacting and detailed work of manuscript documentation. Success in determining the origin and date of a manuscript is also of great value to museums and libraries, and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts are coveted by Judaica collectors around the world. They are considered to be great treasures of art and are sold at auction houses for large sums. In a recent sale, the Nuremberg Mahzor, produced in Ashkenaz in 1330, sold for over $1 million. One part of a lavishly and richly illuminated copy of the Mishneh Torah, produced in Italy in the 15th century, was recently sold for $4.5 million. These examples demonstrate the present value of these medieval manuscripts. Besides the commercial value, Ebner said that these manuscripts hold a deeper meaning for us. "When I leaf through the yellowing pages of a 14th century decorated mahzor, I feel transported in time and place. I try to imagine the scribe bent over the parchment, the artist mixing his colors and debating how best to illuminate a certain scene… this conjures in my mind an image of the generations who prayed out of the mahzor. "I find myself humming the tunes of the prayers and feel connected to all those who used the mahzor through the ages. It always gives me a great sense of belonging to the timeless tradition and heritage of the Jewish nation."

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