Four beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscripts loaned to the Israel Museum are being shown under the title Jewish Masterpieces from the Vatican Library. Although they are masterpieces of Jewish thought and handwritten by Jewish scribes, their art is not Jewish at all.
These glorious books were clearly illuminated by trained Italian Christian artists with a mastery of color and perspective unknown to Jewish folk artists and scribes. As these artists did not know Hebrew, their decorations, though beautiful, often have nothing to do with the texts.
The Vatican has a huge Jewish treasury of over 800 manuscripts. Loaned to the Israel Museum in honor of its 40th anniversary are two 13th-century codices a complete Hebrew Bible and a Book of Psalms and two 15th-century manuscripts: the Mishne Torah, Maimonides's monumental legal code, and the Arba'a Turim, an important codification by Jacob ben Asher.
These beautiful loans are from two distinct periods in the history of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts: the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They represent some of the earliest examples of illuminated Hebrew codices as well as works from the last great era of Hebrew manuscript illustration, finished on the eve of the invention of printing.
That these works survive in the Vatican may seem a supreme irony. But from the Middle Ages, many manuscripts of the Bible and other Hebrew texts came into the possession of the Church. From the Renaissance on, they were eagerly acquired by Christian theologians and humanists who had a profound scholarly mastery of Hebrew. Until the beginning of the 19th century, most purchasers of Hebrew manuscripts were Christians. All four codices now on view here entered the Vatican Library as Rossiana part of a collection of Hebrew manuscripts assembled between 1838 and 1854 by Giovanni Francesco de Rossi, an erudite Christian philologist and antiquary (the earliest typeset Hebrew Bible was printed in Antwerp in 1566 by gentile Hebraist Christophe Plantin, who taught his daughter and son-in-law Hebrew so that they could be his proofreaders).
These Vatican manuscripts usually contain a colophon with the name of the scribe or the person who commissioned the work, but the name of the artist who added the decoration or illustration after the text had been written is missing. It occurs to me that the educated and wealthy Jews who originally commissioned them may have asked the Christian artists not to sign their names.
The illustrations to the texts shed some light on Jewish custom and daily life; thus their testimony is also historical. But the "Jews" depicted in the Mishne Torah are clearly not Jewish!
The details of commission and resale included in some manuscripts, specifying people, places, and dates, yield yet another kind of historical record but only a partial one, since there are often many gaps in the record of ownership.
THE MISHNE Torah, the monumental code of Jewish law compiled by Maimonides Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (11351204) the Spanish-born philosopher, physician, and religious leader, still has a profound influence on Jewish thought. In 14 books, Maimonides systematically organized the vast corpus of rabbinic legal rulings (Halacha) by subject matter. The Vatican loan is a volume containing the first five books of the Mishne Torah; the second volume is in private hands.
The Vatican manuscript contains four especially ornate pages, the first at the beginning of the entire work, and the other three marking the opening of individual books. These leaves contain the initial word or name of the book lavishly written in gold and decorated with miniatures illustrating the text's subject. The pages' borders are ornamented with foliage and flowers, interspersed with animals, birds, and even putti! The first such leaf, illustrating the author's introduction to his great code, shows a group of seated men engaged in study. Their books are open, and they face their revered teacher, who is seated on a raised, throne-like chair in typical Renaissance style, all in correct perspective.
The illustrations sometimes make it clear that the Christian artist did not know what the texts were really about. The panel at the opening of the first book, titled Sefer Hamada (the Book of Knowledge), shows a group of astronomers with astrolabes, compasses, and charts; this is presumably because the word mada had meanwhile come to signify "science," even though Maimonides was dealing with much broader types of knowledge. Sefer Ha'ahava (the Book of Love) addresses the love for God and lays down the rules that govern human worship, but this was clearly unknown to the artist, who was likely just told that the title word was Love; his panel in the page offers a depiction of three teams of knights jousting, an allusion to chivalry and courtly love, not at all what the text had in mind.
The illustration for the third book Zemanim (Seasons), which deals with laws of the Sabbath and holidays, is more apt. It portrays the celebration of Succot and Purim: on the left, a group of people are seated around a table in a succa; on the right, elegant couples dance at a Purim masquerade ball. The opening page for the book Nashim (Women) is missing, while the first page of the book Kedusha (Sanctity) contains blank areas the scribe left for the illustrator, but which were never filled in. The individual chapters of each book are also graced with gold and color initial word panels featuring a variety of ornamental motifs and, in some cases, illustrative miniatures.
This manuscript bears no colophon but since the name Nehemiah has been outlined on one of the pages, it may well be that this was the name of the scribe. The manuscript's illuminations, which are typical of northern Italy, were likely produced in the studio of Cristoforo de Predis of Cremona, who is known to have been active in Lombardy in the third quarter of the 15th century.
JACOB BEN ASHER'S Arba'a Turim was written on vellum in Mantua in 1435 by the scribe Isaac ben Ovadiah, in semi-cursive Italian script and decorated with gold leaf and pigment.
The work, a seminal legal code incorporating French, German, and Spanish traditions, was written in Spain in the early 14th century by the Ashkenazi scholar Jacob ben Asher (ca. 1270 ca. 1340), known as the Ba'al Haturim by virtue of his magnum opus. The work is divided into four sections (turim) as follows: Orah Hayyim (The Way of Life) deals with prayers, the Sabbath, and festivals; Yoreh De'a (Teacher of Knowledge) contains laws for particular religious rites, such as the dietary laws and ritual slaughter; Even Ha'ezer (The Stone of Help) relates to family law (marriage and divorce); while Hoshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Justice) deals with civil law and personal relations.
Because of the richness and refinement of the large full-color title panels that open every section, the beauty of the script, and the fact that the entire text has been preserved intact, this manuscript is one of the rarest and most highly valued in existence. At the start of each of the four turim, the entire page is surrounded by an ornamental border made up of human figures, animals, birds, flowers and foliage, while a large illustrative panel introduces the subject. A wealth of interesting information about Jewish dress and lifestyle in Renaissance Italy may be gleaned from the detailed depictions in these panels, indicating that if the artist was not Jewish, he was very well advised.
The realistic vignette adorning the opening of the first section, Orah Hayyim, shows men standing in prayer inside a synagogue; they wear the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), on which we can even discern the prescribed knotted fringes (tzitzit), and one congregant holds a Torah scroll wrapped in a mantle embroidered in Italian style. At the four corners of the panel are the symbolic animals (panther, eagle, gazelle and lion) mentioned in R. Judah b. Tema's Mishnaic precept (Pirkei Avot 5:20 ), which opens this section. The opening panel to Yoreh De'a provides a graphic look at the interior of a kosher slaughterhouse, from the ritual slaughter of oxen and removal of the proscribed sinews, to the method of killing fowl and draining their blood.
At the beginning of Even Ha'ezer, a Jewish wedding is depicted in great detail the sumptuous clothes and elaborate hats, the musical accompaniment, the elegant hall with its Renaissance perspective, the groom placing the ring on his bride's finger, and the bearded officiant who lends a measure of gravitas to the occasion. Finally, Hoshen Mishpat is illustrated by a scene showing a Jewish court (beit din): a trial is in progress, with 23 men present and the chief justice (nassi) seated on a magnificent throne at the center (according to the Mishna [Sanhedrin 1:6], 23 was the number of judges in the subordinate court known as the "Small Sanhedrin.")
According to the manuscript's colophon, the scribe Isaac ben Obadiah took 10 months to copy the text for Rabbi Mordecai b. Avigdor in the city of Mantua, completing the work on 3 Kislev 5196 (December 3, 1435), and received the sum due to him in the presence of the witnesses Abraham b. Benjamin of Revere and Jacob b. Moses b. Avigdor of Forli. In addition, someone named Joseph b. Judah b. Isaac wrote a poem in praise of both scribe and purchaser, expressing the wish that this highly prized manuscript would spiritually enrich Rabbi Mordecai's descendants. Given the beauty of their artistic style, which is typical of northern Italy, the illustrations in this manuscript must have been produced in one of Lombardy's leading workshops, possibly that of Bonifacio Bembo of Cremona.
THE BIBLE copied in Rome in 1286 by the scribe Yekutiel ben Yehiel Anav, handwritten on parchment in semi-cursive "Italian" script, has survived almost intact. Most of the titles or initial words of the biblical books and their conclusions are decorated in full color with panels incorporating delicate floral, zoomorphic and other motifs. From the precise details written in the colophons on the last page, we learn that both the scribe and the vocalizer of this Bible came from the renowned Anav family skilled scribes, poets, and rabbis who were among the first members of the ancient Jewish community in Rome.
On the left side of the page it is recorded that Yekutiel b. Yehiel of the Anav family finished copying this manuscript on 4 Iyar 5046 (May 7, 1286), at the request of Menahem b. Moses. In a framed cartouche, the name of the vocalizer is given as Benjamin b. Yoav of the Anav family. There is no information about the manuscript's gifted illuminator, but Daisy Raccah-Djivre, chief curator of Judaica and Jewish ethnography at the Israel Museum, who has written the informative booklet to the exhibit, says the decoration is typical of the Roman school of the period.
Two contracts of sale are inscribed on the final page. In 1432, in the city of Ascoli, the ailing Moses b. Yekutiel sold the Bible that he had received as a gift from his father-in-law Netan'el for 42 gold ducats. The buyer was Jacob b. Abraham Harofeh (the physician). One year later the Bible was sold again, this time to the Yekutiel family of Ascoli, and it was resold in 1563 by two sisters, daughters of the esteemed Rabbi Moses. There the record ends and there is no indication of how it got to the collection of Giovanni de Rossi in the 19th century.
THE EARLY copy of the Book of Psalms was probably once bound together with two other stylistically similar manuscripts a Pentateuch with Five Scrolls and a volume of Haftarot (weekly readings from the Prophets), also in the Vatican Library. The colophon at the end of the codex tells us that the scribe was Elijah b. Jacob Hacohen and that he copied it for Shabbetai b. Solomon, completing his work on the eighth day of the third month (either Kislev or Sivan) 5054 (November 16, 1293 or June 11, 1294). As is customary, the psalms are divided into five sections (known as "books"), each of which opens with an illuminated colored panel in which the first word (such as Ashrei or La'menatzeah) is written in gold and surrounded by grotesques and animals. The edge of the text is adorned with fantastic animals sprouting from a straight bar or framed in small, cartouche-like circles. These decorations enliven the text but bear no relation to its contents.