Parting a sea of influences

Medieval Spanish Haggadot reflect images of Christian illumination.

seder art 298 (photo credit: )
seder art 298
(photo credit: )
Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain: Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday By Katrin Kogman-Appel Pennsylvania State University Press 295 pages, $99 Ever since the early Middle Ages, Christian silversmiths and illuminators have been helping supply Jews with ritual objects and manuscripts. Even Jewish prayer books written by Jewish scribes contain images that reflect Christian traditions. But Katrin Kogman-Appel of Ben-Gurion University, in her splendid new book examining the sources of five rare early 14th-century Haggadot from Aragon and Catalonia, revives the distinct possibility that the Jews were originally the pioneers of the images of the biblical narrative (we were, after all, the divinely guided author-publishers of the Book itself). The murals in the third-century synagogue of Dura Europas in Syria are the earliest extant images of biblical narrative art. The clearly Christian influence in the depictions in the five Sephardi Haggadot examined in this wide-ranging book are chiefly those of style. Look for instance, at the reproduction on this page from the Sarajevo Haggada, so called because of its location in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dated circa 1320-35 it is from Aragon and the detail here depicts the plague of locusts. Pharaoh is crowned and seated on a wooden throne in the manner of a European monarch (though early bronze crowns, it must be said, have been found in Beersheba), and the handmaiden beating the insects with a rod is dressed like a nun, though her head cloth would also serve a Muslim woman. The stylized figures might have stepped out of a monastic illumination. The five Haggadot selected for this study are part of a Jewish revival that began after 1250 and which was brought to an end by catastrophes, the pogroms that accompanied the Black Death and the eventual late 15th-century expulsion from Spain. What these Haggadot (one of them unfinished) have in common is that they depict scenes from biblical history from the creation to the climax: the Exodus from Egypt. Kogman-Appel lists a string of possibilities, among them that these illustrations were works by Jews taught by workshops of Christian illuminators, or were commissions executed by Christians in return for large sums of money. In the days when writing and writing materials were far from readily available, scribes, both Christian and Jewish, committed entire works to memory. Traveling Jewish merchants could have described to illuminators in Aragon and Catalonia images in Haggadot they saw in Italy. Many carried their personal travel sets of Judaica with them. And, not incidentally, there are Jewish manuscripts from southern France that are written in the square Hebrew letters of Iberia. The naked figure of Pharaoh's daughter in a Dura mural, standing in the water as she discovers the infant Moses, is an image that turns up in various ways over a millennium, seemingly reaching Catalonia and eventually 16th-century Venice. But these suggestions are suspect. Kogman-Appel attempts to find connections, not via images, but through links with midrashic interpolations. The images are likely original. The extensive depiction of the Creation in several of the Iberian Haggadot is pretty much unique. Most Haggadot do not deal chronologically with biblical events. Their aim is to foster historical consciousness and the choice of events depicted is different in almost every Haggada. What they do have in common is a focus on biblical heroes, with the notable exception of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel; nudity and murder were out. However in the best known of these Iberian Haggadot, the creation of Adam and Eve is boldly but also discreetly handled, thanks to intervening foliage or the resort, after the fall, to the fig leaf. Amusingly, Eve appears to be chucking the snake beneath its chin. By the way, the more sophisticated the images in these Haggadot, the more entirely Christian they appear. The na ve depictions of the ark and the dove in the Sarajevo Haggada are, however, full of charm and relate directly to our most famous contemporary folk illustrator, the late Shalom Moscovitz of Safed. When the expensive handmade Haggada was handed around the Seder table, the readers and small children saw only the pages being read. But the biblical images of the Iberian haggadot were likely used throughout the year to educate the rich man's family in the tales of the unillustrated bible. These Iberian Haggadot cost a fortune and were likely commissioned by wealthy and influential Jewish courtiers, a talented upper class known as francos whose mastery of Arabic was an asset to the crown of Aragon during the Reconquest. While King Pedro III wanted the francos to run his court, the growing objections of Christian grandees was to result in ever more anti-Jewish measures. The francos were also the leaders of their community. They named their own successors; money, not scholarship or even brains, was the prime requirement. A 13th-century revolt by the Jews of Saragossa against the francos led to the eventual change of the communal election system. But from then on, the Christian insistence on the disenfranchising of the Jews and a curtailing of their influence culminated in the appearance of Torquemada. The latest exodus was about to begin.