A fresh look at the Book of Ruth in New York

After two years’ work, Wolff has produced a stunning rendition of the Book of Ruth layered with platinum, gold and silver.

THE BOOK of Ruth is featured in conversation with medieval depictions of the story. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE BOOK of Ruth is featured in conversation with medieval depictions of the story.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – The Book of Ruth, traditionally read during Shavuot, is a story of two women alone in a man’s world, in a time of famine, flight, foreignness, emigration, displacement and even despair.
It is a pastoral narrative that still piques the imaginations of artists, writers, scholars and in particular, New York illuminator and illustrator Barbara Wolff.
After two years’ work, Wolff has produced a stunning rendition of the Book of Ruth layered with platinum, gold and silver. It will be on display through June 14 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
“After I finished the Haggada (The Rose Haggadah: An Illuminated Manuscript for the 21st Century) the Book of Ruth was on my mind for a long time,” said Wolff. “And I thought, what does this story that we read every year tell us about now? While it tells the story about famine in biblical times, it shows us how to care for the disenfranchised, and how droughts even today disrupt communities and governments.”
“It is also an amazing story about intermarriage. Moabites were supposed to be the enemies of Jews, and yet Ruth, the Moabite, marries Boaz, the Jew. And what’s more, the son born to them is going to be the grandfather of King David,” offers Alicia Ostriker, New York-based scholar and New York State poet laureate.
Megilat Ruth, or the Scroll of Ruth, suggests its original format, which Wolff’s work echoes in an accordion-fold vellum manuscript, measuring nine inches tall and an amazing eighteen feet long, designed and illuminated to show the book’s origins.
The complete text of the Book of Ruth is written in Hebrew on one side and in English on the other, the work of calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski. The Hebrew side features 20 colored illustrations and a continuous landscape, with accents and lettering taking inspiration from folklore and biblical commentary. The English side contains 40 black pen-and-ink drawings that depict objects, including plants and animals, which people of that time would have known and used.
Wolff does not stop with the precious elements of gold, silver and platinum, but adds items like cowrie shells from the Bedouin and Yemenite traditions on a brightly woven wedding belt. “Worn as pendants, strung as beads and sewn on clothing, cowrie shells are considered a shield against the evil eye,” she said.
Pictures include boughs of myrtle that grow on the slopes of Israel’s mountains and hills. Illustrations of henna, almond, lavender and jasmine make up the perfume Naomi tells Ruth to anoint herself with before lying with Boaz, while thistle is cast in platinum to depicts the Near East plant as an image of endurance in times of drought and famine.
Visitors need not be experts in ancient manuscripts or iconography, as the Rose Book of Ruth tells the entire story from start to finish.
Exhibited with a dozen manuscripts dating from the 12th-15th centuries, the juxtaposition show how European works depict faces while Wolff’s eschews portraiture, choosing symbols instead, in line with ancient Jewish tradition.
“My reason for that is everyone knows the story, but the Midrash behind it was fascinating, so I added a layer of commentary that is visual,” said Wolff. “It gives the viewer a chance to populate the story with their own characters.”


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