Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- Jewish history to the middle ages
- Writing a history of Jewish architecture
- Medieval synagogues in Toledo, Spain
- The Golden Haggadah
- Sefer Musre Hafilosofim (Book of Morals of Philosophers)
- The manuscripts of Luis de Carvajal
- Altneushul, Prague
- Diarna: documenting the places of a vanishing Jewish history
By Dr. Elisa Foster
On the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, a child traditionally asks a critical question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question sets up the ritual narration of the story of Passover, when Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt with a series of miraculous events (recounted in the Jewish Bible in the book of Exodus).
For the last and most terrible in a series of miraculous plagues that ultimately convinced the Egyptian to free the Jews—the death of the first born sons of Egypt—Moses commanded the Jews to paint a red mark on their doors. In doing so, the Angel of Death "passed over" these homes and the children survived. The story of Passover—of miraculous salvation from slavery—is one that is recounted annually by many Jews at a seder, the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the holiday.
A luxurious book
The book used to tell the story of Passover around the seder table each year is a special one, known as a haggadah (haggadot, pl). The Golden Haggadah, as you might imagine given its name, is one of the most luxurious examples of these books ever created. In fact, it is one of the most luxurious examples of a medieval illuminated manuscript, regardless of use or patronage. So although the Golden Hagaddah has a practical purpose, it is also a fine work of art used to signal the wealth of its owners.
A hagaddah usually includes the prayers and readings said during the meal and sometimes contained images that could have served as a sort of pictorial aid to envision the history of Passover around the table. In fact, the word "haggadah" actually means "narration" in Hebrew. The Golden Haggadah is one of the most lavishly decorated medieval Haggadot, containing 56 miniatures (small paintings) found within the manuscript. The reason it is called the "Golden" Haggadah is clear—each miniature is decorated with a brilliant gold-leaf background. As such, this manuscript would have been quite expensive to produce and was certainly owned by a wealthy Jewish family. So although many haggadot show signs of use—splashes of wine, etc.—the fine condition of this particular haggadah means that it might have served a more ceremonial purpose, intended to showcase the prosperity of this family living near Barcelona in the early fourteenth century.
Gothic in style
The fact that the Golden Haggadah was so richly illuminated is important. Although the second commandment in Judaism forbids the making of "graven images," haggadot were often seen as education rather than religious and therefore exempt from this rule.
The style of the manuscript may look familiar to you—it is very similar to Christian Gothic manuscripts such as the Bible of Saint Louis. Look, for example, at the figure of Moses and the Pharaoh (above). He doesn’t really look like an Egyptian pharaoh at all but more like a French king. The long flowing body, small architectural details and patterned background reveal that this manuscript was created during the Gothic period. Whether the artists of the Golden Haggadah themselves were Jewish is open to debate, although it is certainly evident that regardless of their religious beliefs, the dominant style of Christian art in Europe clearly influenced the artists of this manuscript.
So the Golden Haggadah is both stylistically an example of Jewish art and Gothic art. Often Christian art is associated with the Gothic style but it is important to remember that artists, regardless of faith, were exchanging ideas and techniques. In fact, while the Golden Haggadah looks Christian (Gothic) in style, other examples of Jewish manuscripts, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, blend both Christian and Islamic influences. This cross-cultural borrowing of artistic styles happened throughout Europe, but was especially strong in medieval Spain and Portugal, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together for many centuries. Despite periods of persecution, the Jews of Spain, known as Sephardic Jews, developed a rich culture of Judaism on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The Golden Haggadah thus stands as a testament to the impact and significance of Jewish culture in medieval Spain—and the rich multicultural atmosphere of that produced such a magnificent manuscript.
Beṣalel Narkiss, The Golden Haggadah A Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript in the British Museum (London: Eugrammia Press, 1970).
Joseph Gutmann, Hebrew Manuscript Painting (New York: Braziller, 1978)
Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
Katrin Kogman-Appel, "Coping with Christian Pictorial Sources: What Did Jewish Miniaturists Not Paint?" Speculum, 75 (2000), pp. 816–58.
Katrin Kogman-Appel, Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain. Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).
Katrin Kogman-Appel, Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: the Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain (Lieden: Brill, 2004), pp. 179–85.
Julie Harris, "Polemical Images in the Golden Haggadah (British Library Add. MS 27210)," Medieval Encounters, 8 (2002), pp. 105–22.
Essay by Dr. Elisa Foster
Want to join the conversation?
- We read, "Whether the artists of the Golden Haggadah themselves were Jewish is open to debate, although it is certainly evident that regardless of their religious beliefs, the dominant style of Christian art in Europe clearly influenced the artists of this manuscript."
I wonder if it would have been dangerous for a non-Jewish artist to make images for a Jewish patron such of this (certainly the 14th century was not an era friendly to Jews)? If so, would that lend weight to the case that the artist's were non-Jewish? Or would that merely suggest that the Golden Haggadah would have had to of been made in secret if made by gentiles on behalf of Jewish patrons?(9 votes)
- This answer is from the British Library site on the Golden Haggadah:
"Jews acted as advisers, physicians and financiers to the Counts of Barcelona, who provided economic and social protection. They grew attuned to the tastes of the court and began commissioning manuscripts decorated in Christian style. Though the scribe who wrote its Hebrew text would have been a Jew, the illuminators of the 'Golden Haggadah' are likely to have been Christian artists, instructed in details of Judaic symbolism by the scribe or patron."(7 votes)
- In the picture of Moses and Aaron going before the Pharaoh what is the Pharaoh's left hand holding? To me it looks like it could be a hand or fur...(6 votes)
- It says "...Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt with a series of miraculous events (recounted in the Jewish Bible in the book of Exodus)". Are there any relics of Egypt that depict the miracles and/or the events that took place at this time?(4 votes)
- Whether one interprets such artifacts as are found in Egypt as confirming Biblical narratives or not often depends on whether or not we have first accepted the Biblical narratives as fact, or see them as legends to explain the origin of a people who took over someone else's land (that of the Canaanites). If you take the stories in the Bible as historical fact, you read into the relics in Egypt confirmation of those stories. If you doubt, you find other things. Read up on the topic of "confirmation bias" and then consider where you come down on the relics.(2 votes)
- Where is the Golden Haggadah (The Plagues of Egypt, Scenes of Liberation, and Preparation for Passover) located now? Is it available to see by the public?(2 votes)
- Its in the British Library: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=19108(3 votes)
- When medieval artist made art showing ancient Egypt why did they make the people in the stories dress like they did?(2 votes)
- Does this reflect on the bible?(1 vote)
- It was made to seem as though this haggadah was clearly for Jews only which made it curious to be influenced so heavily y Christian art. And yet, Christians also celebrate Moses' leading of the Jews out of Egypt. Since the creator of the piece is unknown, isn't it possible this could have originally been Christian art?
Thanks in advance.(1 vote)
- The manuscript is written in Hebrew. Here is another page from it: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_27210_f010v
Most educated Jews from this time would learn Hebrew. Furthermore it's highly unlikely that a Christian would commission a manuscript in Hebrew -- it would rather be in Latin or a vernacular language.(3 votes)