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Ashkenazi Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Isles

The documentation of Ashkenazi illuminated manuscripts represents the Center for Jewish Art's third phase of documentation of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the British Isles. In past years the Center's researchers have surveyed all the Hebrew illuminated manuscripts mainly in public collections in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Dublin as well as in a few private collections. In the first phase, the Spanish and Portuguese manuscripts were documented and later published in two volumes by the British Academy and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Manuscripts from the Italian school were documented in the second phase and now, Ashkenazi manuscripts, from France, Germany and the Netherlands, are in an advanced stage of documentation. Sarit Shalev-Eyni, a doctoral student in the Hebrew University's Art History Department and a researcher at the Center for Jewish Art, is presently in England to carry out this work. The following article is an abstract based on her current research.

In order to study the variations occurring in the Ashkenazi manuscripts, these manuscripts were divided into groups by type of text. The largest groups identified were the mahzorim (festival prayer books) and Pentateuchs which are the most common among the manuscripts in the various collections.

Each type of text has its own special layout. The mahzor is divided into different liturgical sections, according to the festivals, feasts, holy days and other occasions. Each section consists of prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems). Set prayers are repeated on the various festivals and holy days, whereas each festival has its own group of piyyutim. Therefore the piyyutim were chosen by the scribes and artists to be the main focus of the illustrations. Special emphasis was given to the initial word of each piyyut, which is written in large decorative letters, occasionally surrounded by a panel, with complimentary illumination.

Some of the illustrations in the panels of the initial word relate to the text. An example of this can be seen in the "Tinted Mahzor" (B.L. Add. 26896) from Franconia (ca. 1300). Here, the initial word of the piyyut , "A beloved doe", which is a metaphor for the people of Israel, is depicted as a hunting scene which includes a pack of dogs led by a monkey-hunter, chasing a male deer, rather than a doe. The scene represents the people of Israel persecuted by the Christians in Europe at the time. A similar hunting scene depicting a doe can be found in other mahzorim, illustrating the same piyyut.

The illustrative medallions accompanying the piyyut for the prayer for dew during Passover are also common in other illustrated mahzorim. In its eleven stanzas, this piyyut describes the twelve months of the year with signs of the zodiac. Each stanza of the piyyut is illustrated by a medallion containing one of the zodiac signs. In the "Tinted Mahzor", this iconographical tradition appears in a reduced version, where only seven medallions with seven of the signs of the zodiac are to be found. Medallions with the zodiac signs are most common in Christian calendars preceeding the Latin Psalter of this period. The iconography of these signs in the "Tinted Mahzor" was undoubtedly influenced by this Christian tradition. In some mahzorim, some of the zodiac signs are designed in a special manner. For example, Gemini in the "Tinted Mahzor" is depicted as a woman with a double bird head. In many mahzorim the twins are depicted as two images with birds heads. In others they are depicted as a bust with two joined heads. The version in the "Tinted Mahzor" combines these two Jewish traditions.

Two of the zodiac signs from the Tinted MahzorTwo of the zodiac signs from the "Tinted Mahzor". Particularly noteworthy is the lower picture of the woman with two bird's heads depicting the sign of Gemini.

Characteristic illustrated texts can be seen in other mahzorim in collections of the British Isles. One of the more common of these can be seen in the "Dragons' Head Mahzor" (B.L. Or. 42) dating from the end of the 13th century and in the "London Days of Awe Mahzor" (B.L. Add. 16916) from the beginning of the 14th century, both from Franconia. The blessing "Blessed art thou who openest the Gates of Mercy for us" in the morning prayer for Yom Kippur is illustrated by a gate which surrounds the whole page. A hand holding a shofar is shown in the margin of the page next to the blowing of the shofar in the "Dragons' Head Mahzor".

A different design program characterizes the Ashkenazi Pentateuchs. The initial words of the Five Books are emphasized and illustrated. The initial words of other sections such as the five Megillot and the haftarot are likewise emphasized. Apart from the main text, the Pentateuch is accompanied by texts in the margins, with masorah magna or masorah parva (long and short lists of variant readings), or Aramaic translations and Rashi commentaries. These are all written in smaller letters arranged around the edges, surrounding the central text, all of which gives its characteristic layout. Sometimes the text in the margins is formed into various shapes. The masorah magna is decorated by micrography which outlines the shapes (which is typical in Hebrew Manuscripts). In other manuscripts, the text of the commentary fills the shape as is the case in the Carmina figurata which is known from Latin texts. There is a large variety of shapes with some illustrating the text.

The "Yonah Pentateuch" (B.L. Add. 21160) is one of the most sumptuous examples of a Pentateuch with masorah magna decorated with micrographic illustrations. Its name derives from the depictions of two scenes from the Book of Jonah: Jonah being expelled from the sea monster's mouth, and Yonah sitting under the gourd tree (kikayon).

Documentation work does not only focus on the artistic content. Emphasis is also given to the codicological characteristics of a manuscript and its text. The text of the Pentateuch is constant but the haftarot vary according to the customs of the different Jewish communities. For example, the haftarot read by Jews from the Dauphine region differ from the more common versions to be found in Pentateuchs from Franconia.

Changes in the composition of the haftarot may give a clue as to the historical development of a given Pentateuch. After the Hayyim D'Qopdana (B.L. Or. 2696) Pentateuch was completed, for example, another scribe added selections of haftarot in the manuscript which changed the original version. These changes indicate that not long after the completion of this manuscript, it reached another community where different customs prevailed. The importance of distinguishing between the different scribes enables scholars to reconstruct the history of an individual manuscript.

A similar example is "Abraham's Pentateuch and Rashi" (B.L. Harley 1861) from the second quarter of the 14th century. This Pentateuch is named after the scribe who wrote the main text , the Aramaic translation and the commentary. However, it is obvious that single leaves were written by another scribe; their codicological elements being different from those by the original scribe. At the bottom of these pages, one can discern the scribe's attempts to enlarge the letters in order to fit the text into the remaining empty spaces. These features indicate that these pages were written after the initial completion of the Pentateuch. Examining the quires reveals that these leaves were glued into the margins of now-missing pages which were torn out from the original Pentateuch. As if this is not enough, the new scribe tells us the story himself. At the end of one of the pages, he writes a four line poem with an acrostic of his name, Jacob and tells us: "may the owner of the book have eternal life for volunteering to write the missing pages". It appears that Jacob acquired the Pentateuch with a few of its pages missing and he himself filled in the missing gaps.

Distinguishing between different scribes does not always indicate various periods of writing. Frequently, one may detect in an individual Pentateuch a division of work between different scribes working concurrently. One was responsible for the main text and the other scribe or scribes were responsible for the texts in the margins and for the vocalization. Sometimes the scribe of the main text also wrote the texts in the margins. Unraveling the complex relationship between the different scribes is a challenge facing the serious researcher.

Sarit Shalev-Eyni is the recipient of the Beata Polonsky Overseas Travel Award of the Polonsky Foundation, London.


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