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Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts in Vienna

In January and February of this year, Alissa Fried, researcher from the Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript section of the Index of Jewish Art, conducted a survey of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek collection in Vienna.

In total the collection holds 244 Hebrew manuscripts, thirty-eight of them containing decorations appropriate for the iconographical Index of Jewish Art. Alissa's first task in Vienna was to survey all the Hebrew manuscripts in the collection as well as the twenty-one incunabula (books printed before 1501). This time-consuming activity was both exciting and productive. One of the most significant manuscripts surveyed had been mis-shelved for many years amongst the printed books and was omitted from the inventory compiled by Franz Unterkircher in 1959.

Hymn of Unity -  Ashkenazi Hebrew illuminated manuscript, 1415.
Ashkenazi Hebrew illuminated manuscript, dated 1415, of a "Hymn of Unity" recited during evening prayers in the event Yom Kippur falls on a sunday (Vienna, NB Hebr. 242 fol. 190)

Most of the manuscripts are Ashkenazi in origin and were executed during the fourteenth century. The decoration does not include narrative scenes but is predominantly of heraldic animals, multi-colored hybrids and grotesques enclosed within rectangular panels with many Gothic architectural elements. These panels incorporate the opening words of prayers and appear at particularly important divisions within the text. This type of decoration is influenced by the Lake Constance school of illumination of the early fourteenth century which produced Latin manuscripts such as the Aich Bible and the Gradual (book of music for Mass) of St. Katharinental. Also of interest was a Rosh Hashana mahzor of Ashkenazi rite of 1344-47 (Cod. Hebr. 163), which is the first half of a two volume set. The second volume, which continues with the prayers for Yom Kippur, is held in the JNUL (Jewish National and University Library) collection (Ms. 5214). Both volumes of the set were copied by the same two scribes and are decorated with identical fleuronne penwork, which runs along the text column of the manuscript. Two other manuscripts are known to have been copied by the first scribe: Sefer Mitzvot Gadol [SeMaG] (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 34/I-II) and a manuscript of the Hagiographa (one-third of the Old Testament) (Cambridge, Univ. Libr. Ms. Ee 5.9). The colophon of the Cambridge manuscript includes the name of the scribe, Haim and the date, 21 Tevet 5107 (January 4, 1347). The sample get (divorce) text included in the SeMaG is dated 1344. These dates served as the basis for the dating of the mahzorim which Alissa examined.

Alissa recorded codicological data of some manuscripts, including ruling and pricking, counting quires, and copying historical information usually relating to the purchase and sale of the manuscripts and significant events in the lives of the owners. She was greatly assisted in her work by library researcher, Dr. Andreas Fingernagel.

In Jerusalem, Alissa will research the material and then computerize it into the Index of Jewish Art. The Center will be sending a researcher in 1999 to continue the documentation of this important collection.

This survey was conducted with the help of a friend who wishes to remain anonymous.




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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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