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Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts in Modena

A major project of the Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript Section of the Jerusalem Index of Jewish Art, has been the research of material accumulated during documentation expeditions to Modena, Italy in 1985 and 1995. During the expeditions researchers documented fifteen important Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, fourteen from the Biblioteca Estense and one from the Archivio di Stato. These manuscripts include various texts - Bibles, Passover haggadot, mahzorim, siddurim, an Evronot book (a book of calendar calculations) and Esther scrolls - made from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in different places of Jewish settlement around Europe, such as Spain, Ashkenaz and Italy. Also documented were Italian ketubbot (marriage contracts) from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

modena One of the earliest manuscripts of the entire collection is a mahzor of the Ashkenazi rite, written in Franconia in Germany. The manuscript can be dated to around 1300 on the basis of stylistic comparison with the Bamberg Mahzor (JTS Ms. 4843) from 1279. The Bamberg Mahzor is one of the earliest dated Ashkenazi manuscripts known today. In both these mahzorim, the decoration program highlights the main sections of the manuscript, with the prayers arranged according to the yearly cycle. In both cases emphasis is given to the opening words which are surrounded by flourishes including wriggle work and half-palmette motifs. Grotesque animals fill the letters or appear as decorations in the margins of the text - for example, the opening panel for the Yotzer of the first day of Passover "Or Yesha Me'usharim," (fol. 41v and JTS fol. 29). This decorative style is characteristic of manuscripts from Franconia of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It appears for example, in another Ashkenazi mahzor from Franconia from the beginning of the fourteenth century (Bodleian Lib. Opp. 645, fol. 61v).

The collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena also includes one of the earliest extant Spanish Bibles. It features in its decoration program two carpet pages with depictions of Sanctuary/Temple implements (Ms. T.3.8., Or. 26, Fols. 25v-26). To date we know of some thirty Bibles featuring depictions of Sanctuary/Temple implements, spread over two or more complete pages. These Bibles were made in Spain from the end of the thirteenth century until the end of the fifteenth century (the period of the Jewish expulsion from Spain). A number were made in Castille while others, like the Bible in Modena, were made in Catalonia.

A comparison of the Sanctuary/Temple implements in the Modena Spanish Bible with illustrations from the other Spanish Bibles show that the Modena Bible depictions belong to the earliest group of illustrations, in relation to the compositional arrangement of the vessels. This group comprises five Bibles, the earliest being the Toledo Bible made in 1277, now in the Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, (parms 2668, Fols. 7v-8). Other manuscripts of this group include a Bible copied in 1299 in Perpignan (Biblioteque National, Ms. Hebr. 7, fols. 12v-13) and a Catalonian Bible made in 1301 in Copenhagen (Cod. Heb. II, fols. 11v-12). We also know of an undated Bible with a similar arrangement of implements, which was previously in the Frankfurt Stadtsbibliothek (Ausst. 4, fols. 25v-26) but which is now in private hands.

The details of the implements in the last Bible are very similar to those which appear in the carpet pages of a Latin manuscript, "Scholastic History" by Peter Komestor, which was copied in Aragon in the fourteenth century. However, the depictions of the Sanctuary/Temple implements in the Spanish Hebrew Bibles do not include figures of people or animals, while in the Latin manuscript a figure of a lamb is depicted on the Altar of Sacrifice, in accordance with its Christian interpretation.

Amongst the manuscripts documented in the collections in Modena, were two Italian ketubbot, the earliest of them written on August 31, 1629 (Estense, Alpha L2). This ketubbah is special because it includes - in addition to the usual information (names of bride and groom, date and the place of marriage, Carpi) - a colophon of the artist noting his name, Elisha of Ascoli, and Mantua. Since the text incorporated within the decoration of the ketubbah's frame was made with the same script and in the same hand as the text of the ketubbah itself, it is possible to conclude that the entire ketubbah was prepared in Mantua and then brought to Carpi for the wedding ceremony. Indeed we know of a practice whereby decorated ketubbot were made in advance, with the precise details of the couple, date etc. being added later, upon purchase of the ketubbah. However, this phenomenon only occurred from the eighteenth century.

The ketubbah is lavishly decorated with a wealth of subjects and colors, as well as gold and silver leaf, and micrography. The upper part of the ketubbah is decorated with a scene of Jerusalem and a seven-branched menorah comprised of the words of Psalm 67. This is amongst the earliest known ketubbot decorated with a scene of Jerusalem. The earliest surviving ketubbah to include this scene was made in Rome two years earlier, in 1627 (Israel Museum Collection, 179/316: see Shalom Sabar, Mazal Tov, item nine). The tradition of writing Psalm 67 in the shape of a menorah developed in Italy from the fourteenth century, and was based on a kabbalistic interpretation of the Psalm, which ascribed properties of safekeeping and protection. The menorah appears rarely in ketubbot.

A coat of arms is depicted at the bottom part of the ketubbah, in the center of the lower margin. It is shaped in the form of a heart divided into two sections and includes a tree on the left, and on the right, a rampant lion supporting a tree. Apparently these are the symbols of the bride and groom's respective families, as was customary in Italian ketubbot. Six Biblical scenes enclosed within medallions also decorate the square frame of the ketubbah: the temptation of Adam and Eve; Mordechai the Jew being led by Haman; Isaac and Rebekkah leaving Laban; Jacob by the well; Esther before Ahasuerus; and the angels visiting Abraham and Sarah in their tent. It can be assumed that at least some of the Biblical scenes are linked to the bride and groom by the names of the characters depicted. It is possible, for example, to associate the scene of the temptation with the name of the bride, Chava (Eve) bat Raphael Yehoshua Ravina; or to link the scene of the angels' visit to Abraham with the groom's name, Shmuel Chaim ben Avraham Padova.

Another detail of interest in this ketubbah is the micrography which comprises the oval frame inlaid with cartouches. The micrography includes the words of verse one of Psalm 27: [A Psalm of David] "the Lord is my light and saviour." It is customary to say this Psalm at the end of the morning prayer from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Simchat Torah, and indeed, the date on the ketubbah shows that the wedding took place during the month of Elul.

Researchers are continuing their analysis of this outstanding collection of manuscripts, thus supplementing the Index of Jewish Art's wealth of information on Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.

This research project was assisted by the Amelia Valent Vigevani Memorial Fund.





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