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HEBREW ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS AND PRINTED BOOKS

In the fall of 2000 and spring of 2001 section head Michal Sternthal and student-researcher Anna Nizza traveled to Vienna to continue the documentation of the Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the Austrian National Library. Beginning in 1998, IJA researchers have visited Vienna four times to document this important collection of forty-nine illuminated manuscripts from Ashkenaz, Spain and Northern Italy. The items in this collection shed light upon different Jewish cultures in Europe during the Middle Ages and the 18th century. The documentation was carried out by Dr. Andreas Fingernagel and Dr. Karl-Georg Pfändtner from the Austrian National Library together with Michal Sternthal, Yaffa Levy, Anna Nizza, Alissia Fried, Guinat Spiegel and Estherlee Kanon from the CJA. Within the next year, a two-volume catalogue of this group of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts will be published by the Austrian National Library in collaboration with the CJA.

Amongst the manuscripts documented by the IJA in 2001-2002 in Vienna were nine manuscripts including six Ashkenazi manuscripts of the 14th century, one 15th century Italian manuscript, and two manuscripts from Pressburg (Bratislava) and Kittsea of the 18th century.

“Vienna Pentateuch”

Amongst the Ashkenazi manuscripts is the important “Vienna Pentateuch” which was probably produced in France c.1340 (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 28). It is interesting for its decoration as well as its contents and history. As in many Ashkenazi Pentateuchs, the main text is accompanied by haftarot and the Five Scrolls with masorah parva and magna (marginal text including the tradition of the writing and the pronunciation of the biblical text). The masorah magna is written here in micrography formed into geometric and floral motifs as well a variety of hybrids. This “Vienna Pentateuch” also includes three commentaries skillfully arranged in the margins: the Aramaic Targum, Rashi’s commentary and “Sefer ha-Gan” (the Book of the Garden). The Sefer ha-Gan was written by the tosafist (a sage of the schools of France and Germany in the 12th-14th centuries) Aaron bar Yosei bar Aaron Hacohen and rarely appears in other Ashkenazi Pentateuchs.

It is not known who copied the manuscript as there is no colophon that states the name of the scribe or patron, nor the place and date of its production. However, an inscription by the owner of the manuscript was added not long after its completion, indicating an approximate date of its creation. According to the inscription, the Pentateuch arrived in Provence after it was saved from a fire in 1348 in which all the women and children of the French community of “Malba Deshatron” perished. The owner alone was left alive since he was called to the queen of Avignon ten days before the fateful event. This Pentateuch, in addition to its beauty, bears witness to the fragility of Jewish life in 14th century Europe.

The Vienna New Year Mahzor

Another Ashkenazi manuscript documented is a mahzor for the New Year attributed to the Upper Rhine in 1344-47(Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 163). It is the first of a two-volume set for the High Holidays in which the second volume, containing prayers for the Day of Atonement, is at the National and University Library in Jerusalem (Jerusalem, JNUL, Heb. 5214, 1-3). That volume was documented by the CJA in 1995. Both volumes were written by the same scribe; the scripts, line fillers, style of writing God's name, ruling and pricking, measurement of a full page and text space are identical. The scribe was probably “Moshe” who emphasized his name in both volumes. Apparently the Vienna volume was completed by a second scribe later in the 14th century. This mahzor is attributed to the 14th century Upper Rhine School of illumination for its main decoration which consists of initial word panels on a filigree-like background of delicate, colorful scrollwork decorated with medallions encircling hybrids and various types of animals as well as some text illustrations. The panels are decorated with extending tendrils and flourishes framing the text space in the outer and inner margins. Another artist in the 15th century added a decorated initial word on the first page of the manuscript copied by the later scribe (fol. 2v).

Ka’arat Kesef and Seder Hatanim

Among the Italian manuscripts documented in the Vienna Library is a tiny 15th century manuscript (98 x 69 mm) which includes Ka’arat Kesef (The Silver Plate) by the poet Jehoseph Ezobi who lived in Provence in the 13th century and Seder Hatanim (order of marriage ceremony, Vienna, ÖNB,Cod. Hebr. 88). This manuscript which has only 16 leaves was originally part of a larger manuscript of philosophic and ethical treatises which was divided into three parts in the late 1840s by Shelomoh Gottlieb Stern of Rohoncz, Hungary. The other two parts are at the Bibliotheca Palatina in Parma (Parm. 3500, 3501).

The most important decoration of this manuscript is on the opening page (fol. 1v). The page is surrounded by a border of vegetal and floral motifs enclosing a gold panel framing the text space. The panel is divided into two compartments; the upper is an illustrative initial word panel while the lower includes the first verses of the poem. The illustrative panel depicts a father who is offering a silver plate to his child. This scene alludes to Ezobi, the poet, who wrote this poem on the occasion of his son’s marriage. The style of the decoration is typical of the northern Italian Renaissance schools of Hebrew manuscript illumination, particularly Lombardy or the Venetian school of the mid 15th century.

Gestures of Prayer

In June 2001, Michal Sternthal delivered a lecture entitled “Praying Gestures in Illuminated Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts from Italy” at the prestigious International Conference on Jewish Cultural Heritage in Ravenna. The lecture focused on praying gestures in Jewish art from ancient times until the 15th century. Various hand gestures signifying prayer appear in manuscripts, the most common being the joined hands position associated with non-Jews in prayer. Others include crossed arms and hands placed on the heart. Biblical as well as halakhic and customs literature which describe and discuss the physical manifestations of prayer was explored in relation to the depictions of the prayer in the manuscripts. One of her conclusions was that during the Middle Ages, the open gesture of raising hands to heaven as described in the Bible was replaced by new gestures such as joined hands, reflecting a more humble attitude of man towards God, characteristic of this period .

Anna Nizza is the recipient of a Tania Finkelstein scholarship.
Michal Sternthal received a Hans-Heinrich Solf scholarship.

 

 

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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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