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Lisbon's Hebrew Bible
On view November 22, 2011

A 13th-century masterpiece of Hebrew manuscript painting—one of the earliest acquisitions of the National Library of Portugal and, as a designated national treasure, one of its most important—will be displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning November 22. Richly illustrated, and deserving to be ranked among the most beautiful manuscripts created in medieval Europe, it also offers an exceptional glimpse of the community of Jewish artists and scribes working on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Few medieval manuscripts mention the artist responsible for their decoration, but this extraordinary bible devotes an entire page to the signature of the illuminator. There Joseph Hazarfati [the Frenchman] playfully transformed the oversized Hebrew letters of his personal message into images of intertwined, biting animals. Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan served as the scribe, and another decorated page is reserved for his personal colophon, which records for posterity that he wrote the text while waiting for his broken tibia to heal, between July 1299 and May 1300, in the city of Cervera, Spain. (The manuscript is, accordingly, sometimes referred to as the “Cervera Bible.”) Finally, Joshua bar Abraham ibn Gaon enlivened the manuscript by transcribing the commentary of the biblical text (known as the masorah) as micrography. This distinctive Jewish art form uses the tiny letters of the text to form silhouettes of animals and of geometric motifs. His name is hidden twenty times within his designs.

Joseph the Frenchman boldly enriched the bible with both religious and secular imagery, ranging from the full-page illumination of the Prophet Zechariah’s vision of the great Temple menorah, fueled by oil that flows directly from the fruit-laden olive tree (fol. 316v), to knights and their falcons poised on a castle’s ramparts (fol. 444v-445), to apes and unicorns cavorting in the margins (fol. 440v-441). Because the National Library of Portugal has permitted the Museum to turn the pages of the manuscript each week, the public will have the rare opportunity to view many of these splendid and engaging illustrations over the winter season.

The presentation of Lisbon’s Hebrew Bible at the Metropolitan Museum is the second in a series of stellar loans, each of which focuses on a single, illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscript. One by one, a Hebrew manuscript from an American or European library is showcased in the medieval art galleries of the Metropolitan Museum’s main building, set in the context of related treasures from the Museum’s collection. The previous loan, shown in spring 2011, was the Washington Haggadah from the Library of Congress.

This series is made possible by The David Berg Foundation.

These notable installations build upon an ongoing program of important loans of Hebrew manuscripts from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

On December 21, in conjunction with the exhibition, a lecture on the importance of Hannukah will be given at the Metropolitan Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium by David Kraemer, librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Gallery talks will focus on the new set of illustrations that can be seen each week.

Concurrent with the exhibition, the National Library of Portugal will, for the first time, make images of the entire manuscript available on its website (http://www.bnportugal.pt).

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November 21, 2011

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