The illustrations of the Washington Haggadah, currently on loan to the Metropolitan from the Library of Congress, suggest—with a touch of humor and not a little humanity—some of the challenges inherent in following the instructions for celebrating the Passover seder.
The manuscript is currently open to Folio 14v, which contains the text of the dayenu, recalling God's many blessings on the people of Israel. The illustration underneath the text depicts two women dutifully tending a pot over an open fire. They are well dressed in colorful, luxurious Italian velvets (which are ill-suited to cooking) and, judging from each woman's décolletage and substantial girth, well nourished. The women find themselves in the company of a decidedly scruffy-looking, blond fellow who has taken charge of turning a rack of lamb on the spit. Close inspection reveals that his clothes are full of holes, and the goitrous protrusions on his neck suggest poor health. One of the women proffers a glass while at the same time she leans away warily. Why does she bother? He has helped himself to a glass of red wine, and more stands decanted at his side. His cheeks and lips are already flushed with color. It seems that the women are mindful of the instruction on an earlier page of the text that would have been read aloud only minutes before in the seder ceremony: "Let anyone who is hungry come and eat." The women apparently anticipated the enthusiastic response of the small, open-mouthed dog who sits expectantly by them, but they may have been taken by surprise by the arrival of the vagabond who wishes to share their labor and their meal.
Reflecting the costume and condition of the prosperous Jews who were his clients, this illustration by artist Joel ben Simeon attests to the vitality of Jewish artistic production in the Middle Ages and brings the seder instruction to life: "Let anyone who wishes come and participate in the Passover."
The pages of the Washington Haggadah will be turned at the beginning of each month during this special loan. In May, come to the galleries to see the gentleman of the house pour the ritually prescribed second glass of wine.
Barbara Drake Boehm is a curator and Melanie Holcomb is an associate curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.
Exhibition: The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context
News: "Fifteenth-Century Haggadah Displayed at the Met for Passover" (WNYC, Monday, April 18, 2011)
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe"
Curatorial Department: Department of Medieval Art