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The Washington Haggadah: The Delights of Ornament

Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters; and Barbara Drake Boehm, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011

«This week we turned the pages in the Washington Haggadah, which is on loan to the Museum from the Library of Congress through July 4.»

Haggadah

Folio 3v (right) and Folio 4r (left) from the Washington Haggadah, Library of Congress, Hebraic Section. Reproduced by permission of the publisher from The Washington Haggadah, by Joel ben Simeon (Cambridge, Mass.: Library of Congress and Harvard University Press) © 2011

Like those on view last month, the current pages include a charming scene from a medieval Passover. In the margin of the left-hand page, a man in a brightly colored, pleated velvet tunic and scarlet tights pours the second of the four glasses of wine required by the seder.

On the right page, which would have been read first, is something else entirely. A departure from the genre scenes related to the seder found in much of the book, this image simply extols the delights of ornament. One might be tempted to search for a symbolic meaning in the formal arrangement of two birds flanking a jug, pictured just below the “Ha Lachma Anya” (the word “ha” is rendered in gold leaf) the invitation to the Passover seder. But why go looking? This enchanting image draws its inspiration from the sort of decorative motifs found in contemporary Italian manuscripts and decorative arts, but the artist, Joel ben Simeon, seems to have gone out of his way to enliven the individual elements with suggestive detail.

fol 3v

Detail of Folio 3v from the Washington Haggadah, Library of Congress, Hebraic Section. Reproduced by permission of the publisher from The Washington Haggadah, by Joel ben Simeon (Cambridge, Mass.: Library of Congress and Harvard University Press) © 2011

The birds are not a matching set but two different songbirds, each possessing its own colorful and distinctive plumage. [Tim Husband, a curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, and an avid birder, has suggested that they could be meant to evoke the rufous-tailed rock thrush (on the left) and the European goldfinch (on the right), two birds native to southern Europe, where the artist worked.]

The jug, adorned with radiating stripes around a central medallion, is readily identified as an example of early Tuscan maiolica, a type of pottery acclaimed for its inventive painted patterns. A bit of topiary, that marvelous marriage of nature and artifice, fittingly sprouts from the jug. The whole scene—a compilation of beautifully decorated things—pays tribute to embellishment for its own sake, whether crafted by God or humans or humans inspired by divine example. Surely it was his sense that he was working in the latter mode that motivated the pious scribe and illuminator of Washington Haggadah.

Melanie Holcomb is an associate curator and Barbara Drake Boehm is a curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

Related Links
Exhibition: The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context
Previous Post: "The Washington Haggadah: Let anyone who is hungry come and eat" (April 18, 2011)
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe"; "Maiolica in the Renaissance"
Curatorial Department: Department of Medieval Art

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About the Authors

Melanie Holcomb is a curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

Barbara Drake Boehm is a curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

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