Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe

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  • Surviving works of art provide inadequate testament to the importance of the Jewish community of Europe in the Middle Ages. While always a minority population, and despite recurring, intense persecution and exile, Jews throughout Europe made key contributions to the intellectual life, art, science, and commerce of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jews served as both patrons and artists, and the art that does survive reveals awareness by Jews of the artistic currents of the day and regular interaction with the majority Christian or Muslim (in the case of Spain) community.


    Jews served as both patrons and artists, and the art that does survive reveals awareness by Jews of the artistic currents of the day and regular interaction with the majority Christian or Muslim (in the case of Spain) community.

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    Cited Works of Art or Images (6)

    • Aquamanile
    • Aquamanile
    • Aquamanile
    • Prato Haggadah
    • Mariano del Buono
    • Joel ben Simeon

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    After the Romans' destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, the practice of Judaism shifted from a focus on sacrifice to the study of sacred texts, the celebration of holy days, and the religious observance of the life cycle, all of which provided opportunities for the production and patronage of art. Torah scrolls were undecorated, but other Hebrew texts were painted with narrative and decorative imagery. Haggadot, books containing the text of the Passover Seder, sometimes depict scenes from the Bible or images of the contemporary celebrations of the Seder. Examples from medieval Spain are especially fine. (Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula have a particularly rich artistic and intellectual heritage owing to long periods of religious tolerance by both Muslims and Christians prior to the persecution of 1391 and eventually forced expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain and 1497 from Portugal.) Works by Jewish scholars, such as the biblical commentator Rashi or the philosopher Maimonides, were also sometimes illustrated, as were books of science and law. Hebrew illuminated manuscripts might be painted by artists who also worked for Christian clients. The Florentine artist Mariano del Buono, for instance, was responsible for both a woman's mahzor, or prayer book, and a Christian choir book (96.32.15). The most elaborately decorated Mishneh Torah to survive is the only known work for Jewish use created by the Master of the Barbo Missal, an artist who worked for important Christian patrons in Italy, including popes and secular princes (2013.495). Book decoration could also take the form of inventively rendered Hebrew script, such as Arabic-looking Hebrew texts.

    Though a number of ritual objects, such as Hanukkah lamps and kiddush cups, were prescribed for the proper observation of Jewish ceremonies, Jewish law gave only minimal instruction as to their form. Consequently, Jews often employed objects for religious rituals that might otherwise find a place in a Christian home, and recognizable, distinctive Jewish ceremonial objects evolved only gradually. For example, we know from manuscript illuminations that a secular drinking cup of glass or silver might be used as a kiddush cup, for blessing wine on Sabbaths and holy days. (06.141). Wealthy Jews embraced the same luxury items favored by their Christian neighbors: manuscript illustrations, coats of arms, or Hebrew inscriptions indicate that items such as ceremonial double cups (17.190.609a,b) and aquamanilia might sit in a Jewish cupboard.

    Medieval synagogue architecture frequently adopted the form and decoration of contemporary Christian building. The synagogue at Regensburg, for example, built between 1210 and 1227, featured pointed arches, carved capitals and a rose window, as in a Gothic church (26.72.68). The thirteenth-century synagogue that survives at Prague similarly includes Gothic elements, including a non-figural, carved tympanum over the door.

    Medieval Christian objects often attest to an intense dialogue with Jewish scholars. Because Christian faith developed out of Judaism, Christian theologians, beginning with Saint Jerome, were often intent on learning Hebrew. Others were eager to challenge Jewish belief, or were threatened by the Jews' lack of interest in converting. Persecutions linked to the First Crusade in 1096, the Black Death, and later the Inquisitions, offer notorious examples of Christian intolerance and cruelty towards the Jews, and works of art can echo the sound of contemporary prejudice (63.12). Yet other works suggest a more nuanced Christian attitude about the heritage of Judaism. Among the most imposing are objects such as the massive bronze menorah in the Cathedral of Essen on the Rhine, where there was a thriving Jewish community, or the head of King David from Notre-Dame in Paris (38.180), where the University established a chair in Hebrew. The column figure of a prophet from Saint-Denis near Paris (20.157) is one of a series that, by the figures' placement at the entrance of the church, literally and figuratively provided the support necessary to sustain the church as the perceived rightful successor to the synagogue. Coincidentally, the figure comes from a monastery whose abbot was directly responsible for the Jews of the town. Stained glass in the church bears inscriptions proclaiming the relationship between God's covenant with Israel and Christian belief in a new covenant. Images of Jews and Jewish ceremony are often portrayed with remarkable accuracy. Some Spanish altarpieces, as recent scholarship has shown, portray the interiors of medieval synagogues and present biblical Jews in medieval costume (25.120.929; 32.100.123). These reflect Christian awareness of Jewish practice, and consultation with, or even the use of Jewish artists, to which surviving documentary evidence attests.

    Barbara Drake Boehm
    Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Melanie Holcomb
    Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Produced in cooperation with the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York
    Aquamanile (Handwashing Vessel)
    Northern Germany, late 12th century with later inscription
    9 1/2 x 10 7/8 x 4 1/4 in. (24.1 x 27.6 x 10.8 cm)
    Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York
    Purchase: The Kagan-Katz-Kivel Families Gift, by exchange; Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Committee and Endowment Interest Funds; Henry and Lucy Moses Fund; Henry Herzog Family and Friends Fund in memory of Ruth Herzog; Helen and Jack Cytryn Fund; and Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Fund, 2013-16

    Medieval zoomorphic and anthropomorphic hollow cast vessels known today as aquamanilia survive in large numbers. As the word aquamanile, from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), suggests, the vessels were used for hand washing. Hundreds of aquamanilia cast in copper alloy attest to the popularity of the form from about 1200 through the fifteenth century, and surviving documents indicate that aquamanilia in silver and other materials were used in Church liturgy from the early Middle Ages.

    Aquamanile (Handwashing Vessel)
    Northern Germany, late 12th century with later inscription
    9 1/2 x 10 7/8 x 4 1/4 in. (24.1 x 27.6 x 10.8 cm)
    Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York
    Purchase: The Kagan-Katz-Kivel Families Gift, by exchange; Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Committee and Endowment Interest Funds; Henry and Lucy Moses Fund; Henry Herzog Family and Friends Fund in memory of Ruth Herzog; Helen and Jack Cytryn Fund; and Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Fund, 2013-16

    Medieval zoomorphic and anthropomorphic hollow cast vessels known today as aquamanilia survive in large numbers. As the word aquamanile, from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), suggests, the vessels were used for hand washing. Hundreds of aquamanilia cast in copper alloy attest to the popularity of the form from about 1200 through the fifteenth century, and surviving documents indicate that aquamanilia in silver and other materials were used in Church liturgy from the early Middle Ages.

    Aquamanile (Handwashing Vessel)
    Northern Germany, late 12th century with later inscription
    9 1/2 x 10 7/8 x 4 1/4 in. (24.1 x 27.6 x 10.8 cm)
    Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York
    Purchase: The Kagan-Katz-Kivel Families Gift, by exchange; Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Committee and Endowment Interest Funds; Henry and Lucy Moses Fund; Henry Herzog Family and Friends Fund in memory of Ruth Herzog; Helen and Jack Cytryn Fund; and Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Fund, 2013-16

    Medieval zoomorphic and anthropomorphic hollow cast vessels known today as aquamanilia survive in large numbers. As the word aquamanile, from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), suggests, the vessels were used for hand washing. Hundreds of aquamanilia cast in copper alloy attest to the popularity of the form from about 1200 through the fifteenth century, and surviving documents indicate that aquamanilia in silver and other materials were used in Church liturgy from the early Middle Ages.

    Prato Haggadah, ca. 1300
    Spain
    Hebrew, 85 ff., ca. 210 x 149 mm, modern binding (Daniel Gehnrich, 2006)
    New York, Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, MS 9478
    Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

    The Prato Haggadah is one of the finest examples of an illuminated haggadah from fourteenth-century Spain. As is true of other extant Sephardic copies of this text, which normally is read at the Passover seder, there is no colophon and consequently no indication of the exact date and place of production, or of the person for whom the manuscript was created. The Haggadah was written in square-Sephardic script through folio 53r. Text in accordance with the Italian custom, which probably was added in Italy in the sixteenth century, appears on folio 54r and continues until folio 68r, the conclusion of the written section of the work. This part, written in Italo-Ashkenazic script, never was intended to be decorated.



    Mahzor, second half of 15th century
    Mariano del Buono (Italian, 1433–1504)
    Tempera, ink and gold leaf on parchment with leather binding; Overall 5 7/8 x 4 5/8 x 2 15/16 in. (15 x 11.8 x 5.9 cm)
    New York, Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, MS 8641
    Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

    Attributed to the Illuminator Mariano del Buono, this Mahzor, or prayer book, contains certain prayers that clearly indicate that it was created for a female patron. Mariano del Buono worked for both Christian and Jewish clients. Busts in the margins represent biblical figures, including King David playing the psaltery.

    Haggadah, 1454 (completed in the month of Elul [5]214)
    Scribe and artist: Joel ben Simeon
    Italy
    Ink and gouache on vellum; 59 leaves; 10 13/16 x 8 1/8 in. (27.5 x 20.6 cm)
    New York, Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, from the collection of Mortimer L. Schifff, MS 8279
    Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

    The haggadah is decorated with inventive initial word panels, and zoomorphic and anthropomorphic letters. The iconographic program differs from the other haggadot executed by Joel in that an outstretched arm on folio 26 is the only obvious text illustration in the work. None of the traditional figures, such as the Four Sons, the Exodus from Egypt, or the matzah and maror, is depicted. In the colophon on folio 59, the scribe states that he "wrote, vocalized, and decorated the haggadah." The text was censored by Fr[a] Hipp[olitu]s Ferr[arens]es in 1601. The manuscript is in its original binding of tooled brown leather over wooden boards.