|Cervera Hebrew Bible (click to enlarge)|
The Bible was written and illustrated in 1299-1300 in Cervera, Spain, and is on loan until January 16 from Lisbon’s Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. It’s the second in a series of Hebrew manuscripts that the Met is borrowing from public institutions around the world, a way of making up for the dearth of Jewish art in its own holdings. The pages will be turned once a week.
|Signature page and grammatical compendium (click to enlarge)|
On the right page is a grammatical compendium, with two six-pointed stars at the top and a couple of fierce lions at the bottom. Within the two stars are a lion and a castle, the symbols of the Kingdoms of Leon and Castile in Northern Spain, where, the curators suggest, the unknown patron may have lived. The scribe is identified as Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan.
|Aaron, from a French church|
The Second Commandment, of course, has an injunction against depicting “any likeness that is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth,” and it’s often taught that Judaism interpreted this prohibition literally -- despite visual evidence to the contrary. In the Cervera Bible, for example, there are pages with people, cities, animals, and even narrative stories like Jonah and the whale.
Some scholars think that the presence or absence of Jewish figural imagery, at least in the Middle Ages, is less a matter of belief than of artistic tradition, and the Met exhibit seems to adopt this view. In Southern Spain, one might expect a Hebrew Bible to be decorated with colorful patterns, reflecting the Islamic tradition there. But in Northern Spain, artists drew on French figural traditions, and the Met has surrounded the Cervera Bible with items from France.
The labels are terrific, pointing out similarities between Joseph Hazarfati and his Christian counterparts in representing knights and fantastic animals and their common decoration of margins. It might be argued -- though the labels don’t go this far -- that the idea that Judaism prohibits figural imagery is more recent than the Cervera Bible itself.
Top two images Copyright Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Bottom images and text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert.