Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cervera Hebrew Bible at the Met: Not What You Learned in Sunday School

Cervera Hebrew Bible (click to enlarge)
A beautiful medieval Hebrew Bible officially goes on display tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum, and it just might get you re-thinking what you learned about Judaism’s rejection of figural imagery. 

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)
Right now it’s opened to the end of the book.  On the left the entire page is given over to the signature of the illuminator, Joseph Hazarfati, or Joseph the Frenchman -- remarkable, considering that the names of most illuminators are unknown.  In Hebrew it says, “I, Joseph Hazarfati, illustrated and completed this book.”  But look closely, and you see that the letters are actually composed of fanciful animals.

Signature page, detail: Hebrew letters as fanciful animals (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
There’s plenty to delight and surprise in this exhibit – the Bible is the centerpiece in a display of Christian Bibles and precious objects from the Met’s collection, and the whole is flanked by large limestone statues of Moses and Aaron that were once part of a New Testament scene on a church in France.  All the objects date from roughly the same period and many shed light on the artistic traditions Joseph Hazarfati drew on.

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.