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December 20, 2012 - Image 53

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2012-12-20

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world and the consequences of change,
noting how the eBook "has dramatically
changed our world:'
In light of how the physical form of a
book is so speedily evolving, these man-
uscripts, with their gold leaf, ornament-
ed letters, stylized designs, masterful
calligraphy and parchment pages, speak
to the timeless relationships between
words and images.
An illustrated portolan map (mark-
ing coastlines and ports) of the
Mediterranean and Black seas highlights
the names of the main sites of medieval
Hebrew manuscript production — in
Italy, Ashkenaz (Germany, England, parts
of France) and Sepharad (Spain and
Portugal) in Europe. The place names are
written in fine, tiny calligraphy.
The map was made in 1575 in
Majorca, where most cartographers
were Jews or conversos. Nahson points
out that this sailor's map represents the
world as the cartographers knew it, and
also the connections between geography
and religion, with an image of the split-
ting of the Red Sea in one corner and
the Virgin and Christ figures in another.
Even secular art of the time, she says,
was embedded with religious meaning.
Throughout the exhibition, books are
placed in thoughtful juxtaposition with
others, creating, as Nahson says, "books
in conversation. Cultures are talking
through the books, seeing those pairings
and trios together, sometimes for the
first time
The first three illuminated manu-
scripts in the specially designed wood
and steel showcase are a Hebrew Bible
from Spain; a legal text from Italy; and
a mahzor, or holiday prayer book, from
Germany. Each is typical of its medieval
time and place.
The Spanish Bible (c. 1257) is illus-
trated with Islamic-inspired images and
design with an image of the castle sym-
bol of Castile, referring to the Christian
kingdom. In the volume from Arba'ah
Turim (1438), an important halachic
code, the bucolic scene set against the
Tuscan hills — by a Christian artist —
includes an image of God in human
form, very rare in a Hebrew manuscript.
The mahzor from Germany — from
1257, it is the earliest known and dated
illustrated mahzor — is puzzling as
it's open to a page with an illuminated
panel featuring an upside-down hunting
scene. Perhaps the Christian artist didn't
know Hebrew and was unaware of his
placement, or perhaps it's an allusion to
Purim with its story of reversals, when
the piyyut, or hymn, is recited.
The colors on these pages are deep
reds, blues and greens, and the gold still
shines. They have not been overexposed
to light over the centuries: These are
works that look remarkably good for
their age.

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Cultures 'Talk' from page 48

One of the most magnificent manu-
scripts here is the Kennicott Bible, made
by a Jewish scribe and a Jewish artist in
Corunna, Spain, in 1476. The book is
open to pages that evoke Islamic imag-
ery, and is set next to a 16th-century
Koran from Iran open to an intricate
design known as a carpet page, in still
brilliant cobalt blue and gold.
On a nearby wall, all 926 pages of the
Kennicott Bible can be viewed digitally
(and also are also accessible on the
museum's website). The scribe, Moses
ibn Zabara, had a steady, masterful hand
— if one zooms in and enlarges the text,
he'll see only the slightest variations
between letters.
Nahson speaks passionately of the
individual works of art and also the wider
story of Christians and Jews coming
together over close readings of texts. She
emphasizes a fertile literary and artistic
exchange between people of different
beliefs during the late-Middle Ages.
The exhibition is based on an exhibit
prepared for and exhibited at the
Bodleian Library at Oxford University,
which houses one of the most important
collections of medieval Hebrew manu-
scripts in the world.
Sir Thomas Bodley, a Christian
Hebraist and humanist, re-established
the university library in 1598 (it had
been ransacked) upon his retirement as
ambassador under Queen Elizabeth I.
After his death in 1613, the library con-
tinued his tradition of Hebraic acquisi-
tions. In the 1890s, 5,000 fragments
from the Cairo Genizah were acquired;
several of those are on display here.
The exhibition includes a miniature
portrait of Sir Bodley that is inside an
ivory case; it was painted the year he
founded the library, and the tiny gold
letters that identify the year of its cre-
ation (1598) and the age of the subject
(54) seem to reflect his interest in illu-
minated manuscripts.
Nearby is another curious piece,
Queen Elizabeth's Book of Oxford, pre-
sented to the queen in 1566 when she
visited Oxford. A leafy Tree of Life is set
above a poem in Latin about the impor-
tance of Hebrew learning, urging her
to continue the financial support of the
study of Hebrew language as her father,
Henry VIII, had done. "Do you see how
this tree flourishes when its roots are
secure?" the poet writes. ❑




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"Crossing Borders: Manuscripts
from the Bodleian" runs through
Feb. 3 at the Jewish Museum,
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Many images from the exhibition
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org . For more information, call
(212) 423-3200.

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