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Unlocking the Mysteries of the Medieval Haggadot
The Haggadah—the Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder and by call-and-response, tells the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt—has been translated, reinterpreted, and reprinted more often than any other Jewish text. And haggadot have been presented in as many forms as there are creators. Among contemporary haggadot alone there are vegetarian, feminist, LGBTQ, Holocaust, hipster, and secular ones.
On the cusp of the Passover holiday, we talked to Professor of Religion Marc Michael Epstein, who is fascinated by medieval haggadot—manuscripts that were carefully illustrated by hand for an individual person or family. He has made the analysis of their makers’ intent the focus of his research. In his book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, published last year by Yale University Press, Epstein offers a fresh take on four haggadot that are as beautifully rendered as they are mysterious in nature.
Among the questions Epstein seeks to answer is: Just why does the earliest known surviving illuminated haggadah, created in Mainz, Germany around 1300, show Jewish characters with birds’ heads?
It hasn’t been easy to unlock such mysteries. “For years, the way the history of Jewish art was written was by scholars keeping their cards very close to their chests, controlling access to the manuscripts in libraries and museums, only showing the public what they wanted them to see,” explains Epstein. His research, he says, “resembles nothing more than it does a detective story. It has all the proper elements—fortuitous discoveries, trails of clues, and speculations.”
“Scholars have puzzled over these depictions for over a hundred years,” Epstein says, and the meaning of the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, is “in its own way as much of an enigma as the Pyramids of Giza or Mona Lisa’s smile.” But the scholar’s theories have found traction.
The first clue to his interpretation is that the characters’ beaks are supplemented with mammalian ears and beards so that they look like griffins, the eagle-lion hybrid of legend. These associations are not so unusual, says Epstein, as the cherubs in the Jerusalem Temple were eagle-human-lion hybrids, and Jewish literature frequently compares Jews to bold lions and swift eagles, especially those who killed themselves rather than be converted by Crusaders. In this context, the figures can be seen as the combination of the Lion of Judah (the symbol of the Jews) with the Imperial eagle, since the Jews were regarded as servi camerae regis (“servants of the royal chamber”) in the Holy Roman Empire.
It’s not just the Jewish characters whose faces were obscured, however. Egyptians are shown with blank human faces. “They are literally effaced, turning the sensibility of the manuscript into a political one, since the ancient enemies of the Israelites were equated with their medieval counterparts,” Epstein says.
So why the pervasive “facelessness?” In the strictest interpretation of the laws of Judaism, both two- and three-dimensional representations of the human form are considered idolatrous. “The figures are clearly an attempt to comply with the prohibition in Jewish law against complete pictorial representations of humans,” Epstein concludes.
“Facelessness” aside, the distinctions made between the various griffin-headed Jewish figures in the manuscript offer intriguing details about Jewish culture around the turn of the 14th century. Epstein says the characters represent the various “types” that would have been known to the audience of the day—including Jews who worked at the royal or local court and Jews who had become Christians to better their position in society. “The griffin-headed Jews of the Birds’ Head Haggadah seem to reveal something of the spiritual self-perception and aspirations of medieval Jews,” he notes.
The Medieval Haggadah also covers the Golden Haggadah from Barcelona, created between 1320 and 1330, along with two Spanish "siblings"—the Rylands Haggadah and its purported “brother,” made with similar styles but with distinctive differences between 1330 and 1340.
Professor Epstein’s itinerary has gotten a lot busier since the publication of the book. He’s just returned from the Jewish Museum in Prague, which celebrated the history of haggadot—from the publication of the first illustrated haggadah in Hebrew 500 years ago to the 2012 publication of The New American Haggadah, a collaboration between the authors Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander. And later this month, he’s off to the Met to present a lecture on the Rylands Haggadah.
Who needs rest?
Haggadah image: Datan and Aviram from the Birds' Head Haggadah, © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, photo by Ardon Bar-Hama.
Posted Thursday, April 5, 2012