March 22, 2012

Medieval Haggadot, Contemporary Audiences

Posted by Marc Michael Epstein

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Medieval Haggadot, Contemporary Audiences

by Marc Michael Epstein

Vassar College

The Haggadah has a long and distinguished history. And, in a wide spectrum of times and climes, it has been a book lavishly illustrated. Can one, after all conceive of a ritual moment more central to the Jewish experience as a whole than the Seder experience? Can one conceive of the Seder without the haggadah? And although they tend to be taken for granted can one conceive of the haggadah without the illustrations that accompany it?

Why the illustrations? Well, most discerning and aesthetically minded people tend to implicitly understand that the mandate to "expand upon the recounting of the Exodus" is not limited to text. A beautiful book with engaging, even mysterious illustrations can enhance the experience of putting oneself in the very shoes of those who hastily traversed the borders of the Land of Egypt on the night of the Exodus, fleeing the bondage of Egypt’s Pharaoh for the service of Sinai’s God.

Moreover, on the Seder night, one obligated to view oneself as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt. And Jews did so, graphically, in their illustrated haggadot, putting themselves into the picture, making the persons and places of the haggadah’s narrative their own.

The haggadah is a book for all seasons, for every individual. And in this sense, each haggadah from the most ancient to the most au courant and avant-garde is a “contemporary” haggadah. But lets be honest: There ARE some core values exemplified by contemporary haggadot that we tend to understand as characteristically postmodern and very exciting.

These include reflexivity and self-referentiality, meaning the ability not only to see ourselves in the story, but to see the story as applying to our particular individual circumstances. The story becomes our story, the tears of struggle become the tears of our struggle, the exhilaration of freedom becomes the exhilaration of our freedom, and the story becomes one about race, gender, oppression, homophobia, etc. etc.

As postmodern people, we also pride ourselves on the fact that our haggadot give us the critical distance to appraise and critique established religious, social and political norms.

The contemporary haggadah is a highly specialized affair, there are thousands out there, each aimed at a very particular constituency: There are vegetarian haggadot, secular haggadot, queer, feminist, gay and lesbian haggadot, hippy haggadot, historical haggadot, Holocaust Haggadot, hipster haggadot.  This highly individuated approach, in which every haggadah is the haggadah of a particular constituency is a highly contemporary, postmodern approach.

This is somewhat ironic for me as a medievalist, of course, since all these contemporary haggadot are mass-produced, whereas each medieval manuscript haggadah was lovingly illuminated by hand for an individual person or family.  The problem is that we cant tell very much about the intimate context of medieval haggadot, particularly those for which there is no provenance information (information about the origins of the manuscripts). What they may have meant to the individuals and families who commissioned them—the very information so crucial to us as contemporary viewers—seems to be irretrievably lost.

Even worse—it has long been the opinion of scholars of renown that medieval haggadot reflect the taste of the “Christian masters of the Jews,” and that many were likely illuminated by non-Jews, the whole project of determining what such a manuscript meant to the people who commissioned, viewed and treasured it seems doomed to failure. What, really, is there to say about such a work that will appeal to contemporary viewers, hungry as they are for haggadot that reflect particular, individual, intimate concerns? How much is there to appeal to them in what they might imagine to be highly conservative, stiff and stuffy, enigmatically impenetrable medieval book?

The fact is, there is a great deal to see and to learn. In my new book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, ( which has recently, I am pleased to report, sold out its first Yale University Press run after a stunning and humbling review as one of the “Best Books of 2011” in the London Times Literary Supplement, I explore four magnificent and enigmatic illuminated haggadot with an eye, specifically, to the issues that most intrigue contemporary audiences.

I discuss the earliest known illuminated haggadah, the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah, made in the Rhineland Valley around 1300, now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of the fact that in this book many of the faces on the human figures depicted throughout are replaced with those of birds. I discuss the ways in which Jews saw and projected themselves by means of these images.

Then, there are the Rylands Haggadah (now in Manchester) and its so-called Brother (in the British Library), both illuminated in Barcelona in the mid-14th century, and previously noted for their “nearly identical iconography.” Contrarian that I am, I examine their differences and learn a great deal from them about the nuances. It turns out that one of these “twins” is stridently political, socially critical, and religiously somewhat radical, while the other is much more conservative and quietistic. Clearly, although they were produced in nearly the same place and time, they emerge  from entirely different socio-political contexts in spite of their apparent similarities.

But it is the most beautiful example, the Golden Haggadah, the one that appears on the cover of the book, that I enjoyed writing about most. Much of the scholarly attention focused upon this magnificent manuscript (made in Spain, probably Barcelona, around 1320, and now in the British Library’s collection) in fact accrues to it by virtue of its high style. In fact, the Golden Haggadah has often received the high compliment of being described as being devoid of all but the most superficial distinctive elements marking it as intended for a Jewish audience. “Funny —in other words—you don’t look Jewish.” Non-Jewish taste, most likely non-Jewish artists. Is there even a Jewish story here?

Part of my detective work in The Medieval Haggadah has been to demonstrate the inherent Jewishness of this work in spite of its manifestly non- or un-Jewish appearance. It may have been created by Jews or by non-Jews working for Jews. We don’t know. But one thing we do know is that this manuscript, which was very expensive, was created by whoever created it Jew or Gentile under the very direct guidance of Jews, some quite learned. The Golden Haggadah was the equivalent—both in price and in patron-generated input—of a postmodern architect-designed house! And the patrons were definitely Jews, so we are indisputably looking at a collaboration—a close one between—the designers and those who executed the design.

My book demonstrates how deeply the Golden Haggadah’s illustrations are informed by Jewish exegesis and rabbinic midrash, and how the “authorship” (the patrons and their rabbinic advisors) went beyond the mere literal illustration of scripture and midrash to add their own “special something” to the illustrations in the way of indigenous, contemporary political and social and even theological commentary. In this sense, the art becomes commentary, which, in many cases responds to or even subverts traditional literary commentaries.

In fact, I’m even able to show how even the very structure of the manuscript how the details of the illuminations are physically oriented in space is evidence of a concerted, detailed and Jewishly sophisticated plan.

I also discuss the ways in which the authorship of this manuscript adopts and adapts motifs from the wider culture, which certainly makes sense if you think about it, since the style of Jewish art tends to reflect the style of contemporary art in all times and places. But what happens when Jews and Christians use nearly identical images to tell very different stories? When Moses’ flight from Midian to Egypt is garbed in the same clothes—so to speak—as the image of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ so-called “Flight into Egypt”?

As Catalan Jews of the 1320s, the authorship of the Golden Haggadah were indistinguishable in many aspects of their external appearance and material culture from their Christian neighbors. In all their stylistic externals, they appeared not as distinctively Jewish, but as members of the wider society. But what they DO with the art is very different, and, as I argue in the case of this image, sometimes comes as a direct response or a challenge to the way the oh-so-similar image is employed in Christian culture.

Now that’s all very nice. But I’ll tell you a secret: I may study medieval haggadot, but I am a contemporary Jew. So I’m less interested in art or even in the haggadah than I am in people—Jews, specifically—and the individual, particular, and intimate concerns of those Jews. Who were the Jews who commissioned this manuscript? What were their lives like? Why was the manuscript made, and for whom?

The Golden Haggadah is an orphan manuscript. That is to say that we totally lack external information about who commissioned the manuscript and for what purpose, so no scholar has ventured to say more. But when I look at the manuscript, I see things and I cant keep silent.

In the book I go out on a limb beyond the normal bonds of documentary evidence into the realm of speculation (although the speculation is grounded in over three hundred contextualizing footnotes). But my research resembles nothing more than it does a detective story in the truest sense. It has all the proper elements—fortuitous discovery, a trail of clues, a speculation. True, it lacks real resolution, but give me a break— we’re dealing with a case that by any contemporary standard is “cold.” In another decade, the protagonists will have been gone 800 years.

Here’s the case: In looking over the structure of the manuscript, I began to notice something strange about the iconography. The Golden Haggadah is replete with no less than forty-six prominent depictions of women, and the biblical sequence culminates with a depiction of seven women in the illustration of the Song of Miriam and women and girls prominently involved in the scenes of Passover preparation. Scholars have placed no particular emphasis to the number of women or their prominence in these depictions. They have simply assumed that the women depicted in the Golden Haggadah simply represent “unremarkable actors necessarily demanded by the narratives depicted.”

Or were they?

My thesis in The Medieval Haggadah is that the Golden Haggadah was made for Catalan Jewish woman of around 1320, a woman who had experienced a particularly trying personal circumstance. My evidence? The internal iconography of the book, its pictorial preoccupations, a later ownership inscription, themes that appear again and again, even the representation of a particular woman.  Can I “prove” this with certainty? Of course not.  Does that bother me? Not at all. All I aim to achieve in this book is to come somewhat closer to what you and I—contemporary viewers that we are—crave to know about the intimate (in this case very intimate) context of the creation of this manuscript and the others I lovingly describe in the book.

Our haggadot are feminist, emotionally and spiritually questing, concerned with ethics, with loss, with restoration, with relevance. So when I discover forty-six women—hitherto unrecognized and unacknowledged in both their pain and their joy—calling out to me from the pages of a magnificent medieval book I cannot simply be silent about them in the face of a lack of conclusive external proof. Ought I go to my grave without ever sharing with you what I think they are trying to tell us?

You know, 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. My new book bursts all this open —it provides complete facsimiles of all the manuscripts I discuss, in full color and in full size—so that the reader does not merely receive sound bites. My hope is that the boldness of my speculations and my openness with the material will urge other scholars and, even more importantly, perhaps— readers like you—to add their own voices to the discussion, and to be able to glimpse the lives of the people who made these wonderful and amazing books.