In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Manuscript Illumination

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Cultural Interaction
  • Micrography

Medieval Studies Jewish Manuscript Illumination
Katrin Kogman-Appel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0158


Illuminated manuscripts began to appear in Jewish society in the 10th century in the Middle East and around the 1230s in Iberia, France, the German Lands, and Italy. Whereas the colophons in some of the books indicate that the illuminations and illustrations were done by Jewish artists whose names are known to us, other manuscripts indicate, rather, that they were embellished by Christian miniaturists. Hence the definition of “Jewish (Book) Art” in the Middle Ages does not solely depend on the artist’s identity. For the purpose of this survey it refers not only to illuminations that were actually done by Jews but to art made by and for Jews. The first Hebrew illuminated manuscript to attract scholarly attention was the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Sefardi manuscript from the 1330s. It was eventually published in 1898, and from that time on scholars have utilized various methodological approaches to study and analyze medieval Jewish book art. Whereas the bibliographical approach was prevalent during the earlier decades, since the 1950s narrative art has been studied primarily by means of Kurt Weitzmann’s recension theory, Weitzmann’s method is based on the assumption that every narrative image cycle was necessarily copied from an early predecessor, and that it is the aim of the art historian to reconstruct a prototypical version. Weitzmann’s methodology was also the dominant approach in the study of Christian manuscript painting. The more recent discourse about “New Art History” began to shape research into medieval manuscript illumination in the early 1990s, and it soon influenced the study of Hebrew manuscripts. Questions such as patronage, function, reception, and others entered the discourse. The earliest surviving example of a Hebrew illuminated manuscript is a Pentateuch fragment from Egypt, dated 929, and several Middle Eastern Bibles and other texts were produced during the subsequent centuries. The decoration of these books was rooted in the tradition of Islamic book illumination and did not include any figurative art. A similar tradition of aniconic book decoration appeared later in post-reconquest Iberia. In parallel, beginning in the 1230s, a rich figurative and narrative art began to develop in Christian Europe, including Bibles, prayer books, haggadot (the liturgical text for the Passover ceremony), compilations of the ritual law, and miscellanies. Hardly any Hebrew illuminated manuscripts from the Byzantine world have survived, the only extant works being a few haggadot from the 16th century, which have not yet been studied in any depth.

General Overviews

The first publication on a Hebrew illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah, was the result of a joint “orientalist” and art-historical effort (von Schlosser and Müller 1898) and included also a general survey of illuminated Hebrew books known at the time. Since the 1960s several general overviews on Hebrew manuscript illumination have been published, most notably Narkiss 1969, Metzger 1973, and Metzger and Metzger 1982, Gutmann 1978, Schubert and Schubert 1984. These works focus on the phenomenon of figural art within a Jewish context against the background of the biblical prohibition against creating such art, and on an initial classification of the material according to regional schools. See also Sed-Rajna 1983, Sirat 2013, and Beit-Arié 2013.

  • Beit-Arié, Malachi. Kodikologia ivrit: Tipologia shel malakhet hasefer haivri ve’itsuvo ceyemei-habeinayim behebet histori vehashva’ati mitokh gishah kamutit vmeyusedet al ti’ud kitve-hayad betsiunei ta’arikh. Jerusalem: National Library of Israel, 2013.

    Malachi Beit-Arié developed the field of Hebrew codicology and established a typology along chronological and regional lines. His findings are based on the documentation of hundreds of dated manuscripts from all periods of the Middle Ages.

  • Gutmann, Joseph. Hebrew Manuscript Painting. New York: Braziller, 1978.

    This survey contains a short introduction to some major themes of Hebrew manuscript painting followed by color plates and descriptions of several sample manuscripts.

  • Metzger, Mendel. La Haggada enluminée: Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscripts enluminés et decorés de la Haggada du XIIIième au XVIième siècle. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1973.

    A detailed study of haggadah illustration from the 13th to the 16th century, this book focuses on attribution, as well as on thematic iconographic discussions concerning the various haggadah cycles. It also includes a detailed catalogue of haggadot with short descriptions and basic data.

  • Metzger, Mendel, and Thérèse Metzger. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1982.

    A richly illustrated catalogue of images from illuminated manuscripts approached as a visual source of information on medieval Jewish life, costume, ritual, knowledge, and religion. The authors’ observations are not anchored in any written reference related to these matters. Contains a useful catalogue of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.

  • Narkiss, Bezalel. Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts. Jerusalem and New York: Encyclopedia Judaica, 1969.

    This volume was the first general survey of medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Its introduction, which contains a concise discussion of several different schools of manuscript painting in the Middle East, Iberia, central Europe, and Italy, is followed by short descriptions of several sample manuscripts. (Revised ed. in Hebrew, Jerusalem: Keter, 1984.)

  • Schubert, Kurt, and Ursula Schubert. Jüdische Buchkunst. Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck—und Verlaganstalt, 1984.

    This survey in German follows a different concept than the earlier volumes by Narkiss 1969 and Gutmann 1978, and offers in-depth discussions of most of the included subjects. Its overall approach was designed to create iconographic links between late Antique art, both Jewish and Christian, and the medieval medium of manuscript illumination.

  • Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle. Le mahzor enluminé. Les voies de formation d’un programme iconographique. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1983.

    Ten years after Metzger’s publication in 1973, which for the first time centered on a particular type of book, Sed-Rajna embarked on a similar project with a focus on the Ashkenazi mahzor. In its overall approach her discussion was aimed primarily at the delineation of iconographic traditions and the discovery of possible, mostly hypothetical, model sources.

  • Sirat, Colette. Kitve-hayad shel yemei-habeinayim: Mavo latalmid. Beer Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought, 2013.

    A detailed introduction to the field of manuscript study this publication offers not only a gateway to technical knowledge on paleography and codicology but also a wealth of information on the different types of manuscripts, periodization, materials, and more.

  • von Schlosser, Julius, and David H. Müller. Die Sarajewo-Haggada. Eine spanisch-jüdische Bilderhandschrift des Mittelalters. Vienna: A. Hölder, 1898.

    This book was the first to offer an in-depth study of a particular Hebrew illuminated manuscript following the acquisition of the Sarajevo Haggadah by the National Museum in Sarajevo; its authors also argue in favor of its attribution in Iberia, and a date in the 14th century. An essay by David Kaufmann, a well-known collector of Hebrew manuscripts in Budapest, places the haggadah within the context of several other haggadah manuscripts known at the time.

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