“Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts” by BEZALEL NARKISS,

published by The Macmillan Company, 1969


It is impossible to state with any degree of certainty how far back in history the tradition of the illuminated Hebrew manuscripts began.  The oldest extant specimens belong to the Arab environment, in the period corresponding to the European Dark Ages.  But it is out of the question that the practice began at this period; and indications are not lacking which suggest a longer history.  It may well be, in fact, that the illumination of the Hebrew manuscripts goes back even as far as the classical period, although no specimens have survived.

During recent years, archeological discoveries have revealed that it was the practice in the Roman period to adorn synagogues in Palestine with mosaic floors which embodied not only decorative features and animal figures but also graphic representations of Biblical scenes and personalities; while the walls might be covered with frescoes depicting in great detail entire cycles of Bible history, with possibly some special symbolic significance, such as have survived at Dura Europos on the Euphrates.

If this was considered legitimate in the actual place of worship, not withstanding the ostensibly stringent Biblical prohibition of "Graven Images," it is hardly possible that a great degree of anti-iconic strictness was observed as regards objects such as manuscripts, which were intended for domestic use.  According to some, the Dura Europos frescoes referred to above were based on versions which adorned manuscript texts of the Bible.

The earliest extant Christian Bible illuminated manuscripts are, as it happens, of Old Testament books, such as the so-called Vienna Genesis, and are conjectured by some scholars to have been based on Jewish prototypes.  It is significant too that the favorite topics for early Christian religious art were based on "Old" rather than "New" Testament subjects (the sacrifice of Isaac, the story of Jonah, and so on) again perhaps suggesting Jewish prototypes: and it is noteworthy that precisely these subjects reemerge (rather than emerge) as favorite topics in the Jewish manuscript and religious art of the Middle Ages.  Christian illuminated Bible manuscripts in the medieval heyday often elaborate the plain narrative with materials reflecting rabbinic legend; and it is a moot point whether the resulted from an antecedent Jewish art or from the common store of medieval religious folklore.

Finally, there are certain motifs in the illuminated medieval Hebrew Bibles -- The tradition which goes back to the 10th or 11th century-- which seems to carry on the tradition of very remote antiquity, reflected both in the early Jewish monuments of the classical period on the one hand, and in Christian illuminated codices on the other.  The outstanding example of this is the conventional representation of the Sanctuary and its vessels which we see also in the Latin Codex Amiatinus (of the 6th/8th century) -- confessedly based on an Oriental prototype-- and in early Jewish monumental art.  There are indications that the conventional figure of the Evangelist prefixed to early Latin and Greek texts of the Gospels may also have a Jewish antecedent: indeed, the parallel figure in the Codex Amiatinus shows not an Evangelist but Ezra the scribe, apparently wearing the Jewish phylactery -- a feature hardly imaginable in a Christian archetype.

The treatment of this subject in detail would require an entire volume: but enough has been said to indicate that the tradition of Jewish manuscript art of illumination may go back for many centuries before the earliest extant specimens.  Jewish wanderings, coupled with the wholesale destruction of Hebrew books by Christian censors, may be responsible for the disappearance of the entire body of evidence.  But another adverse element was the periodic triumph among the Jews of anti-iconic principles.  The recent rediscovery of elements which demonstrate the representational art among the Jews goes back far longer in time than was previously imagined, must not blind us to the fact that there were periods when the opposite tendency prevailed.  One of these was presumably at the period of the iconoclastic reaction in Byzantium; another probably at the period of the triumph of Islam: for it was obviously impossible for the Jews -- custodians of Holy Writ and the classical opponents of images and image-worship -- to be less rigorous in this respect than their neighbors.



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