The Glory of a Rare Medieval Hebrew Bible

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A remarkable testament to the cross-cultural influences in the Golden Age of medieval Spain, this splendid illuminated Hebrew Bible is an exceptionally important exemplar of medieval book arts and literary culture. Dating from the first half of the 14th century in Castile, it features lavishly painted borders and intricately penned micrographic decoration. One of only three complete decorated Hebrew Bibles from Spain to come to auction in the past century, this extraordinary work also bears the distinction of being one of only six such manuscripts held in private hands. Click ahead to discover the story behind this rare Hebrew Bible.

Important Judaica
20 December | New York

The Glory of a Rare Medieval Hebrew Bible

  • Collaboration
    A manuscript project of such immense scope and quality represents the collective efforts of craftsmen, artists and scribes, including a parchmenter (an artisan who prepared the parchment), a principal scribe (sofer), an illuminator, a vocalizer (nakdan) who added vowel marks to the text, a masorator (masran) responsible for detailed marginal notes to ensure the correct transmission of the text, and a bookbinder. Most, but not necessarily all of these masters were Jews.



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Scribe
     



    In Hebrew manuscripts, the scribe was responsible not only for copying the text but also for planning the book’s layout and design. Throughout this work, the main hand is consistent, indicating that the biblical text was copied by a single scribe – a project that would have taken him approximately one year to complete. After the scribe finished the text, the vowels were added by a vocalizer using a very finely-cut pen, in this case in an ink that is warmer in colour.



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Micrography
     



    Micrography is an embellishment whereby an expert scribe fashions minute script into ornamental patterns. In this work, the copyist has used the text of the Masorah penned in the margins to create decorative designs on the pages of the codex. This volume is profusely adorned with elaborate floral and geometric micrographic ornamentation.



     



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Size and Format
    Certain physical features of this codex allow scholars to determine its date and place of origin. Bibles from Castile are relatively broad, and tend toward a square or nearly square format. The arrangement of this volume’s text columns is also notable – in earlier periods, their text was arranged in two columns, not in three as would later become the norm in Spain. This volume exhibits both traits, thereby supporting its localization and dating to Castile in the first half of the 14th century.



     



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Parchment
    The parchment prepared for this volume is extremely fine, smooth, even, and bright with no blemishes. Its quality is similar to that used for contemporary fine European illustrated manuscripts.



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Illumination
    Within the text, the principal scribe left spaces for the addition of illumination, the application of gold leaf to further adorn the manuscript. The illuminator, whose work is in a Gothic style, added frames around the first sixteen pages, alternating between raised and flat work, and also included initial word panels for some of the biblical books at the beginning of the volume (Genesis through Joshua). 



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Decoration and Islamic Influence
    Even though illuminated Hebrew Bibles created in Spain were produced after the Christian reconquest (circa 1085–1249) in cities and towns under Christian rule, their decoration is dominated by a visual language that was shared throughout the Islamic world. Strapwork, interlace, and knot patterns are all found in Christian, Islamic and Jewish manuscripts and book bindings. This manuscript’s lavish painted and micrographic decoration reflects the artistic interactions between the different cultures of medieval Iberia, a phenomenon referred to as convivencia, or cultural coexistence.



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

  • Figuration
    The near total absence of narrative and figurative images in the vast majority of Hebrew Bibles from Spain is particularly striking and mirrors the Islamic tradition for the illumination of Qur’ans. Interestingly, this Bible is mainly faithful to that practice, except for a few stylized human faces incorporated into the decorative scheme of the final folios at the end of the manuscript – one of its remarkable features.



     



     



    Important Judaica
    20 December | New York

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