The Study of what may most conveniently be termed Jewish art (though in some cases it is not Jewish, and in some it is not art), begun only a very short while ago, is now making rapid strides. A substantial bibliography of Jewish art by the late L. A. Mayer appeared a few years back; half a dozen medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts have been published in facsimile; and now there has appeared one of the most important and certainly the most perplexing of all—the so called Bird's Head Haggadah of the Bezalel National Art Museum in Jerusalem, edited by M. Spitzer.1 This perfectly-reproduced color facsimile is accompanied by an introductory volume with an essay by Meyer Schapiro and contributions by E. D. Goldschmidt on the text, H. L. C. Jaffe on the illustrations, and Bezalel Narkiss on the iconography. With this accumulation of material as well as of incidental illustrations of the subject (including over 50 in black and white in the introductory volume, culled from other sources), it is timely to reconsider the question of Jewish representational art in the Middle Ages, and the quite extraordinary light that is thrown on it by this remarkable publication.
There was a time not so long ago when it was generally held that the over-strict interpretation of one of the Commandments (the Second of them according to the Jewish traditional division, the Third according to the Christian) as well as of other passages of the Pentateuch, meant that representational art of any sort whatsoever was rigorously forbidden to strictly observant Jews. The most telling passage was as a matter of fact not in the Ten Commandments but in the elaboration of this point in Deuteronomy (4:16-18), which forbids in the most uncompromising terms the manufacture of “the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the heaven, the likeness of any thing that creepeth upon the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.” The implication was of course that such likenesses should not be made for purposes of worship. But the text does not say so; and there can be no doubt that the manufacture of such “images,” whether of man, beast, fish, or fowl (let alone the heavenly bodies), was contrary to the express injunction of Mosaic Law. That Moses himself seems to have found a loophole in his own code when he ordered the manufacture of the Cherubim, as did Solomon after him (who added brazen oxen to support the great Temple laver) was beside the point: God knew what he was about.
The matter was quite clear. Strictly Orthodox Jews had nothing to do with images, graven or otherwise, whether of man or beast. When I was a small boy—in the early years of this century—it was accepted that the old restrictions had weakened. Enlightened Jews like us, who had progressed so far as to carry our handkerchiefs on the Sabbath, did not scruple to have our photographs taken. But in the East End (as we in London so quaintly called what was known in New York as the East Side) there were still old-type Jews who refused such indulgence; and even in our own circle, some pretentious art-connoisseurs made sure that the sculptures they owned were somewhat mutilated so that they would not present a perfect image. (It is hardly necessary to say that this was before the days of modern art, in which such precaution is superfluous.)
As a corollary it was universally accepted that in antiquity, when all Jews were Orthodox, they would have had nothing to do with representational art. I well recall the occasion when a Jewish academic friend of mine in Florence attempted to dissuade me from buying what appeared to me to be (as it was) the back of a Hannukah lamp of the Renaissance period, showing Judith bearing the head of Holophernes. At that time, he said, no Jew would have been guilty of such a strident breach of biblical precept, least of all for a religious object. The general impression regarding this was heightened by the fact so clearly established by Josephus (who is generally reliable except when his own interests are involved, when he displays himself like so many of us as an arch-prevaricator) that in his own day, in the first century of the Christian era, the Jews of Palestine would go to any extreme, even at the risk of their lives, to exclude from Jerusalem the graven images which their Roman masters desired to introduce—not only for purposes of worship. On the other hand, we have evidence, both literary and archaeological, which suggests the contrary. (I do not wish to enter here into any details, which may be found readily now in various standard books.)
The reason for the contradiction does not seem to me to be very difficult to find. On the one hand, there was in this matter throughout history a certain ebb and flow: at times the Jews did in fact oppose fiercely all manner of images, at times their opposition weakened. They were influenced by imitation on the one hand, by revulsion on the other. Sometimes, when their relations with their neighbors were tolerably friendly and there was no fear that the purity of Jewish worship would be sullied, the Jews followed to some extent the aesthetic standards and practices of their environment in matters of representational art, with certain reservations. Other times, when relations were strained, and the religious pressure of the environment was strongly felt, there was a period of revulsion, and the biblical precepts were stringently enforced. And I must admit that I have the impression that in the period of Roman domination, at the close of the period of the Second Temple, another factor came into play besides piety—contrariness: rather like the contrariness of Palestinian Jewish leaders of nineteen centuries after who did not mind driving to the coast for a swim on the Sabbath, but raised expressions of pained religious indignation when the British authorities dared to drive them off in police vans on the day of rest. Their remote ancestors perhaps did not mind what ornaments they might have at home, whether or not Moses would have approved, but their religious susceptibilities became strangely sensitive when the foreign oppressor did precisely the same.
However this may be, we now know that at a somewhat later period of classical antiquity the anti-iconic (i.e., anti-image) principle dwindled or disappeared among the Jews: not only as regards secular but also as regards religious purposes. The first solid evidence of this that emerged was the mosaic floor of the 6th-century synagogue at Beth Alpha in Galilee which depicts, among other things, pretty awkwardly it is true, the sacrifice of Isaac (as well as, incidentally, the Four Seasons and the Chariot of the Sun, driven by what looks very much like Apollo). It is fairly certain in the light of subsequent discoveries that something similar, centering on some biblical episode or the other, was a normal decorative feature of the Palestinian synagogues of the period. What makes this most remarkable is that such floor-decoration falls quite clearly in the category of “a stone of gazing to prostrate oneself thereon” which is expressly envisaged by the Mosaic prohibition (Leviticus 26:1).
Subsequent to this was the amazing discovery of the 3rd-century synagogue at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, its walls (still standing in some cases to the original height) covered with frescoes depicting scenes of Bible history. There does not seem to be much doubt that this was a usual feature in synagogues of the period, probably in Europe as well as in Asia: the frescoes preserved in some of the Roman catacombs are incidental proofs of this practice. Moreover, it appears that four-dimensional as well as two-dimensional art was sometimes present—that is, “graven images” in the full biblical sense of the term. There is evidence of this in some of the carved decorative features which adorn the limestone walls of certain of the ancient synagogues of the classical period in Galilee, as well as in stone sarcophagi both in Palestine and Italy. A statue of the ruler stood in one of the fashionable Babylonian synagogues frequented by the most pious and learned of the Jewish scholars of the period: since they were on friendly terms with and well treated by the government, nobody minded much, whereas in 1st-century Palestine a parallel attempt nearly led to armed insurrection on the part of the indignant patriots.
Of course, in the religious codes both of the period and later one can find stringent prohibitions of plastic art which would tend to confirm the prevalent view that Judaism sternly suppressed representational art. I have been asked by lecture audiences how in view of this it was possible that art could have emerged among the Jews. My normal reply is somewhat facetious: the codes also forbid conversation during the synagogue service, but it is a matter of normal observation that nevertheless such conversation does take place. Or to be more academic: the codes forbid the interruption of the basic sections of the synagogue service by the insertion of hymns, but in the Ashkenazi service in particular on certain occasions such hymns at the most solemn moments have become the distinctive feature of the liturgy. Rather than establishing a rule of conduct, historians inform us, medieval legislation sets down an ideal; in certain respects the same is true of the medieval Jewish religious codes.
If representational art existed in the synagogue of the classical period, there was no reason at all why there should not have been representational art in the home as well—both for domestic purposes and for para-religious use—and its existence may be taken as certain. Hence it may logically be deduced from the existence of the synagogue frescoes illustrating the Bible, such as those that have been preserved in Dura Europos, that there were also decorated or illuminated manuscripts of the Bible (though this did not of course apply to the Torah Scrolls used in public services). Indeed, some scholars believe that the Dura frescoes are, in origin as it were, manuscript illuminations transferred from the Book to the walls of the place of worship. Certain of the oldest Graeco-Latin illuminated Bible texts are believed to be based on these Jewish prototypes, or even perhaps to have been made in the first instance for Jewish use. Thus, the existence of illuminated manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in the classical period hardly seems to be in question, though none has been preserved.
What happened afterward is a matter of discussion. It is clear that in the immediate post-classical period there was in certain areas a revulsion against this pictorial art. This was due in part to the iconoclastic movement in Byzantium, in part to the rise of Islam with its pronounced iconophobic tendencies: for obviously, the Jews—the classical opponents of iconolatry—could not permit themselves to be outdone by their parvenu neighbors. Hence, the first illuminated Hebrew manuscripts (in fact, Bible manuscripts) now extant, dating to about the year 1,000, are not illuminated in the fully accepted sense (i.e. illustrated with scenes from the scriptural story) but decorated—sometimes very elaborately and very beautifully indeed, ocassionally with remarkable anticipations of abstract art. These decorations, moreover, do not contain any representation of man or beast and they generally are not incorporated into the text, but figure on a series of superb preliminary pages. This tradition of non-representational illumination continued in the Middle East, and thereafter in Islamic or Islamized Spain, for many years; its traces can be discerned in some areas even at the time of the invention of printing, after which the tradition of manuscript art declined.
Outside the Islamic world, Hebrew illuminated manuscripts begin to emerge, so far as extant evidence is concerned, a good deal later, that is, around the mid-13th century, and in the first instance in the Franco-German orbit. But these are of a different type, closer to what we today consider illuminated manuscripts: that is, they include representations of scenes (generally biblical scenes) embodying without scruple human forms and faces. Nor is the subject matter confined to the Bible codices, as in the Orient, but extends also to legal texts and liturgical works—especially the ever-popular domestic service for the Passover eve, the Haggadah. (In due course, this usage became hesitantly established in Spain and Italy, but this is beyond our present scope.) It is noteworthy that this was in the Franco-German orbit—that is, in an area in which, unlike the world of Byzantium or the world of Islam, representational art was freely accepted in the outside world: as the Christian does, so does the Jew, a Yiddish proverb acutely observes. To be sure, there was discussion among the rabbis as to whether such illuminations or representations were compatible with Jewish religious principles. Probably the consensus was against, but this is beside the point: we are dealing here with the fact, and not the theory.
I have said above that we have evidence for these fully-illuminated manuscripts in northern Europe around the mid-13th century. This does not mean, however, that the practice of illuminating Hebrew manuscripts began then. The earliest now extant display a finished craftsmanship which suggests a long anterior tradition; and it must be borne in mind that the vicissitudes of Jewish history resulted in a vast destruction of books of all types, so that a great body of evidence has disappeared. Hence we are left with the fascinating problem: did the European Jewish illuminated manuscript represent an innovation, which began under the influence of the environment sometime before the 13th century, or was this a continuation of the tradition of illuminated manuscripts which, as we have seen, must have been prevalent in the classical period, and though interrupted in the Orient by the rise of iconophobic tendencies, was perpetuated nevertheless in the more favorable atmosphere of the Occident?
If one accepts the latter view, the absence of documentation can be explained simply by assuming the documentation has disappeared. In Jewish cultural history, this is one of the most perplexing and most exciting of the problems at present under discussion among the two or three of us who are interested in it. (Art has not yet taken its place among the disciplines of the major yeshivot and kindred bodies.)
The bird's head Haggadah, the original of which is one of the treasures of the Bezalel National Art Museum in Jerusalem, now comes to help to solve (or is it further to confuse?) the problem. It is an illuminated Haggadah of the classical Ashkenazi (or Franco-German) type—that is, the illuminations accompany the text in a sort of running pictorial commentary in the ample margins of the page, in the style of contemporary German folk-art. From internal evidence, it seems probable that the manuscript was executed around the year 1300, in which case it may be the oldest illuminated Haggadah in existence, with the questionable exception of one of Carolingian type in the fabulous John Rylands Library in Manchester. In his acute analysis of the subject matter of the illuminations, Bezalel Narkiss (son of Mordecai Narkiss, who has the credit for discovering this manuscript some twenty years ago, as well as for giving it the name by which it is generally known) shows that in all probability the illustrations are based on an established tradition: that is, this manuscript of c. 1300 is evidence for the existence of analogous manuscripts of a hundred or two hundred years before—or even earlier still. These are not necessarily manuscripts of the text of the Haggadah, but possibly cycles of Bible illuminations (which conceivably might link up with the hypothetical illuminated Bible manuscripts of the classical period, as well as with contemporary Spanish productions).
The central point of interest in this manuscript is however the illustrations to which it owes its name. All or almost all the human faces are distorted, most of them having bird-like faces, with the mouth and nose combined so that they resemble grotesque oversized eagle's beaks. Some of the figures, on the other hand, have short, pointed animal ears, while in a few cases servitors are endowed with huge bulbous noses over the suspicion of a mouth. In some instances outlines of human faces can be discerned, usually half-concealed by helmets and visors. Close inspection, however, shows that these crudely delineated features were added later, so that the full human face probably never figured originally. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that these approaches to the human semblance occur only in the case of the angels, who were super-human, or of the pursuing Egyptians, who were from this point of view subhuman: the birds' heads are reserved for the Israelites. (There seems to be an exception to this in the scene showing the pursuit of the Israelites at the Red Sea, where a bird's-headed mace-bearer seems to be stalking Pharaoh, and a bird's-headed postilion drives the enemy chariot. I am convinced, however, that these are intended to represent Israelite or angelic fifth columnists.)
The sublime grotesqueness of the figures is enhanced by the fact that most of the more important bird's-headed figures—the leaders and the teachers—are shown wearing the traditional yellow Jewish pointed hat, the so-called pileum cornutum. (Yet the rank and file of the redeemed Israelites seem to be bare-headed: official Orthodoxy please note!) We have thus the delightful scene of a bird's-headed Moses with his yellow peaked hat handing down the law at Sinai to bird's-headed Joshua and the elders and so on down to the bird's-headed Israelite who is forcibly preventing his cattle from straying onto the sacred mountain. It must be observed that the Bird's Head Haggadah is not the only Hebrew manuscript in which this device is used—the introductory volume provides several other instances—but it is the most important and the most consistent and presumably the earliest of the group.
Why birds' heads? Possibly because of the association of the Israelites with the eagle's fledglings in the Bible, or with the significance of the protection of the Imperial eagle to medieval Jews, as suggested by Meyer Schapiro in his essay; possibly because of the legend which gives ethereal, otherworldly qualities to the Hebrews, as proposed by Zofia Ameisonowa in her suggestively-titled monograph, “Animal-headed Gods, Evangelists, Saints and Righteous Men,” published some time ago. This is a problem which invites further study. But what is beyond question is that the use of birds' heads instead of human faces in this remarkable manuscript is the result of an attempt to avoid the delineation of the human face (although retaining the human form), in obedience to biblical preept and in deference to the views of some of the stricter rabbinical authorities of the age.
In any case, this is a transitional stage, between inhibitions and un-inhibitions; between the restricted illuminated manuscript reflecting the traditional hesitancies, and the fully illuminated manuscript in the normally accepted sense. But one problem remains: is the point of transit in the transitional Bird's Head Haggadah on the way there or on the way back? I mean, is it a timid advance on the way from the inconophobic to the iconopathic stage, or does it mark a recession from a fully-developed iconopathic manuscript art back to a semi-iconophobic one, in deference to Orthodox opinion? Or to put it less polysyllabically: were there no illuminated Hebrew manuscripts before the prototype of the Bird's Head Haggadah and the analogous works, so that even this restricted form of illumination represents a daring advance, or were illuminated Hebrew manuscripts known in Europe and the Western world long, long before this, the Bird's Head Haggadah marking a recession due to local rabbinical pressures? This is the next problem which will have to be discussed.
One thing has nevertheless become clear as a result of recent investigation: whatever the state of mind that produced the Bird's Head Haggadah, before long the illuminated Hebrew manuscript became a commonplace in Europe. Such manuscripts were illuminated in the fullest sense, and sometimes of truly high artistic quality, which can hardly be said of this codex, its naive appeal notwithstanding.
Even so, there was of course one artistic inhibition which, by common consent, the Jewish artist would not infringe. He did not object to representational art, notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, for he realized that the prohibition in the Ten Commandments envisaged representation of the Deity, which was very properly forbidden. Hence, even after the “rediscovery” of medieval Jewish art, there was common agreement among the vast majority of scholars that the Jewish artist of the Middle Ages would at all events not venture to represent the incorporeal Deity: here was the dividing line between Jewish and non-Jewish art. But, as investigations proceeded, it became clear that even this generalization was not true. A remote delineation of God is shown in the engraving of the Vision of Ezekiel on the title page of a Hebrew Bible printed at Mantua in 1742. A rabbinic work published at Frankfort on the Oder in 1698 shows Him benignly presiding over the ascending and descending angels of Jacob's dream. He is depicted assisting in accomplishing the works of creation in the engraved border of an Italian marriage contract of the mid-17th century. We see Him similarly engaged in the engraved title-page of a ritual code printed in Augsburg in 1540—true, in this case, under Gentile auspices. He is even shown sculptured in relief (and this was by common consent a less permissible form of art for Jews) on an Amsterdam tombstone of 1717. There is even some evidence for the acceptance in some German communities of a God-figure in the round in the Eternal Light which hung before the Ark in the synagogue. Pious Jews of the ghetto period thus tolerated in certain circumstances deviations from the accepted standard at which (very properly in the view of the present writer) the most advanced Reform Temple of today would boggle.
Enough has been said to demonstrate finally the inadequacy of the accepted views regarding the anti-iconic, or iconophobic, tendencies of traditional Judaism. Such inhibitions did exist in certain areas and at certain times (for example, in Eastern Europe a short while ago). But in other areas and at other times there was a complete freedom of approach, freer in some respects than some of us would admit today. The Bird's Head Haggadah, now made available to the general public, is a remarkable and highly suggestive link in this chain.
1 Tarshish Books, Jerusalem.