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Everything Is Illuminated

Three rare medieval Hebrew Bibles on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York reveal the affinity between Sephardic and Islamic texts

Robin Cembalest
November 23, 2011

In the year 1300, Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan, a scribe in the northern Spanish town of Cervera, was nursing a broken tibia. This injury has gone down in posterity because he referred to it on the colophon of an elaborate decorated Bible he had been working on. The French illuminator, Joseph Hazarfati, as well as the micrographer, Abraham ibn Gaon, who penned the commentaries in tiny letters, made note of their work on the Bible.

This volume, known as the Cervera Bible, survived multiple journeys around Spain and then Europe, against all odds. Inscriptions place it with a family from Cordoba in 1379; a century later, it was in La Coruña, Galicia, where its fanciful imagery inspired another Sephardic masterpiece, the Kennicott Bible. Then the trail goes cold—until 1804, just as Jews were being invited back to Portugal, when the secretary of the Portuguese embassy in The Hague learned that “the oldest and most rare Hebrew manuscript” was for sale. An urgent missive went out to António Ribeiro dos Santos, head librarian of Portugal’s newly created Royal Public Library. He authorized the purchase immediately—for a sum said to be 500 times his own annual salary. So, the volume that had been secreted out of Iberia three centuries earlier returned in glory as a valued national treasure.

Since then, Portugal’s National Library, as it’s now called, has exhibited the Cervera Bible only rarely. But starting this week, its distinctive artistry will be showcased as never before. In a rare loan, conservators have let it travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and, in a rarer move, permitted the Met’s curators to turn the pages once a week, for a total of eight times, displaying multiple facets of Hazarfati’s delightful Gothic illuminations. The Portuguese library, meanwhile, has posted a high-resolution, downloadable, online version of the entire manuscript. Now, the library’s deputy director, Maria Inês Cordeiro, told me, viewers can hunt for and zoom in on the 20 places ibn Gaon embedded his own name in the micrography, as in this fire-breathing creature’s feet.

At the Met, the Bible is starring in a special installation on the first floor. It’s surrounded by contemporaneous objects from the Met’s collection, mostly from England and France, bearing similar iconography—medallions, Christian sacred texts, a spectacular Limoges book cover plaque. The show is part of the “Medieval Jewish Art in Context” series, supported by a grant from the David Berg Foundation, which funds loans of important Judaica for display with objects from the museum’s holdings. But the curators, Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Drake Boehn, have cleverly used a different loan program to make another interesting match: A few feet away is the Micrographic Bible, made in Germany circa 1300, which they borrowed from the Jewish Theological Seminary last spring. It got its name, of course, from the exquisite miniature script that creates shapes and designs, a practice common in both Jewish and Islamic art for centuries.

For the first time, that commonality is also illustrated in permanent-collection galleries at the Met—in the new space for Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (unofficially known as the Islamic galleries). Here, too, because the Met doesn’t own any major Judaica from these cultures, it has relied on loans: The entire section representing Jewish culture in Al Andalus, including tiles from Toledo’s El Tránsito synagogue, is comprised of objects borrowed from the Hispanic Society of America in upper Manhattan. One highlight is the stunning Hispano-Moresque Bible, finished in Seville in 1472. Unlike its counterparts in the medieval galleries, this volume features no images of people or animals: The patterns formed by its micrography are strictly floral and geometric, conforming with Islamic precepts. It closely resembles the Quranic pages strategically installed in the same vitrine.

If you’re counting, that makes three medieval Hebrew Bibles on view at one time at the Met—an apparently unprecedented circumstance, and one that curators say was not coordinated by the two departments. (A fourth Bible, a late-15th-century Spanish volume also on loan from the Hispanic Society, is standing by, waiting to be installed in the Met’s Arab-lands galleries when other objects are switched out.)

For repeat visitors of the Cervera installation, one highlight will be pages from the Sefer Mikhlol, the grammatical treatise that accompanies the sacred text, where Joseph Hazarfati did his most fantastical work. As the display changes, coming weeks will bring centaurs, unicorns, mermen, and several courtly hunting scenes—a dog chases a hare; a falconer and a crossbow-aiming figure converge on a bird perched on a crenelated tower. Do such motifs hold larger symbolism for Sephardic Jews? “Sometimes a crossbow is just a crossbow,” Boehm said. Vassar scholar Marc Michael Epstein wasn’t so sure—in other Jewish medieval iconography, he noted, such images can be read as metaphors for persecution, betrayal, or exile. “To assume that nothing is ever going on may be naive,” he said. “To assume that profundities are always going on is over-reading. The truth may lie somewhere in between.”

That’s probably also the case with the forces that brought these Bibles together at the Met. At the very least, their simultaneous presence seems to reflect a multi-departmental initiative to incorporate Judaica into the narrative that the permanent-collection galleries tell. The divergence in sources and sponsors for the loans in the two departments may also be relevant, or not. Same with outreach. The Washington Haggadah, first in the “Medieval Jewish Art in Context” series, was on view last Passover. The next loan in the series, of the Rylands Haggadah, is slated for Passover next year. The Cervera Bible, as it happens, includes one of the most famous images of a menorah in art history: the Menorah of Zechariah’s Vision, that mesmerizing candelabra, emanating from an intense azure ground, familiar from countless Jewish book covers and tallit bags. That’s the page that goes on view December 20—the day Hannukah begins.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.