Commentary Magazine


Jewish Art

To the Editor:

I gladly take the opportunity to comment on Cecil Roth’s essay [“Birds’ Heads & Graven Images,” June] discussing the problems raised by the Bird’s Head Haggadah, the earliest Ashkenazi illuminated Haggadah dating from the end of the 13th or the early 14th century. What may be added, for the information of the reader, is a reference to what this Haggadah does not have: pictures of the rabbis at B’nai B’rak and of the inquiring sons. Clearly the Haggadah had not yet evolved its own picture cycle. The fact that its illustrations are mostly biblical has led to the theory that there may have existed a Jewish archetype, a codex or a scroll with biblical scenes. This hypothesis was first proposed in connection with the discovery of the 3rd-century frescoes of the synagogue at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates. . . . In its new form this theory is based on some Byzantine features in the Bird’s Head Haggadah. According to the theory, Byzantine Bible illustration derived from oriental Jewish prototypes, spread to Western Europe, influenced Franco-German art production, and either directly or through these channels inspired Jewish book illustration.

The most striking feature of the Bird’s Head Haggadah, however, is the representation of human figures with heads of animals, mostly birds. Several other manuscripts, particularly prayerbooks (Mahzorim), also exhibit this feature. With the profuse animal decoration in European medieval art in mind, we should be able to understand how the Jewish prohibition against images could lead to a compromise, the substitution of an animal’s or a bird’s head for the human face. There is a Hebrew Bible which contains a representation of the righteous, seated at the messianic banquet, with fantastic animal heads. We readily accept such symbolic figures. But we have difficulty identifying Moses, in a familiar biblical scene, in this disguise. . . . It is true that in a number of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts of the same period the human faces are not distorted. Profound differences in social attitudes among the Jews themselves must have accounted for any relaxation of the old inhibitions. . . .

The 17th- and 18th-century examples of the representation of the deity which Dr. Roth mentions, among them an Amsterdam tombstone which no doubt belonged to a Marrano, are not particularly striking when compared with much earlier instances that could have been cited. In a Hebrew Book of Psalms of the Berlin Staatsbibliothek (15th century, Italian provenance), we see the head of the Lord appearing to David in a golden sunburst. In the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah, too, there is a picture of an old man resting after his week’s labor; this figure has been identified as Adam, but it cannot possibly be so. . . .

Rachel Wischnitzer
Professor Emeritus,
Stern College
Yeshiva University
New York, New York

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To the Editor:

The Bird’s Head Haggadah is published in Israel and is not available in ordinary bookstores, but your article does not mention either the cost of the book or how it may be obtained in this country. Since art books frequently are priced in the hundreds of dollars, one would like to know the cost before committing oneself to the purchase. . . . Also, Dr. Roth did not mention whether the text commentaries are all in Hebrew or in any other language.

Alex Rysman
New York City

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[The Bird’s Head Haggadah is available through the Bloch Publishing Company, New York, at a net price of $150. The reproduction is accompanied by an introductory pamphlet, in English—Ed.]

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Correction

To the Editor:

The Adulterer’s Bible is so called from the Seventh Commandment having lost its “not.” My “Hebraism and Hellenism Now” [July] presents a Thief’s Decalogue. Between typescript and print I managed to lose the Eighth Commandment.

Milton Himmelfarb
New York City

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