From The Academy: Marc Michael Epstein

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In this installment of “From the Academy,” Dr. Marc Michael Epstein, Professor and Director of Jewish Studies at Vassar College, tells us about his current research and academic work.

For several years I have been teaching a seminar at Vassar College titled “Jews and Art.� In this class, I’ve had the privilege of working with several extraordinary group of students, and of applying their fresh insights to a number of key masterpieces of art made for and possibly by Jews during the High Middle Ages.

Among these works are four haggadot, rare and beautiful illustrated manuscripts of the home service for the eve of Passover. These books were painted by hand in the fourteenth century in the two largest centers of Jewish life in Europe in this period: Franco-Germany (the so-called “Birds’ Head Haggadah�) and Spain (the Golden Haggadah and the Rylands Haggadah and its “Brother�).

The previous generation of scholars, among them my own teachers, had asserted that everything that could be written about these manuscripts had been written. As a result, no researcher has examined them seriously in their entirety since the “definitive� scholarly works of the 60s and 70s.

To my students and I, the incredible beauty, interest and intellectual liveliness of these manuscripts contrasted sharply with the rather dry philological approach taken by earlier scholars. Their definitive descriptions, comparisons, analysis of style,  and concern with the origins of minute motifs are an important first step and foundation for our own work in class.

My new book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination emerges from the observations my students and I have made together, inspired by the way these books open out into a world long gone where two fascinating cultures–the Christian majority and the Jewish minority–both collided and colluded. Turning my attention to these long-neglected works, I discovered (to paraphrase Howard Carter as he broached the long-closed portal to the royal tomb of Tutankhamen) “wonderful thingsâ€? hitherto unnoticed about these manuscripts.