From The Academy: Marc Michael Epstein

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 things hitherto unnoticed about these manuscripts.

The result is the first systematic study of these four manuscripts to focus on their overall conceptual framework rather than on their stylistic or iconographic sources and to explore the self-perception and world view of the people who comissioned and used these beautiful books.

My analysis of the iconography of each manuscript–the manner in which images come together to present a narrative–reveals the theological views and historiosophy or philosophy of history held by each work’s authors, including its patrons, artists, scribes and rabbinic advisors. I also examine the manner in which each work depicts contemporary Jewish society and how it represents the relationships between humans and the Divine, between different kinds of Jews, between Jews and Gentiles, and between Jewish and wider society.

This book departs from the two dominant approaches to the medieval Jewish relationship to the surrounding culture in general and to visual culture in particular. According to the first approach, a parochial Jewry blinded itself to the wider culture and to art so that any art that emerged from it must, in fact, have been created by Christians given complete license to depict whatever they wished under the oblivious noses of their artistically insensitive Jewish patrons. According to the second approach, the very opposite of parochial, scholars posited a Jewish culture desperate to assimilate, and thus, merely emulating and imitating Christian visual culture.

In contrast, I argue that Jews were very much aware of art. They created it themselves or commissioned it from non-Jews whom they closely directed and supervised. Jews did not merely assimilate and adopt motifs; they adapted them from a stream of essentially common culture upon which both Jews and Christians drew.

Their art reflected and refracted their lives in a shared society. Analyzed in this way, these illuminated manuscripts can be made to reveal how Jews and Christians lived side by side in an age often rife with hostility, but also ripe with the possibility of collaboration.

A unique feature of this book is the presentation of the illustrations: for the first time, each page of each work will be presented in its entirety, life size, in full color, and in correct sequence. Previous books have presented only a small section of each illustration, often smaller than life size, often in black and white. Such fidelity and completeness are essential to the argument of the book, which finds in the very layout of the two-page spread clues to the meaning of these extraordinary works.

This is a book with intrinsic value and interest for multiple audiences. First, the discussion is of the haggadah–the most popular, most treasured, most accessible of all Jewish books, a book every Jewish home knows and uses. But also, the particular examples brought to life here are gems–the creme de la creme–among the most beautiful examples of the illustration of the haggadah, and of Jewish art more generally, of all time.

They are represented here in the superb illustrations which are the focus and highlight of the volume. Finally, although it treats art and it treats religion, it is, in the end, less about these subjects than about the experience of human beings–it is about reconstructing the lives and the wider social and intellectual world of the people who commissioned, created and viewed these books were a part.

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