Call this epic procrastination, or a sign of my great appreciation for Gillian Polack’s Very Special Hannukah Story… At any rate. It is, I am reliably informed by people who have more to do with this than I, Hannukah. And Hebrew manuscripts are pretty. Observe!
I don’t seem to be able to find an illumination of a nine-branched menorah, but here, have a seven-branched one:
The Menorah of Zechariah's Vision - Metropolitan Museum of Art
This piece of gorgeousness is part of an exhibition of medieval Sephardic manuscripts at the Met (Image from TabletMag). It’s 13th century, illuminated in Spain, but as far as I can gather from the article, the illuminator was of French origin. In my untutored opinion, it shows. The background reminds me a bit of the background on this famous illustration to the Conte du Graal (which is from a bit later, I’ll grant you).
Now, since it is Hannukah:
David bar Pesah Mahzor - 14th c. Germany, New York Public Library
What we have here is: the Yotser (blessing) for the Sabbath of Hannunkah, from a 14th c. German MSS held in the New York Public Library. The scribe’s name we know: David bar Pesah. Probably we know other things about him, but I can’t find them on the internet.
A four-part series on the history of Hebrew manuscripts can be found at the New York Public Library website. In section three, they note:
Decorations appear to have been commonplace in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and are discussed in rabbinic literature. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (1215?-1293), for example, was asked why he did not protest the widespread inclusion of paintings in prayerbooks. He replied that the drawing of images is not forbidden, although he condemned the presence of illustrations because they distract the worshipper. In fact, few images were strictly prohibited. The Talmud and rabbinic responsa forbid the depiction of the four creatures of the merkavah from Ezekiel’s vision. These figures, which are frequently represented in Christian works as attributes of the four Evangelists, do however appear in Hebrew manuscripts. A depiction of the Heavenly Chariot is found, for example, in the Ashkenazic Ambrosian Bible (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Ms. B. 32, Inf.), 1236-38, and in Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) from Barcelona, 1348 (The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Cod. Hebr. XXXVII).
Not all Hebrew manuscripts contain images, though. I’ve had the great pleasure of being shown MS Nicholson 33 in the USyd Rare Book Library during manuscript tutorials: it’s an Italian Pentateuch, which we can date pretty confidently to c. 1272, because of a note in the back about a member of the family having gone down to the docks and caught the plague at that time. It’s absolutely gorgeous: quite a large manuscript, plenty of blank space (like the folio pictured above). And the text is tightly-packed into carefully shaped… textboxes, I guess, shaped like cups and candelabra and other pretty things. I can’t find an image of anything like that online, but I did find this (at the Met article again; not linked, so you can enlarge the picture):
Micography - geometric patterns made of tiny text
As the Met. article notes, Micography was used in both Hebrew and Islamic art of this period.
Another good example of the cross-cultural valence of manuscript art styles I found on Mandragore (I voluntarily did battle with Mandragore for this blog post. Feel special, internets):
BNF Hébreu 15, 15th c. (via Mandragore)
The gold border here, for starters, is very similar in style to MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358 , which contains a picture of a Turkey. Incidentally, I incorrectly stated that 358 was from the Spanish Netherlands, which didn’t exist at the time to which it is dated. Neil Boness did tell us that, pointing out the Spanish influence on the border – which is why I bring it up here.* The borders are very alike! Only Hébreu 15 is obviously fancier.
Regarding the red background to the text – I’m not having any luck pulling up images of heavily-decorated medieval Qur’ans, but does anyone else think they’ve seen pictures** of Islamic texts with a similar layout/pattern? Given that the arts of Spain and Portugal were heavily influenced by the Umayyad Caliphate there, I would expect that to show up in Hebrew manuscripts – but maybe 15th century is too late for that kind of thing? Opinions, anyone?
* I can’t remember now whether he wanted to date the MS later, because of his feelings about Spain + the Netherlands; or if he was just wrong about the Spanish Netherlands. Interestingly, he didn’t give us this dubious factoid this year. ANYWAY.
** Maybe not pictures – I saw Qur’ans on exhibit in both the BNF and the BL this year… One of them was Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an, which isn’t what I’m thinking of but is very pretty.