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Jewish Simcha: Acquisition of Early, Rare Hebrew Bible Celebrated by the Getty

With Christianity predominant in religious works owned by this country’s preeminent museums, two recently announced acquisitions (by the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum) of splendid Hebrew manuscripts are cause for celebration by the museums’ visitors in general and Jewish audiences in particular.

In last month’s announcement of its recently purchased “Rothschild Pentateuch,” the Getty Museum hyped this monumental volume (1,180 folios, of which some 150 are decorated), as “the most spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript to become available in more than a century.” It contains the text of the five books of the Jewish Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

The lavishly, fancifully decorated pages easily live up to their billing as “spectacular”:

Beginning of the Book of Exodus, “Rothschild Pentateuch,” Getty Museum

Made in France and/or Germany, and rare for both its early date (1296) and its abundant “illuminated motifs ranging from the imposing to the whimsical” (in the words of the Getty), it was purchased by the museum from private owners with “generous support” from trustee Ronald Lauder and his wife Jo Carole.

Here’s one example of the “whimsical,” complete with fire-breathing dragon (on right):

Beginning of the Book of Numbers, “Rothschild Pentateuch,” Getty Museum

Similarly euphoric about his museum’s acquisition of a 14th-century Hebrew Bible made in Castile, Spain, the Met’s president, Daniel Weiss, pronounced his institution to be “thrilled to add this treasure of Jewish artistic heritage to The Met’s growing collection of important Judaica” (including its partial ownership of the “Mishneh Torah,” which I discussed here and here). Estimated by Sotheby’s to sell for $3.5-5 million, the Hebrew Bible was purchased by the Met for an undisclosed sum, preempting the manuscript’s planned Dec. 20, 2017 auction from the Jaqui E. Safra Collection.

Displayed at the Met Cloisters this spring, coincident with Passover, it is now in the main building for photography, to be featured online (probably this fall) on the Met Collects site.

Here’s one parchment page:

Page from the Met’s Hebrew Bible, 1300–1350, the Cloisters Collection

And here’s a detail of that page’s glistening gold frame:

I recently chatted with the contagiously enthusiastic Elizabeth Morrison, the Getty’s senior curator of manuscripts, about her institution’s collecting coup. She engagingly expounded on the beauty and significance of the “Rothschild Pentateuch,” named for Baroness Edmond de Rothschild, its owner during the early 20th century:

Almost all of the Hebrew medieval manuscripts that come to market are text manuscripts, so we’re talking about a very select few. Any time any Hebrew manuscript with any figural decoration comes up, we all kind of go crazy, because they’re so incredibly rare. The text that it contains is the Torah, but when you say “Torah” as an object, it usually refers to a liturgical object used in the temple. Those are forbidden by [Jewish] law from being illuminated. You can’t really have an illuminated Torah.

To have a Hebrew Bible that is so extensively illuminated [as is the Getty’s Pentateuch] is completely unheard of. That’s why we’re saying this stands out from all its peers in terms of how old it is, how rare it is, and the extent of the illumination.

The illumination has pages that look like tapestries, pages where the letters serve as the primary decoration. It’s got words that have bunny rabbits and dogs running across them. [See the drawings at the bottom of the first image in this post.] There are pages where the butt of an animal appears on the lefthand side and the head of the animal emerges from the other side. The creativeness and inventiveness of this manuscript are really spectacular.

It also has micrography—“an art form unique in the Middle Ages to Hebrew codices,” that consists of miniature Hebrew letters arranged to form geometric shapes, flowers and animals.

Here’s a blow-up of one example:

“One of the things that are super-interesting about the Getty manuscript,” Beth noted, “is that by the 15th century it actually made its way to Italy and one of the pages was replaced. They very carefully replicated the entire text on the front and the back, and then it was illuminated by Joel ben Simeon—one of the few Jewish artists of the Middle Ages for whom we have a record of his name. He’s responsible for the famous Haggadah at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“So we have one page by him, which is icing on the cake, and it does have figural decoration: It’s this fabulous image of Moses. The words talk about how Moses gathered together all the Israelites—from the women and children to the woodcutters and the people who bring water—and they’re all lined up on the page. It shows each of these social classes, and they’re all dressed in the Italian fashions of the 15th century”:

Joel ben Simeon, “Moses Addressing the Israelites,” beginning of Book of Deuteronomy, Italy, ca. 1450-1500, “The Rothschild Pentateuch”

The manuscript’s odyssey took it from France and/or Germany, to Italy, to Poland, to the collection of the Baroness Edmond de Rothschild, who gave it to the Frankfurt Library.

Here’s how Morrison described its subsequent trajectory, which, she said, made the object an “incredible signifier of the value of portable objects like this one and the meaning they had to the community”:

In a lot of manuscripts that were in public institutions, especially from the late 19th-early 20th century, they would paste a piece of paper in the back and everybody who saw it signed in. The first signature, in 1936, was from a very famous female scholar of Jewish illumination. The next signature, from 1941, was from this heinous Nazi who was responsible for gathering together and looking at all the Jewish cultural property, to take it into the Reich.

It stayed in the Frankfurt Library. Fast forward to 1950: There was a private family owning property in Frankfurt that had to flee and went to the United States. They did an exchange: The German Government gave them 10 Hebrew manuscripts [including the Pentateuch] from the Frankfurt Library in exchange for the right to their land in Frankfurt. What Jewish family wanted to come back to Frankfurt in 1950? Then the family emigrated to Israel and left the manuscript in New York.

If you could map the travels of this manuscript, it would show not only the places people went but the fact that they had to keep moving.

And now it has found repose in Los Angeles and will make its public debut at the Getty’s upcoming Art of Three Faiths: a Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an, a focus show opening next Tuesday (to Feb. 3, 2019). Along with the Pentateuch, the display will feature Getty-owned manuscripts of Christian and Muslim sacred texts—a 9th-century North African Qur’an, a 15th-century Christian Bible.

I’m guessing the Pentateuch may be open to this showstopper—the featured image on the Getty’s press release announcing the acquisition:

Menorah of the Tabernacle and Decorated Text Page, beginning of the Book of Leviticus, “The Rothschild Pentateuch”

The Getty has already digitized the manuscript. (Digitized images of 51 of the decorated pages can be seen here.) Morrison hopes to collaborate with art historians and cultural historians to produce a scholarly monograph.

“Nobody’s been able to really delve into this thing. I would love to have a facsimile of it made,” she added, “but frankly, it’s the size of a phonebook and I don’t know that a facsimile company or we could afford to do it.”

Come on, Ron and Jo Carole. You know you wanna make this happen!

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