Exhibit | April 7, 2014

Rare Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts on View at Metropolitan Museum

In time for the observance of Passover this year, two medieval Hebrew manuscripts are on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One manuscript, on loan from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), New York, for two years, is a newly conserved Haggadah by Joel ben Simeon, one of the best-known illuminators of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. Its presentation at the Museum marks the first time it is being displayed publicly in more than a decade. The other, a richly ornamented 15th-century Hebrew Bible, is on loan from the Hispanic Society of America through May 1.  

A Haggadah is the book used at the Passover seder, the ritual meal that commemorates the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. Although the essential components of the text were established in the second century, it was not until the Middle Ages that the Haggadah was first made into an independent, illustrated book.

“The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hispanic Society of America have been generous lenders in the past,” said Barbara Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “We are very pleased to display these rare manuscripts among other works of art from the same time and place.”

Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, continued, “We are particularly happy to show the newly conserved Haggadah to the public now, when families will be able to make the connection with their own Passover traditions.”

Joel ben Simeon Haggadah 

Born in Germany around 1420, Joel ben Simeon was an itinerant scribe and artist who traveled between southern Germany and northern Italy. He specialized in the creation of Hebrew manuscripts for personal use, with Haggadot something of a specialty. In this example, created in Italy in 1454 and written according to the Italian rite, Joel proclaims that it was he who “wrote, punctuated and painted” the book. Clearly proud of his German heritage, he notes further that he was from the city of Cologne on the Rhine, and goes on to write that he is known as “Feibush the Ashkenazi,” embellishing the word Ashkenazi with penwork. 

On the exhibited pages, instructions for the Passover meal are set within elaborate frames. Tiny turrets appear whimsically atop striped columns, which in turn are carried on the backs of carousel-like animals—an elephant, a lion, an ox, and a horse—as well as two crouching men. 

The work of Joel ben Simeon was previously featured in the Museum’s 2011 exhibition of the Washington Haggadah, created in 1478. The JTS Haggadah represents an earlier stage in the artist’s work. His training as a scribe and his debt to Ashkenazi tradition is evident in the emphasis on penwork rather than color.

The Joel ben Simeon Haggadah now on view, one of two in the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, was a gift from the New York financier and philanthropist Mortimer Schiff. A great bibliophile, Schiff played a vital role in shaping the collection of the seminary’s library. The recent conservation campaign that has allowed the book to be brought back into public view was made possible by the David Berg Foundation. In the two years that it will remain at the Metropolitan, its pages will be turned periodically.

Hebrew Bible 

On view in the same gallery is a Hebrew Bible ornamented with gold, rich color, and fine penwork. In keeping with the Passover season, the manuscript is open to the beginning of the Book of Exodus, which details the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt—the miracle celebrated annually at Passover. The history of the manuscript itself is one of exodus. Created after 1450 in Spain, it appears to have been taken to Portugal after the Jews were expelled in 1492. There, a number of additional illuminated folios were added before the Jews were forced to leave the Iberian Peninsula altogether in 1497. In the early 17th century, the manuscript, then in Morocco, was sold to Portuguese and then Spanish private collectors. 

In the same vitrine are Spanish works of art created for Christian use during the same period, evidence of the shared taste for opulence and a reverence for faith that stands in stark contrast to the grim reality of Christian intolerance at the time. 

Opened: Friday, April 4, 2014

Location: Medieval Treasury, Gallery 306