Rare, Recently Acquired Mishneh Torah on View at the Metropolitan Museum

New York — One of the finest illuminated Hebrew manuscripts ever created will be displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning October 1. The rare 15th-century handwritten copy of the Mishneh Torah by the renowned medieval scholar Moses Maimonides will be shown in New York for the first time since it was acquired jointly by the Metropolitan Museum and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in April. Previously in the collection of Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York, the manuscript will be exhibited at the two museums on a rotating basis. At the Metropolitan, the work will be installed in The Lawrence A. and Barbara Fleischman Gallery of Late Medieval Secular Art (Gallery 307) among other 15th-century works from Europe that will provide a contextual background. The Mishneh Torah will remain at the Metropolitan through January 5, 2014.

Created in Northern Italy around 1457, the beautifully illustrated Hebrew text includes the eight final books of the Mishneh Torah, or “Repetition of the Law,” the first systematic collection of Jewish law.  Compiled between 1170 and 1180 by the renowned rabbi, physician, and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the Mishneh Torah is organized by subject matter. The manuscript is richly illuminated, with six large painted panels decorated in precious pigments and gold leaf, and 41 smaller illustrations with gold lettering adorning the opening words of each chapter. The colorful and lively illuminations, along with the manuscript’s liberal use of gold and its elegant script, make it one of the finest extant illuminated copies of the Mishneh Torah. The artist who created it is known as the “Master of the Barbo Missal,” after a missal he created for Marco Barbo, Bishop of Treviso. In addition to his work on this manuscript, he collaborated on some of the most important book commissions of the day, including the Bible of Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. This Mishneh Torah is his only known work for a Jewish patron.

With no iconographic precedent to guide him, the artist was inspired by the world around him; figures in contemporary costume appear as on a stage, enlivening the pages of the manuscript and elucidating the text. The manuscript will be open to an illustration in the Sefer Shoftim, or “Book of Judges,” in which an accused man under close guard stands before a bench of judges assembled in a lush, outdoor court. The golden word “Shoftim” (Judges) seems to hang before a curtain of blue, as knights joust above. 

The manuscript comprises Books VII-XIV of Maimonides’ text. (The first five books are preserved in a separate volume in the Vatican Library.) Sometimes referred to as the “Frankfurt Mishneh Torah,” the volume exhibited in New York had reached Germany as part of the collection of Avraham Merzbacher of Munich in the 19th century; it was later in the collection of Edmond de Rothschild, who presented it to the Frankfurt Municipal Library. In 1950, a Jewish family from Frankfurt acquired the manuscript, along with seven others, in exchange for property that the city wished to develop. It remained in the family until its 2007 purchase by Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York.

Prior to its presentation at the Metropolitan, the manuscript underwent restoration at the Israel Museum, where it has been on long-term loan since 2007 and on view to the public since 2010.   

The Mishneh Torah was purchased for The Israel Museum through the generosity of an anonymous donor; René and Susanne Braginsky, Zurich; Renée and Lester Crown, Chicago; Schusterman Foundation - Israel; and Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York. The Mishneh Torah was purchased for The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Director’s Funds and Judy and Michael Steinhardt Gift. 

Also on view at the Metropolitan during the same time period will be a second Mishneh Torah. On loan from the Jewish Theological Seminary, this handsome volume affords visitors the opportunity to see a different artistic response to Maimonides’ work. It was realized in tempera and ink on parchment between 1300 and 1400 in Germany. More sober and restrained in its decoration, this large-scale copy of the Mishneh Torah is noteworthy for its precisely ruled and brightly colored drawings. While on display in the Medieval Europe Gallery (Gallery 304), it will be open to the imposing image of the Temple menorah, which Maimonides describes in great detail in the Sefer Avodah (“Book of Temple Service”).

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