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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r

» Unknown artist, Spain

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Spain
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1300
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink, gesso, paint, and gold leaf on parchment
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 8 ¼ in. (21 cm.), W: 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm.)
Location: The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

This illuminated manuscript, produced around 1300, is one of the oldest surviving Haggadot from Spain.

The Haggadah is a book of readings that contains biblical, talmudic, and midrashic texts, as well as liturgical poetry. It is used during the seder, the ceremonial dinner held at the beginning of the Passover holiday. While Jewish law forbids the decoration of Torah scrolls, medieval religious and secular works were embellished. The most frequently illuminated text was that of the Haggadah, possibly because it was used primarily at home.

The image seen here is the recto (or front) side of the eleventh folio of the manuscript known as the Prato Haggadah. The artist has adorned the parchment sheet with bright, rich colors and gold-leaf accents. The borders of the page feature whimsical plant motifs and imaginative animal hybrids. The central panel at the bottom, supported by two barely visible, squatting male figures, contains the first word of the passage of text that continues on the next page. It is written in large letters and embellished with gold leaf. A small, stylized image of several buildings is depicted on top of the panel. This represents the city of Goshen in northern Egypt, mentioned in the text of the preceding passage to the right of the illustration.

The Prato Haggadah is written in the Sephardic script characteristic of Hebrew manuscripts from Iberia. It is unusual in that it omits the prayers and instructions associated with the Passover meal. Some scholars have concluded that Spanish Haggadot that lack this text were created for use in public synagogue services, rather than for private use at home.

Medieval Spanish society was home to a rather cosmopolitan mix of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The cultures and manuscript illumination traditions of all three groups influenced each other. Some Hebrew manuscripts made for use by Jews were decorated by Christian illuminators. Spain’s Jewish community was expelled, however, in 1492. Many of the displaced Spanish Jews relocated to Italy, taking their books with them. Later additions to the text and an inscription by an Italian censor in 1617 suggest that this was the fate of the Prato Haggadah.

Expert Perspective:
Sharon Liberman Mintz, Curator of Jewish Art, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

“The beginnings of decorated Hebrew manuscripts are found in Egypt in the tenth century. From there it spreads to various parts of the world including Spain, Italy, Germany, and Yemen. We have a variety of different texts which they did embellish. The two primary works that were embellished were biblical texts and liturgical texts, including Haggadot. Hebrew manuscript production in Europe differs from the rest of manuscript production in Europe in that general manuscript production was originally produced in scriptoriums, and with the rise of universities, we see the rise of book production centers. However, Hebrew manuscripts didn’t have that kind of demand. Rather, what you have for Hebrew manuscripts were scribes, itinerant scribes, who traveled from town to town creating Hebrew manuscripts as they went. Scribes were often housed at the behest of the patron. Not always in perfect condition. You know, scribes sometimes complained at the end of their work that there wasn’t enough heat and therefore they made mistakes. And they were distracted by the chickens in the room. This is true. It’s assumed that a bible could take almost a year to create. A Haggadah, which is a smaller text, could take perhaps only a month or two.

Manuscripts in this particular period are luxury items. It was expensive to hire a scribe to write them. The parchment was expensive; certainly the gold was expensive with which they were illuminated and embellished. Often the colors which they used to decorate and the pigments that decorated the books and manuscripts were expensive. So, therefore, it’s not just that people were using these in the service of God, but they were books belonging to very wealthy individuals who liked to have beautiful things.

Because a Haggadah is a fairly small manuscript and not terribly complicated to write, it was one of the most frequently embellished manuscripts of the medieval period. It was also intended for personal use. Haggadot were owned and commissioned by families and used around the Seder table on Passover eve. The families gathered together to celebrate the holiday of Passover and they retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And even though Jews had a higher rate of literacy, it’s possible that these Haggadotwere illustrated not only because they were beautiful luxury items, but also because the illustrations involved one in the story of Passover.”

Additional Resources

Boehm, Barbara Drake, and Melanie Holcomb. “Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jewm/hd_jewm.htm(June 2008).

Castaño, Javier, et al. The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005.

Mintz, Sharon Liberman, et al. Precious Possessions: Treasures from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2001.

“The Prato Haggadah: An Illuminated Medieval Manuscript in the Making (April 7–July 7, 2006).” The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary exhibition Web site. http://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/exhib/prato/index.html.

Soltes, Ori Z. Our Sacred Signs. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2005.

“Special Treasures from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.” The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary Web site. http://www.jtslibrarytreasures.org.

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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2