Review: Hebrew Manuscripts

By David Breuer Weil, April 10, 2008
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By Ilana Tahan
The British Library, £20

Hebrew manuscripts are a hidden art, not merely because they are rarely exhibited, but even when exhibited, the viewer typically sees only one spread of hundreds contained in each codex. As Ilana Tahan makes clear in her lavishly illustrated book — published on the heels of the acclaimed Sacred exhibition at the British Library last year — Hebrew manuscripts were beautifully decorated and illuminated with a wealth of imagery, from the abstract to the figurative.

They have survived in much larger quantities than most would realise, constituting a history of Jewish art in miniature. The degree to which Jews were willing to beautify their faith through superb art (hiddur mitzvah) — a practice that sadly seems to be falling away — is nowhere more evident than in Tahan’s book, which includes some of the finest examples of the Chumash, Siddur, Haggadah and ketubah to have miraculously survived a troubled history. Covering the holdings of the British Library, one of the finest collections in the world, it contains material spanning a thousand years from the ninth to the 19th century.

Particularly valuable is that it shows images that have not been reproduced before. Another strength is that the author also reveals that each diaspora community was influenced by the prevailing artistic styles of the day, from Islamic and Byzantine to high Renaissance and Rococo art, while some of the illustrators were hired professional gentile artists. Accurately catalogued, with a high degree of the most up-to-date scholarship, the book also deals with one form of art that was peculiar to Jews, micrography— the creating of pictures and patterns out of miniature letters.

The 145 colour reproductions are very faithful to the originals and at £20, the book is extremely good value for an art book of this quality, especially for such a specialised subject. In her concise but excellent introduction, Tahan, unlike most scholars on the subject of Jewish creativity, has done her research on Jewish law and exploded a popular myth that the painting of figurative images is necessarily a breach of the Second Commandment.

As an observant Jew and an artist, I have often been troubled by the opinion of most art historians that artists break the Second Commandment. As Tahan demonstrates, representational art was not permitted if used in idol worship but rabbinic authorities have permitted two-dimensional figurative representations for hundreds of years: the magnificent examples of this permissive approach are clear for all to see here.

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011