Not just pretty Pesach pictures
The Medieval Haggadah
Marc Michael Epstein
Yale University Press, £45
Many of us may have reproductions of illuminated medieval haggadot such as the Bird's Head (now out in a rather enchanting children's pop-up edition) or the Golden Haggadah. They are probably the only memento we have of a distant age. But though we may admire the artwork, we probably treat it as little more than decorative.
In this sumptuously produced, scholarly book, Marc Epstein, a professor of religion at Vassar College in the USA, explores the iconography of four haggadot (three of which are in the UK) analysing the cultural background, social milieu and religious agenda of the creators.
The illustrations are a form of visual midrash, he says, which act as a commentary on the text.
They are "a way of telling the tale of the relationship of Jews with God, their neighbours and each other through the exeg
esis of the narratives of sacred scripture".
For example, the griffin heads in the oldest known work, the Ashkenazi Bird's Head, which is dated to around 1300, could have mystical connotations. Or they could represent a combination of the features of lions and eagles, alluding to the saying in the Ethics of the Fathers that one should be as light as an eagle and brave as a lion to perform the will of heaven.
Epstein argues that while Jews had been interested in religious art in late antiquity, this declined under the influence of Islam, but revived in Christian Europe. Using images "was already a stretch" in terms of Jewish law, so they "had to have meaning to justify their use".