Life & Culture

The art of Abraham: the medieval Jewish artist who created a masterpiece machzor

Eli Abt analyses a gloriously illustrated festival prayerbook


Here’s a conundrum. How does a talented medieval Jew, banned from membership of a Christian guild, unlikely to have been trained formally, and with no ready market for his skills outside his own community, nevertheless manage to achieve the level of artistry we encounter in the Luzzatto Mahzor, that rarest of surviving Ashkenazi High Holy Day Holidayprayer books?

While his story remains an enigma, his manuscript is of the kind most Jewish collectors and bibliophiles can only dream of having, all the more —whenespecially given that it has only been up for sale once in 150 years, when it was sold at auction two years it did two years ago. It had last been acquired in 1870 by the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle from the collection of Samuel David Luzzatto, the eminent Italian Jewish academic after whom it is named.

It lay largely out of sight and out of mind in the Alliance’s library for a century and a half, but once contemporary scholars had revealed its treasures, pre-auction estimates could not be relied upon. In the end it sold for $8.3 million in New York against Sotheby’s valuation of $4 - 6 million.

Who was the accomplished scribe-artist who created it? The evidence suggests he worked in late-13th or early-14th-century Bavaria. No other work of his has been identified. We know he was called Abraham from the hints he drops in the flourishes or elaborate crowns with which he decorates our patriarchal ancestor’s name whenever that appears in the text. Apart from that, we know nothing about him.

At a time when Hebrew manuscripts were illuminated almost exclusively by Christians, Abraham’s lively illustrations in his basic palette of red, green and black, allied to his elegance of script and disciplined layout of word and image, are remarkable in themselves. So is the survival in its exceptionally fine condition of the manuscript itself, notwithstanding its wanderings from one community to another over a period of some 500 years.

How do we know it travelled, and where? Like the Jew on the desert island who builds two shuls, including the one he doesn’t go to, we always preserved our communal differences tenaciously, whether the customs and practices we keep or reject, the texts we do and don’t say, the traditions we maintain in preference to all others.

Fortunately, it’s that otherwise divisive trait that enriches our understanding of the Luzzatto Mahzor’s contents and helps us follow its likely odyssey. As it was taken from one Jewry to the next, though unhappily almost always in flight or banishment, we can trace its likely whereabouts from the numerous textual changes, handwritten marginal instructions, and the variations in the choice of piyyutim, the liturgical poems of the High Holy Days, that grace its pages.

The Mahzor’s travels appear to have begun after the so-called Rindfleisch massacres of 1298 decimated virtually every community in Bavaria. The manuscript’s first port of call after its escape appears to have been Alsace, where an anonymous “nakdan”, or vocaliser, skilfully inserted the Hebrew vowels in Abraham’s text, but sadly revealed his prejudices in doing so.

Having come from France, his snide marginal note about an “error” by the “wretched Germans” — “HaAshkenazim HaUmlalim” — who preceded him is an unexpected comment in a prayer book devoted to atonement, reconciliation and the need for fellowship with other Jews.

Unsurprisingly, when the Black Death swept Europe in 1347 and was blamed on its Jewish population, no distinctions were made between the victims, whether from France or Germany, in the retributions that followed. The three dozen or so communities of Alsace were virtually wiped out by atrocities like those in Bavaria 50 years earlier, so our next encounter with the Mahzor is in Constance, on the Swiss side of the lake.

The manuscript appears to have remained there until the expulsion of 1533, when it was taken to northern Italy, evidenced by the then owner’s self-censorship of those parts of the Mahzor likely to offend the Vatican (familiar phrases in the Aleinu prayer come to mind), and where Luzzatto seems to have acquired it three centuries later, sometime between 1846 and 1868.

Apart from its fascinating textual variations, its ten ornamented word-panels, its 18 decorated catchwords, and numerous other adornments, what appears to have engaged Luzzatto and his predecessors, and certainly intrigues us, is Abraham’s vivid depictions of the sounding on Rosh Hashanah of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, in no less than four of the six miniatures with which he illustrates his work.

In one example, wearing a green robe, red stockings and black shoes, with a tallit draped over his head, the man sounding the shofar is shown absorbed in his task, his right foot planted firmly on a low three-tiered, three-legged stool. A Gothic archway flanked by multiple turrets appears on his left, while a vivid red demon writhes to his right, its jaws clamped on a branch of greenery.

The scene depicts the Day of Judgment, derived from a Talmudic passage at Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b, where Satan, as prosecutor of the Jewish people, in this case in his medieval form as a demon, is prevented from denouncing them.

He’s silenced by Israel’s multiple soundings of the shofar as it steps up towards heaven’s gate on the mahzor’s tripod of repentance, prayer and charity. The tripod is repeated in all four of the manuscript’s ram’s horn images. The custom of using a stool of this type for the shofar is known to have been followed in several medieval communities.

As for the green branch stuck in the demon’s jaws, Abraham appears to suggest, based on a Midrashic commentary, that it’s been wrenched by the beast from the thicket in which our ancestor Abraham came upon the sacrificial ram, giving us the shofar while simultaneously striking Satan dumb.

In a leap of the imagination, our accomplished artist of 700 years ago has expressed, in a manner readily understood by his community, their pleas for a year of blessings, free of anguish and adversity.

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