Cover image for Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain: Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday By Katrin Kogman-Appel

Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain

Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday

Katrin Kogman-Appel


$166.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02740-1

464 pages
7" × 10"
16 color/174 b&w illustrations

Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain

Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday

Katrin Kogman-Appel

“Katrin Kogman-Appel of Ben-Gurion University, in her splendid new book examining the sources of five rare early 14th-century Haggadot from Aragon and Catalonia, revives the distinct possibility that the Jews were originally the pioneers of the images of the biblical narrative.”


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Winner of the 2008 Premio del Rey Prize sponsored by the American Historical Association Winner of a 2007 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Emerging in Spain after 1250, Jewish narrative figurative painting became a central feature in a group of illuminated Passover Haggadot in the early decades of the fourteenth century. Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain describes how the Sephardic Haggadot reflect different visualizations of scripture under various conditions and aimed at a variety of audiences. Though the specifics of the creation of these works remain a mystery, this book delves into the cultural struggles that existed during this period in history and shows how those conflicts influenced the work.

The culture surrounding the creators of the Sephardic Haggadot was saturated in conflict revolving around acculturation, polemics with Christianity, and struggles within Sephardic Jewry itself. Kogman-Appel presents the Sephardic Haggadot as visual manifestations of a minority struggling for cultural identity both in relation to the dominant culture and within its own realm.

“Katrin Kogman-Appel of Ben-Gurion University, in her splendid new book examining the sources of five rare early 14th-century Haggadot from Aragon and Catalonia, revives the distinct possibility that the Jews were originally the pioneers of the images of the biblical narrative.”
“All in all, Kogman-Appel is to be commended for offering such a comprehensive and meticulously researched view of the sophisticated images in the Sephardic Haggadot, and for illuminating the complex Jewish-Christian relationships in medieval Spain from a little known point of view.”
“The book breaks new ground in its close examination of the seven earliest and most significant illuminated Sephardic haggadot as representatives of a new phenomenon—the embellishment of haggadot with extensive cycles of Biblical imagery. Recognizing the diversity of relationships among these works, it grounds the emergence and content of their imagery within the unique cultural-intellectual context of late medieval Iberian Jewry.”
“The scholarship is impeccable throughout, and the close analysis of the manuscripts’ imagery and sources is deeply impressive. The discussion of visual motifs in the illustrations; the articulation of the concept of visual congruence; the conclusions about the interrelationship of the manuscripts; and the identification of the Midrashic works reflected in the images, are all learned, thorough, and convincing. Together they constitute a major contribution to the field of medieval Jewish manuscript illumination.”
“Scholars of medieval culture, and art historians in particular, owe a debt of gratitude to Katrin Kogman-Appel for her fundamental study of this material, which surely sets the benchmark for future explorations of the intersection of Jews, Christians, and art in the Middle Ages.”
“Taken as a whole, this well-written, scholarly and highly thought-provoking book constitutes a distinguished contribution to our understanding of late medieval Jewish culture and society. The work is lavishly illustrated with 16 full colour plates and a further 174 black-and-white plates.”
“Clearly written and densely annotated, this volume is beautifully produced, with many of the illustrations occupying a full page. Excellent color plates of 16 illustrations make one wish that a few more of the additional 174 halftones were also in color. This volume is a must for all collections that feature arts of the Abrahamic traditions.”
“This is the only book to examine intensively the biblical cycles of Iberian Haggadot, which are the earliest Jewish narrative imagery to appear since Late Antiquity and the first to render biblical narrative in chronological order. . . . From the beginning of her study, Kogman-Appel displays a sharp awareness of the historiography of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and does a good job of making readers aware of the burden such notions as recension theory, particularly that which is focused on lost Jewish exemplars, have placed on scholars of Jewish art. . . . Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain: Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday, with its rich observations, plentiful illustrations, and thorough bibliography, is certain to be a valued resource for those working in the field of Hebrew manuscript illumination.”

Katrin Kogman-Appel is Lecturer in the Department of Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva. Kogman-Appel's credentials include publishing Jewish Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Spain (2001) as well as contributing to Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, edited by John Williams and published by Penn State Press in 1999.


List of Illustrations



Part I: Acculturation and Borrowings from Christian Art

1. The Manuscripts

2. Motif Books and Images from Memory: Image Making in the Golden Haggadah and British Library, Or. 2884

3. The Rylands Haggadah and British Library, Or. 1404

4. The Sarajevo Haggadah and the Bologna-Modena Mahzor

5. Other Methods of Image Making

Conclusions to Part One

Part II: Meaning and Message

6. Jewish Biblical Exegesis Employed in the Strategy of Image Making

7. Designing the Messages of the Sephardic Picture Cycles: The Cultural Profile of the People Involved

Conclusions to Part Two



Photo Credits



The first Jewish work of art to attract scholarly attention was an illuminated fourteenth-century manuscript of the Passover liturgy, written and illuminated in Spain and known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Its most outstanding feature is a full-fledged biblical picture cycle, placed at the beginning of the book. The manuscript was first published in 1898 by the art historian Julius von Schlosser and the orientalist David Heinrich Müller, both at the University of Vienna. David Kaufmann, a well-known scholar of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and collector of Hebrew manuscripts in Budapest, contributed a chapter on Jewish book art. The volume presented initial results, but—more important—opened a path toward further questions, many of them still unanswered. In 1932 the discovery of the narrative murals in the third-century synagogue of Dura Europos in Syria provided a new impetus to deal with Jewish narrative painting.

Ever since, three major questions have governed the discussion of what at first seemed to be a surprising violation of the Second Commandment: How could figurative art in a Jewish context be reconciled with the biblical restrictions regarding graven images? What defines its relationship to the arts of other cultures? And what makes it Jewish? Preliminary answers to these questions were soon offered. Examinations of the rabbinic law revealed that two-dimensional painting does not violate the Second Commandment. The method of comparative iconography made clear that Jewish figurative art does exhibit various relationships to other cultures, in particular to Christian art. Studies on the impact of late antique rabbinical exegesis on the imagery showed that the interpolation of extrabiblical narrative elements from commentary literature makes this art specifically Jewish.

Soon it became apparent that the Sarajevo Haggadah and the Dura murals were not isolated phenomena, but rather that they belong to a larger context of late antique synagogue decoration, on the one hand, and medieval manuscript illustration, on the other. The highly narrative Dura murals are programmatically, rather than chronologically, arranged. Due to severe damage of three of the four walls, the program cannot be reconstructed, but it is apparent that it communicated messages of particular relevance within the political framework of the late Roman Empire and its Parthian enemy, as well as the cultural ambience of early Babylonian Jewry and early Christianity. Since the 1920s numerous mosaic floors have been excavated in synagogues in Israel and other parts of the Byzantine world. These combine a symbolical-programmatic pictorial language with elements of a narrative approach. The latter is particularly apparent in numerous compositions based on the Old Testament.

Much scholarship has been devoted to the question whether early Christian art may be indebted to these late Roman and Byzantine Jewish works. Especially under the impression of the murals at Dura, a concept was developed of hypothetical Jewish manuscript cycles that may have provided the models for the synagogue imagery. Moreover, on the assumption that such manuscripts served as models not only for the Dura murals but also for early Christian art, the latter has been considered as a hypothetical link between late antique and medieval Jewish art. Many research projects undertaken since the 1960s have debated such relationships.

Jewish narrative art ceased to develop at some time during the seventh century, only to reappear around the 1230s. Whether this interruption can be attributed to the fact that most Jews at this time lived within an Islamic culture, which developed pictorial narratives only in a secular context, or to inner Jewish developments calling for a more narrow interpretation of the religious law is uncertain. Furthermore, a few decades after the Islamic conquest Byzantine iconoclasm may have had an added impact. During the early Middle Ages Jewish manuscript painting flourished only in the Middle East and in northern Africa, where it followed the aniconic approach of Qur’anic decoration. Reminiscences of this aniconic ornamentation still dominated Hebrew Bibles from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iberia.

It was only when Christian narrative art emerged from monastic scriptoria in the early thirteenth century, to engage in new forms of artistic expression in urban secular workshops, that Jewish patrons and scribes developed a renewed interest in narrative painting. From then on, Jewish manuscript painting became increasingly popular all over Europe, developing simultaneously in the cultural centers of Spanish Jewry and the communities of northern France, Germany, and Italy. Bibles, Haggadot, prayer books, scientific texts, halakhic codices, and various miscellanies were decorated with a whole range of iconographic programs. Some of these books were commissioned in Christian workshops; others were the works of Jewish painters, some of whom are known by name. Earlier scholarship argued that the narrative painting in medieval Hebrew manuscripts continued the tradition that grew out of late antique Jewish art; the Dura murals were often regarded as the ultimate archetype of medieval Jewish book illustration.

The Sarajevo Haggadah belongs to a group of ten similar manuscripts, all displaying continuous biblical picture cycles, that precede the Haggadah text without any apparent connection to it. A similar structure is often found in Latin Psalters from France and England of the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. The Haggadah, normally a small book, contains the text to be read at the ceremonial meal on the eve of the Passover holiday. Attached to the general prayer book in ages past, it turned into an independent volume at an unknown date during the thirteenth century. Soon it emerged as the most suitable type of Jewish book to be illuminated, and a wide range of decorated Haggadot survive from the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Even today the narrative, ceremonial, and didactic character of these books stimulates a variety of illustration types, and every spring, before Passover, new versions, together with facsimile editions of medieval and early modern Haggadot, appear in bookstores all over the Jewish world.

The present study focuses on the pictorial narratives of the Sarajevo Haggadah and a group of six other Haggadah manuscripts produced during the first half of the fourteenth century within the realm of the Crown of Aragon. What these books have in common is a consecutive picture cycle covering the biblical events recounted in the books of Genesis and Exodus. Some, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, open with depictions of the creation; others have a more limited range and focus on the narrative of Exodus, as might be expected, since the text of the Haggadah commemorates the events leading to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.

Narrative Old Testament picture cycles were common from late antiquity on. Whether composed by Christians or by Jews, during the fifth or the fifteenth century, whether newly designed or based on earlier sources, every cycle is the result of an individual process of visualization of scripture. Every such process was performed under different circumstances and served different purposes. The results were aimed at different audiences. The following chapters describe this process in the particular case of the Sephardic Haggadot. The cycles, as we look at them today, attest acculturation and dialogue, polemics with Christianity and cultural struggles within Sephardic Jewry in a particular historical setting. The fact that biblical history was differently viewed and interpreted by divers circles of Jews in fourteenth-century Spain is a key toward a definition of the cultural profile of those involved in the design of the cycles.

The publication of the Sarajevo Haggadah and that of the Dura murals were soon followed by a series of scholarly endeavors dedicated to the field of late antique and medieval Jewish art. Some of these were marked by some degree of prejudice, as was von Schlosser’s discussion; others, like those of Martin Buber or Rachel Wischnitzer, played an important role in the Jewish national awakening during the twentieth century. Manuscript painting was treated in surveys by Bezalel Narkiss in 1969, Joseph Gutmann in 1978, and Kurt and Ursula Schubert in 1984. Studies of Haggadah illustration began to appear already in 1922, when Wischnitzer published her “Illuminated Haggadahs” in the Jewish Quarterly Review, followed after a long interval by Gutmann’s 1965 survey article on research problems concerning Haggadah illustration. A first monumental publication on Haggadot was Mendel Metzger’s Haggada enluminée of 1973, based on his earlier dissertation. Most of these works were descriptive discussions of the available material, tracing the specific Jewish characteristics mostly on the basis of extrabiblical iconography rooted in rabbinic commentary literature. These commentaries, known as midrashim, were first orally transmitted and later edited in written form. They are among the most outstanding features of late antique Jewish culture and are characteristic of rabbinic scholarship of the Mishnaic and the Talmudic periods.

An important advance in the study of the Sephardic Haggadot was the publication in 1970 of Narkiss’s facsimile edition of the Golden Haggadah. His commentary deals with a variety of possible sources for the iconography of the cycles, among them contemporary Christian and—prominently—late antique Jewish ones, and discusses the midrashic impact on the biblical imagery. A catalogue raisonné edited by Bezalel Narkiss, Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, and Anat Tcherikover of Sephardic Hebrew manuscripts in British libraries appeared in 1982. The last fifty years have seen a number of facsimile editions, most of them less expensive and more popular than the luxurious edition of the Golden Haggadah.

Like numerous studies on pictorial narratives between the 1940s and the early 1990s, studies on the Sephardic Haggadot have discussed them almost exclusively from two points of view. On the one hand, the scholarship has analyzed them in the light of Kurt Weitzmann’s recension theory, with its strong emphasis on late antique archetypes and iconographic roots. On the other hand—following Erwin Panofsky’s concept of iconography and iconology, published in 1939 —it has highlighted the relation between images and their textual background. In particular, the works of Bezalel Narkiss, Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, and Kurt and Ursula Schubert deal with Jewish narrative art along these latter lines.

Both these highly influential methods of manuscript research were sporadically criticized at quite an early stage. In 1973 Meyer Schapiro challenged the notion of the adherence of an image to text or to model and offered some alternative views. He spoke of the different ways in which a theme can be depicted in correspondence to theological commentary, political thought, changing interests and viewpoints. During the last fifteen years the critique has become more urgent and has led to significant changes in the study of manuscript illumination. John Lowden’s 1992 book on the middle Byzantine Octateuchs was groundbreaking in its rejection of the recension method and its proposal of alternative approaches. The Octateuchs were among the central works of art on which Weitzmann had based his recension theory. Instead of assuming a late antique prototype of the Octateuchs, Lowden proposed that they were original creations of the middle Byzantine period, only partly relying on earlier sources. In the same year Lawrence Nees’s study on the originality of early medieval artists appeared, also challenging, among others, the views of Weitzmann and his followers on medieval art and visual culture.

The conventional method of iconography developed by Panofsky has similarly received a great deal of negative attention during recent years. The critique focuses on the exclusive use of text sources to gain a full understanding of the meaning of visual art. It is not only Panofsky’s and Weitzmann’s methodologies per se that are criticized, but in particular the narrow scope of the conclusions offered by their approaches, according to which a narrative image was not only expected to be nothing but the translation of a particular text into visual language but also perceived to be a mere echo—often a “conflated” or “corrupt” one —of a much earlier and usually more successful version of this “translation,” the prototype. A work of art—so it was argued—is not necessarily always the result of an intellectual endeavor, an enterprise entirely dependent on current theological or philosophical trends. Hence there was a call for other modes of interpretation more apt to offer a response to questions of function, patronage, and audience.

Stimulated by these critical reevaluations of Weitzmann’s and Panosfsky’s methods, art historians’ approach to medieval manuscript illustration and decoration has become significantly broader. New attitudes have enabled them to shift their focus from hypothetical prototypes to the actual cultural and historical context, the meaning and function of narrative works of art, manuscript illustration, and other decoration programs, in their immediate environment. Discussions about “New Art History,” “New Philology,” and “New Medievalism” during the 1980s and the early 1990s, and the resulting atmosphere of crisis in the field, have stimulated contextualizing, interdisciplinary studies of narrative cycles, even though most recent scholarship does not necessarily adhere strictly to the somewhat narrow concepts of New Art History or New Medievalism. Feminist approaches and questions concerning female audiences have gained increasing importance. Narratological approaches, first introduced in the context of narrative art by Richard Brilliant, have tried to reconstruct narrative techniques and viewing processes. Challenging Lessing’s distinction between the arts of time (writing) and the arts of space (painting), a concept that excludes any assumption that time can be expressed in the visual arts, these approaches focus on issues of movement and time, of narrative sequence, and of the relationship between the narrator, the artist, and the viewer.

Other approaches deal with questions of production. John Lowden’s discussions of the Byzantine Octateuchs and the French Bibles moralisées focus on questions of production and decision taking on the part of those involved in the numerous processes of “making” the manuscript, from codicological and paleographic points of view. One noteworthy conclusion drawn by Lowden is that in some cases the artists of the Bibles moralisées had a deeper knowledge of the biblical subject matter than the persons who composed the captions.

Various methods of contextualizing iconography have been employed in recent years. An example is Dorothy Verkerk’s work on the Ashburnham Pentateuch. Her analysis of the subject matter against the background of contemporary theology—typology, in particular, and liturgy—not only provides a more interesting insight into the visual language of that image cycle than conventional iconography was able to do, but—together with a thorough codicological examination—offers a convincing solution to the question of the provenance of this particular manuscript, which has puzzled scholars for decades.

Other contextualizing approaches have resulted in attempts to solve questions of patronage and functionality. Some of these consider the issue of patronage and audience via iconography or cultural history. A pioneer work on patronage, with a link to a particular historical event, was published in 1991 by Herbert L. Kessler. More recently Daniel Weiss and Alyce Jordan have discussed works of art produced in France for Louis IX from such points of view. Other publications have been based on methods borrowed from reception theory. An example is the work of Suzanne Lewis, who approaches images of the apocalypse as a “text” on their own and researches modes of their reception among medieval viewers, basing her discussion on theories of vision and cognition. The work of Michael Camille, finally, opened up yet more paths for a focus on the viewer and for consideration of how images reached and affected spectators.

Thus the new methodologies employed in the study of illuminated manuscripts in recent years have broadened our knowledge immensely on all fronts: production, function, patronage, and audiences—all these aspects have raised important questions, and the responses have led to further questions, in particular those of consumption.

Scholarship on Hebrew manuscript painting has hitherto shown only scant concern with questions of patronage, function, or cultural background. Marc M. Epstein, however, worked in that direction in a series of articles collected in a book in 1997; his argumentation follows the Annales school’s search for mentalités, promoted in the field of medieval art history primarily by Camille. Focusing on animal symbolism, Epstein explores questions of identity and polemics; but apart from a few observations, his book is not concerned with Sephardic manuscripts. The recently published collection of papers given in 1999 at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, edited by Eva Frojmovic, develops this line further. Three of the papers deal with medieval Jewish art, focusing on Sephardic manuscript painting. Epstein contributes an analysis of an image from the biblical cycle of one of the Sephardic Haggadot. Michael Batterman, who in 2000 wrote a dissertation on the patronage of the Haggadot, discusses depictions of matsot in a contextualizing approach. Frojmovic deals with the messianic aspects of images of the Temple in Sephardic Bibles.

The chapters that follow take up two of the “major questions” mentioned at the outset of this introduction: the relationship of the Sephardic picture cycles to Christian art, and their Jewish background. The main focus is on questions of cultural identity, aiming at a definition of the cultural profiles of the patronage. I first suggest a new approach to the question of models, somewhat neglected in recent research and tabooed in New Art History. The use of models is not explored here in an attempt to reconstruct any archetypes, but rather with the aim of understanding cultural exchanges and cultural borrowings. Most of the compositions in these cycles, although loosely based on models, were not copied in their entirety; it is rather single motifs, parts of compositions, and remembered iconographic formulas that are discernible behind the Sephardic images. My discussion thus develops the notion of reproduction from memory instead of from actual full-fledged picture cycles. The ground is thus prepared for questions of how indebted the Jewish cycles are to Christian art, to what degree they reflect acculturation, and how critically such models were processed. From this point of view the approach proposed also sheds new light on relationships within the group of the Haggadot themselves.

The focus then moves to the cultural ambience that nourished the cycles. From this point of view the Sephardic Haggadah cycles are discussed as a phenomenon that emerged in the complex cultural fabric of late-thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Spanish Jewry. Due to the lack of colophons, all we know for certain are the images and their visual language. They do not reveal much about the when and where of their production, but a careful look at the imagery discloses a great deal of the cultural identity of those responsible for their design. They display dynamics of cultural exchange and dialogue, of polemical engagement with Christianity, and of cultural identity within the complex structures of late medieval Spanish-Jewish society. Analyzed from these points of view, the cycles appear as visual manifestations of a minority culture struggling for identity not only in relation to the surrounding world but also within its own realm. In the period of culture struggle that marked the life of the Jewish communities during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the cycles discussed here played a major part.

The models and motifs used were Christian, and they had to be adapted for the Jewish audience. They underwent a “translation” process in which contemporary Jewish exegesis and anti-Christian polemic were employed to shape what can thus be labeled “Jewish imagery.” My discussion considers the particular cultural backgrounds and profiles of the personalities responsible for the specific contents. The cycles convey messages of particular ideological and cultural significance in the context of fourteenth-century Spanish and southern French Jewry. The deciphering of these messages may lead to a better comprehension of the themes important to the designers of the cycles, and of the ways in which they employed visual means to communicate their issues. These messages, it will be observed, are not simply “Jewish,” as they have been approached in former scholarship, “Jewish” being taken as a universal notion different from “Christian” or “Islamic.” In the following, I examine the cycles not simply with regard to their “Jewishness,” but rather in terms of particular facets of late medieval Spanish Jewry and specific messages offered in a delimited historical situation.