Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jews and Art: Secret Transcripts

Today at the Jewish Community Center there was a day of learning featuring a variety of speakers on a range of topics for the community here in Columbus. Among the keynote presentations was Dr. Marc Michael Epstein’s “Jews and Art: Secret Transcripts.” Here are my notes. As always all mistakes are mine.

The title of this lecture includes the words “Jews” and “art.” This is a difficult task likely to prove dangerous to one’s health; much like a four day tour of seventeen countries. Furthermore, who is to say what “Jewish art” is? We have kitsch art and material goods. Art is notoriously problematic for Jews, not something for nice Jews to go into. Can you name one Jewish artist before Marc Chagall?

Every book about Jewish art begins be pointing to the second commandment. Jews are supposed to focus on the “word” as opposed to the image. So let us begin by looking at that infamous second commandment. Jews saw the Bible as a love letter from God. Traditional Jewish thought assumed that the prohibition was on making objects for oneself, but not for others, against three dimensional objects, but not against two-dimensional objects. Non Jews can make an image, even one intended for worship, and Jews can own it.

Jews in fact did make visual objects. We have actual fragments from the Second Temple. There were swastikas, an image of power in many ancient cultures. We see full narrative panels such as the Dura Europos, discovered in 1932. Dura Europos is special because even the walls survived, not just the floors. There was a downturn in Jewish art with the rise of Islam which tended to be hostile to images. Around the turn of the fourteenth century we see laminated manuscripts reaching out from monasteries to shops where anyone, with money, could purchase them.

The real problem surrounding Jewish art is not that it exists, but that it seems to mimic the art of the cultures around them. Angels in Judeo-Persian manuscripts look like Muslim angels. German Jewish angels look like Christian angels complete with ritual robes. Similar is not identical though. If Congress were to commission an eagle with an American flag for the capital and some kids in Spanish Harlem were to draw the same eagle with a flag would anyone think they were the same thing? One would symbolize the American dream, the other the American dream deferred.

The Golden Haggadah from fourteenth century Barcelona has often been described as being devoid of almost all but the most superficial Jewish elements. The pictures, mostly of scenes from Genesis and Exodus, look like Christian art. It very well might have been drawn by a Christian. The haggadah makes use of midrashic material. For example we see one giant frog spouting out smaller frogs from its posterior. It only makes sense that the work of any artist should reflect the wider culture. So yes Moses going to Egypt does look like the “holy family” of Joseph, Mary and Jesus traveling to Egypt. As is common in medieval art there is foreshadowing. Moses has a spear, foreshadowing the Israelites leaving Egypt armed.

Who commissioned this work? The Golden Haggadah depicts over forty women, including a depiction of Miriam leading a group of women in song. Women are often in the physical center of pictures. The midwives for example are in the center with Pharaoh and the baby to the side. Miriam leading the women is presented with no background thus with no context and rendered timeless. Women are placed in pictures were they are not needed. A woman is placed comforting Jacob even though no woman is placed here by the Bible.

A front page added several hundred years later says that the manuscript was owned by a Mistress Rosa. Perhaps this haggadah was passed down from mother to daughter. One might go further and say that the original woman for whom this haggadah was written was someone who had lost a child. We see depictions of the Midrash about babies being put into the bricks in Egypt. We see repeated depictions of women with babies. There is a woman with seven children, even more than the hyper fertility of six children per birth in Egypt.

Dr. Marc Michael Epstein is the author of the forthcoming book The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination.   

1 comment:

Janice Epstein said...

Glad to be able to read your notes since I had to be at the other session.