Thursday, June 30, 2011

New book by Marc Epstein: The Medieval Haggadah

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In his new work, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination, (Yale University Press, 2011), Marc Michael Epstein (Professor of Religion at Vassar College) explores four enigmatic, quirky, and interesting illuminated haggadot including the earliest-known surviving illuminated haggadah, the Birds’ Head Haggadah, likely made in Mainz around 1300, in which many of the faces on the human figures depicted throughout the work are replaced with those of birds; the Golden Haggadah, possibly from Barcelona, circa 1320-30, the iconography of which seems so indisputably “formed in the image and likeness” of contemporary manuscripts made for Christians; and two Spanish “siblings,” the Rylands Haggadah and its so-called Brother, made between 1330 and 1340 also possibly in Barcelona, which have historically been paired because of the similarity of their iconography and style.
The Medieval Haggadah is itself a lavishly illustrated book that presents the complete sequence of illustrations in each of the manuscripts discussed in full size and full-color, along with corroborating examples, for a total of 151 full-color illustrations.
Rather than viewing the art in these books as merely illustrating the text or its commentaries, Epstein understands these manuscripts to be visual commentary in and of themselves. He argues that they not only contain "midrashic details," but evince a strong midrashic mindset.
Though the importance of these manuscripts is universally acknowledged, they contain a number of elements which have been little explored. For instance, the Golden Haggadah includes forty-six distinct depictions of women, whose presence has been glossed over as mere "narrative detail," and the faces in the Birds’ Head Haggadah turn out not to belong to birds, strictly speaking, at all, but to composite beings of deep significance in Jewish tradition.
Epstein proposes some startling new solutions to long-unresolved questions concerning the meaning of the art contained within them. But he also engages in analysis of this art as a springboard to addressing broader issues in the study of Jewish thought, visuality, and culture, both material and intellectual.
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination,
Yale University Press, May 09, 2011 344 p., 8 1/2 x 11
151 color illus. ISBN: 9780300156669 Cloth: $65.00

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