Visu­al Arts

Skies of Parch­ment, Seas of Ink: Jew­ish Illu­mi­nat­ed Manuscripts

Marc Michael Epstein, ed.
  • Review
By – September 15, 2015

Over the past half-cen­tu­ry, numer­ous books have dealt with the his­to­ry and iconog­ra­phy of Jew­ish illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts. Schol­ars have elu­ci­dat­ed social and cul­tur­al con­texts of the artis­tic codices, par­tic­u­lar­ly Hebrew man­u­scripts pro­duced dur­ing the medieval and Renais­sance eras. Art his­to­ri­ans have pri­mar­i­ly led the charge in com­par­ing Jew­ish works of art to those pro­duced with­in the dom­i­nant soci­eties, and spe­cial­ists have occa­sion­al­ly explored the rela­tion­ship between illus­tra­tion and text. Beyond aes­theti­cism, how­ev­er, the pub­li­ca­tions have not gen­er­al­ly tar­get­ed a pop­u­lar audience.

The present book, edit­ed by Marc Michael Epstein, pro­fes­sor at Vas­sar Col­lege, was designed to bring the state of the field to the inter­est­ed non­spe­cial­ist.” Con­sist­ing of thir­teen chap­ters, with sev­er­al in-depth focus” essays, the book cov­ers near­ly a mil­len­ni­um of Jew­ish man­u­script art. Epstein served as the volume’s pri­ma­ry author, but nine addi­tion­al con­trib­u­tors ampli­fy his voice. Schol­ars of var­i­ous fields with­in Jew­ish Stud­ies and Jew­ish book his­to­ry, as well as a con­tem­po­rary man­u­script illu­mi­na­tor, lend an air of col­lec­tiv­i­ty to the project. The result is a book that suc­cess­ful­ly paints both a broad and detailed landscape.

The text is clear­ly writ­ten, and the approx­i­mate­ly three hun­dred illus­tra­tions are well cho­sen, beau­ti­ful­ly repro­duced, and smart­ly laid out on the print­ed page. Through­out the vol­ume, Epstein guides the read­er through the place of books in Jew­ish life, the extent and impor­tance of the canon, and the nature of Jew­ish life as por­trayed in man­u­script. The book explains the con­struc­tion of an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script – includ­ing the rela­tion­ship between patrons, scribes, and illu­mi­na­tors – and elu­ci­dates the iconog­ra­phy of many of the world’s most famous Jew­ish man­u­scripts. In addi­tion, sev­er­al chap­ters explore geo­graph­ic regions, includ­ing Italy, Ashke­naz, Spain, and Per­sia. Oth­er chap­ters address gen­der and fam­i­ly, the sacred and the pro­fane, the impor­tance of Jerusalem, depic­tions of the heav­ens, and con­tem­po­rary illuminators.

Epstein’s goal is to bring the his­to­ry of Jew­ish man­u­script art to the pub­lic at large. He reeval­u­ates pre­vi­ous schol­ar­ship on Hebrew illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts and posits new and some­times dar­ing the­o­ries. For instance, Epstein argues for the renam­ing of the famous Birds’ Head Hag­gadah, because the iconog­ra­phy cho­sen to rep­re­sent humans in the man­u­script more close­ly resem­bles griffins. Like­wise, going fur­ther than pre­vi­ous schol­ars on the sub­ject, Epstein empha­sizes Jew­ish redemp­tion and anti-gen­tile polemic in his sur­vey of iconography.

Ulti­mate­ly, while occa­sion­al­ly spec­u­la­tive, Epstein’s the­o­ries are intrigu­ing and are cer­tain to pique the inter­est of his read­ers. Per­haps more impor­tant­ly for most poten­tial read­ers, Skies of Parch­ment reflects the essence and beau­ty of its sub­ject matter.

Relat­ed Content:

David Sclar stud­ies Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. He earned his doc­tor­ate at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and has held fel­low­ships at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. He worked for sev­er­al years in the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions of the Library of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and present­ly teach­es his­to­ry at the Frisch School.

Discussion Questions