Ex­pert views of a hid­den art

By Ilana Ta­han The Bri­tish Li­brary, £20 RE­VIEWED BY DAVID BREUER WEIL

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM JUDAISM -

HE­BREW MANUSCRIPTS are a hid­den art, not merely be­cause they are rarely ex­hib­ited, but even when ex­hib­ited, the viewer typ­i­cally sees only one spread of hun­dreds con­tained in each codex. As Ilana Ta­han makes clear in her lav­ishly il­lus­trated book — pub­lished on the heels of the ac­claimed Sa­cred ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bri­tish Li­brary last year — He­brew manuscripts were beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated and il­lu­mi­nated with a wealth of im­agery, from the ab­stract to the fig­u­ra­tive. They have sur­vived in much larger quan­ti­ties than most would re­alise, con­sti­tut­ing a his­tory of Jewish art in minia­ture.

The de­gree to which Jews were will­ing to beau­tify their faith through su­perb art ( hid­dur mitz­vah) — a prac­tice that sadly seems to be fall­ing away — is nowhere more ev­i­dent than in Ta­han’s book, which in­cludes some of the finest ex­am­ples of the Chu­mash, Sid- dur, Hag­gadah and ke­tubah to have mirac­u­lously sur­vived a trou­bled his­tory.

Cov­er­ing the hold­ings of the Bri­tish Li­brary, one of the finest col­lec­tions in the world, it con­tains ma­te­rial span­ning a thou­sand years from the ninth to the 19th cen­tury. Par­tic­u­larly valu­able is that it shows images that have not been re­pro­duced be­fore. An­other strength is that the au­thor also re­veals that each di­as­pora com­mu­nity was in­flu­enced by the pre­vail­ing artis­tic styles of the day, from Is­lamic and Byzan­tine to high Re­nais­sance and Ro­coco art, while some of the il­lus­tra­tors were hired pro­fes­sional gen­tile artists. Ac­cu­rately cat­a­logued, with a high de­gree of the most up-to-date schol­ar­ship, the book also deals with one form of art that was pe­cu­liar to Jews, mi­crog­ra­phy— the cre­at­ing of pic­tures and pat­terns out of minia­ture let­ters. The 145 colour re­pro­duc­tions are very faith­ful to the orig­i­nals and at £20, the book is ex­tremely good value for an art book of this qual­ity, es­pe­cially for such a spe­cialised sub­ject.

In her con­cise but ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion, Ta­han, un­like most schol­ars on the sub­ject of Jewish cre­ativ­ity, has done her re­search on Jewish law and ex­ploded a pop­u­lar myth that the paint­ing of fig­u­ra­tive images is nec­es­sar­ily a breach of the Sec­ond Com­mand­ment. As an ob­ser­vant Jew and an artist, I have of­ten b e e n t r o u b l e d by the opin­ion of most art his­to­ri­ans that artists break the Sec­ond Com­mand­ment. As Ta­han demon­strates, rep­re­sen­ta­tional art was not per­mit­ted if used in idol wor­ship but rab­binic au­thor­i­ties have per­mit­ted two-di­men­sional fig­u­ra­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions for hun­dreds of years: the mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ples of this per­mis­sive approach are clear for all to see here.

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