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Barcelona Haggadah

Stunningly illustrated with people, flowers, birds and imaginary creatures, this prayer book for the festival of Passover is one of the most richly pictorial of all Jewish texts. Meant to accompany the Passover eve service and festive meal, it was also a status symbol for its owner in 14th-century Spain.

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Barcelona Haggadah

Barcelona Haggadah, Catalonia, Spain, 14th century. Mnemonic for Passover
BL Add. MS 14761, f. 24v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a haggadah?

A haggadah is a collection of Jewish prayers and readings written to accompany the Passover 'seder', a ritual meal eaten on the eve of the Passover festival. The ritual meal was formalised during the 2nd century, after the example of the Greek 'symposium', in which philosophical debate was fortified by food and wine.

Its text is a mosaic of biblical passages, legends, blessings and rituals. It teaches the young about the continuity of the Jewish people and their unflinching faith in God, as in the verse: 'And thou shall tell thy son in that day. It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt' (Exodus 13: 8). The literal meaning of the Hebrew word 'haggadah' is a 'narration' or 'telling'.

Perhaps because it was mainly intended for use at home, and its purpose was educational, Jewish scribes and artists felt completely free to illustrate the Haggadah. Indeed it was traditionally the most lavishly decorated of all Jewish sacred writings, giving well-to-do Jews of the middle ages a chance to demonstrate their wealth and good taste as well as their piety.

What is Passover?

Passover commemorates one of the most important events in the story of the Jewish people. Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism traces its origins back to Abraham. He was leader of the Israelites, a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. Abraham established a religion that distinguished itself from other local beliefs by having only one, all-powerful God. According to a Covenant made between them, the Jews would keep God's laws, and in return they would be protected as chosen people.

The Israelites were captured and taken as slaves to Egypt, where they suffered much hardship. Eventually, a prophet called Moses delivered the Jews from their captivity with the help of several miraculous events intended to intimidate the Egyptian authorities. The last of these was the sudden death of the eldest son in every family. Jewish households were spared by smearing lambs' blood above their doors - a sign telling the 'angel of death' to pass over.

'Pesach', the Hebrew for 'Passover', is the root of the word for 'Easter' in many languages: 'Paskha', French 'Pâques', Russian 'Paskha', Turkish 'Paskalya', Icelandic 'Páskar' and so on.

What is special about this Haggadah?

Unlike other Spanish Haggadah manuscripts, the Barcelona Haggadah lacks the characteristic cycle of full-page Biblical narratives that normally prefaces the main text. By contrast, nearly all its folios are filled with miniatures depicting Passover rituals, Biblical and Midrashic episodes, and symbolic foods.

Particularly stunning are the tooled Gothic word panels and the lush marginal foliage scrolls interwoven with human figures, birds, hybrids, grotesques and fabulous animals, as this opening shows. Occasionally, animals are portrayed performing human activities, a humorous element probably borrowed from Latin codices.

The lower panel on this page contains a mnemonic sign (memory aid) of the rituals that should be performed if Passover falls at the close of the Sabbath.