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German Pentateuch

This page of the Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch shows the kind of marginal decoration often painted in Hebrew medieval manuscripts, especially in Germany. The strange beasts here are outlined in minute Hebrew lettering. As a whole, the richly-decorated book is a fine example of the South German style of illumination, with its rich, contrasting colours and exaggerated, often strange-looking faces and animals, and micrographic adornments such as these odd marginal creatures.

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German Pentateuch

The Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch: Book of Ecclesiastes. Southern Germany, c.1300
British Library Add. MS 15282, f.302
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch is part of the Torah, one of the three main sections of the Bible in Jewish tradition, and also the most sacred. It comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the Five Books of Moses, as they are believed to have been first written down by Moses at divine dictation.

The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the English Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

Who created this book?

The Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch was written and illuminated by a scribe-artist known as Hayyim, working in southern Germany around 1300. Apart from the five books of the Old Testament, it contains the Aramaic translation (Targum Onkelos), the Five Scrolls, and Haftarot (readings from the Prophets). The manuscript takes its name from the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843): he was the book's last owner before it became part of the British Museum collection in 1844.

Each of the five Old Testament books is preceded by an illuminated opening word set in a full-page miniature, and four of the Five Scrolls - Megilot (namely, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes and Esther) open with a smaller ornamented panel.

What are those animals doing there?

Hybrids, legendary beasts, griffons, dragons and other imaginary creatures were often painted in Hebrew medieval illuminated manuscripts, particularly in Germany. The imagery was probably modelled on contemporary Latin bestiaries.

In this example the marginal figures (a hybrid facing a dragon-like creature) are outlined in micrography, a Jewish scribal practice using minute lettering to create abstract and figurative designs. In medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the masoretic notes (advice on pronunciation and intonation for those reading the text aloud) were the most commonly used texts in artistic micrography. Penned close to the textual columns, these were complex annotations on the biblical text, which kept it intact and safeguarded its correct transmission over the centuries. On this page the masoretic notes were penned in both plain script and decorative micrography.

What's the significance of the large word in the middle?

The large bold word in the middle column marks the beginning of a weekly pericope (a portion of the Torah designated for weekly religious reading). Hebrew does not have capital letters, so whereas Christian manuscripts would illuminate an initial letter, Hebrew emphasises whole words or lines. This pericope is Va-Yishlah, from the verse 'Jacob sent messengers.' (Genesis 32: 4).

In the lower left corner, behind the creature's tail, is a catchword, a scribal device intended to ensure the correct order of sheets and leaves in a manuscript.

To compare how Jewish and Christian manuscripts approached marginal decorations, see this page of the Luttrell Psalter.