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Italian Pentateuch

This Pentateuch shows a rare example of the embellishing of initial letters in a Jewish manuscript - a practice commonly associated with Latin sacred texts, but skilfully adapted here by an anonymous Jewish scribe working in 15th-century Italy.

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Italian Pentateuch

Duke of Sussex’s Italian Pentateuch, Italy, c.1400. Deuteronomy 1
BL Add. MS 15423, f. 117r
Copyright © The British Library Board

Who made this manuscript?

As with so many manuscripts of this type, the identities of the scribe and artist who worked on this item are unknown. Evidence of contemporary influences on their hybrid style can be noted in the ornamental letters, which seem to emulate Gothic script, and equally in the textual semi-cursive Hebrew handwriting, which shows affinities with Italian Latin scripts.

The manuscript takes its name from the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), who was the last to own the item before it became part of the British Museum collection in 1844.

What does this page say?

Inside a pink scroll-like panel, the ornamental initial letter alef is moulded in gold leaf. It is the first letter of the opening word Eleh, from Deuteronomy 1: 1: "These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan in the wilderness, in the plain over against the Red sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab."

Surrounding the text on two sides are luxuriant foliage scrolls embellished with golden dots and inlays.

What is in the Hebrew Bible?

The Hebrew Bible, known to the Jews as Tanakh, comprises three sections: Torah (the Law), Nevi'im (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

The Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, is also known as the Pentateuch. The Torah is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it 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 work 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.

Many books of Nevi'im (Joshua, Judges and so on up to Malachi) and Ketuvim (Psalms, Proverbs and so on up to Chronicles) occur in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The contents of the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible are therefore largely similar, although the order of the books is quite different.

Why is an illustrated initial so rare in Jewish manuscripts?

Within the Jewish tradition depictions of the human form in biblical manuscripts are relatively rare. This is based on a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment against graven images or likenesses (Exodus 20:4). However, Jewish manuscripts and books display other types of decoration and illumination, including decorative word panels, micrography (drawings whose 'lines' are in fact minute lines of text), carpet pages (ornate patterns resembling those found on rugs) and margin pericope (or section) markers.

The Hebrew alphabet lacks capital letters, so whole words at the beginning of texts, rather than just first letters, were usually painted or decorated.