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Duke of Sussex's Spanish Hebrew Bible

The messianic imagery found in these splendid Hebrew Bibles is unique. Crystallised in Spain in the 13th century and applied splendidly in this 14th-century manuscript, it had no apparent antecedent in Christian and Jewish art.

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Duke of Sussex's Spanish Hebrew Bible

Duke of Sussex’s Spanish Bible, Catalonia, Spain, mid-14th century. Temple vessels
BL Add. MS 15250, ff. 3v–4
Copyright © The British Library Board

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 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.

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, making the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible largely similar.

Why are there so few pictures of people 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.

What are the objects illustrated on this page?

The magnificently painted utensils in these carpet pages are effectively a combination of the contents of the Desert Tabernacle, the Solomonic and Herodian Temples and the future Messianic Temple, as described in biblical and other sources (Rashi and Maimonides). The menorah (seven branched candlestick), the Ark of the Covenant, the Jar of Manna and other furnishings that once stood in the Temple, were executed in raised burnished gold on coloured tooled grounds.


A menorah-shaped installation in the British Library piazza pictured in May 2007

The stylised Mount of Olives painted in the lower outer corner on the left-hand page alludes to Zechariah's messianic vision (Zechariah 14: 4). Known as Mikdashyah (Lord's Sanctuary), the Hebrew Bible was regarded by the Jews of Spain and North Africa as a substitute for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Representations of its holy vessels and the Mount of Olives thus expressed the traditional Jewish longing to rebuild the Temple in messianic times.

The theme of messianic hope inherent in these images evolved against the background of heated Jewish-Christian religious polemics and fierce Jewish persecutions in late medieval Christian Spain. Accordingly, the portrayal of the sacred vessels can also be seen as a forceful statement of Jewish continuity, self-definition and resilience.

The manuscript takes its name from its last owner, the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), before it became part of the British Museum collection, now the British Library, in 1844.