A 15th-century Pentateuch featuring illuminated letters, which are rare in Hebrew manuscripts.
What is the Pentateuch?
Pentateuch is a Greek term meaning ‘five books’. It invariably refers to the Five Books of Moses or the Torah - the first, most sacred and most revered section of the Hebrew Bible. According to tradition it was 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 distinctive word appearing in each book, while the names used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.
Illuminated letters, a trait usually associated with Latin handwritten books, seldom occur in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. In this Pentateuch however, embellished letters replace the habitual decorated first words. Within a lapis blue ornate panel shaped as an unfurling scroll, the Hebrew letter Vav is moulded in burnished gold. The letter forms part of the opening word to the Book of Exodus, the second of the Five Books of Moses. Flanking the text on two sides are floral garlands and luxuriant foliage in lapis, pink and green pigments, enhanced with golden dots.
The scribe Isaac ben Obadiah ben David of Forli, also known as Gaio di Servadio, was active in Florence in the mid-15th century. He copied the scriptural text on parchment in a Hebrew vowelized semi-cursive script, the round shape of which closely resembles Italian Latin scripts, particularly the Carolingian style. The manuscript’s last owner was Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773–1843), hence its appellation.
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