The illuminated Haggadot of medieval Spain are some of the most personal manuscripts made for Jewish patrons in the collection of the British Library. Dr Julie Harris searches for clues on who these splendid manuscripts were commissioned for.
) are personal because the manuscripts were designed to be used at home by families as they conducted their Seders
– the ritual meal held on the eve of Passover. Unfortunately, none of the manuscripts contain a contemporary colophon
to tell us who made it, commissioned it, or used it. Passover observance – and the Haggadah
itself – have remained relatively unchanged over the ages. When we look at the manuscripts today, we seek to identify with our medieval counterparts. But just whose Haggadot
are we looking at? In the absence of written data, is it possible to uncover more information about a particular manuscript’s original audience?
Searching for clues in the decoration
This genre of manuscript generally feature a series of illuminations narrating the Exodus from Egypt, the basis for the holiday and images of the ritual foods of Passover and those of apparently contemporary Jews preparing for and celebrating the holiday. The so-called Sister Haggadah (Or 2884, c. 1320 CE) offers us a tantalising glimpse of a Seder in progress in a 14th-century CE Iberian home.
In the above image, men at the Seder table engage with the Haggadah volumes before them, but women do not. This depiction of a Passover Seder may reflect low literacy rates among Jewish women in Iberia or the fact that meaningful visual models for literate religious Jews – rabbis, for example – were exclusively male. The woman in blue listens to the discussion taking place to her right with her hands crossed passively on the table. In contrast, the woman in pink raises a finger in front of her lips while glancing out at the viewer. What does her gesture mean? Is she asking for silence from her male companions or from the viewer, or has she impatiently and self-consciously jumped to the next step of the Seder by stealing a taste of the ritual food on display before her? Whichever answer we prefer, her prominent place in the illumination makes this young woman impossible to ignore. Was the manuscript (Or 2884) made for her and her future husband – possibly the man seated next to her who also looks our way?
Visual puns: can animals be people?
The decoration of another Iberian Haggadah may also offer clues about its origins, but decoding these requires some additional detective work. The so-called Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737, c.1280 CE) is believed to have been made in Castile in the late 13th or early 14th century CE. Turning its pages carefully, we find embedded in its Exodus series another story that may shed light on the manuscript’s patronage.
The first clue appears on f. 64v in the image depicting the drowning of the Hebrew male infants as decreed by Pharaoh. This is a subject we would expect to see in an illuminated Haggadah
since it explains Moses’s unusual childhood as well as highlighting the suffering of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. However, set in an architectural frame above the scene, we see two nearly identical, confronted, bust-length men. Each man reaches back to grasp a long-legged water bird while simultaneously clasping and lifting a fleur-de-lis
into the space between them. These figures are prominent, but their origin is not biblical.
A second appearance of the fleur-de-lis and what appears to be the same men occurs on f. 73r which depicts the Land of Goshen (Exodus 8:18). Rather than focusing on the lush grazing lands of Goshen, the artist has presented a looming architectural façade within which one of the men and a veiled woman – witnessed by the second man and a turbaned figure above – exchange a ring and the fleur-de-lis. Again, there is nothing in Exodus to explain the vignette which appears to be a betrothal ceremony.
A heraldic device made famous by the French monarchy, the fleur-de-lis was adopted and used by many people in the Middle Ages – both Jews and Christians. But, in this Haggadah, the device is used with deliberation; it does not appear to be a decorative element or shallow status symbol. Could it refer to the family for whom this Haggadah was made? It helps to remember that the fleur-de-lis is a stylised rendering of the lily flower. The fact that the Hebrew word for lily is shoshanah, might connect the manuscript to a member of the Ibn Shoshan family, a wealthy and socially prominent clan in medieval Toledo.
And what of the long-legged water birds who also appear in the architectural surrounds of several of the illuminations (Or 2737, f. 66r) and whose wings are grasped by the men raising the fleur-de-lis on f. 64v? Could these animals be a visual pun on the Hebrew name of another family – perhaps that of the person marrying into the Ibn Shoshan clan?
With their long legs and beaks, the birds closely resemble storks whose Hebrew equivalent is hasidah (singular, hasidot plural). This word is similar to the word hasid which means a pious individual. It is also similar to the name Ibn Hasdai, another prominent family in medieval Spain.
Rabbinic commentary connected storks with the Levites because Moses used the term hasidekha (your faithful one) when he addressed them in his farewell blessing (Deuteronomy 33:8). Perhaps the storks in our manuscript are making reference to the Halevis, another elite family of Jewish Toledo who appear in numerous medieval documents and were known to have intermarried with the Ibn Shoshans?
A personal touch?
We will probably never know the precise circumstances under which illuminated Haggadot such as the Sister or the Hispano-Moresque Haggadah were made. We do know that the Jewish community of medieval Spain was multilingual and fully participated in a diverse society that valued poetry, prose, and possessed a sophisticated visual culture. This allowed for a remarkable level of self-expression and creativity. Armed with this knowledge, careful observation skills, and a little imagination, we can personalise the most personal – yet unsigned – manuscripts made for Jews.
Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder
A publisher's emblem or imprint usually on the title page of a book
A stylised lily composed of three petals bound together near their bases