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The Lisbon Bible - Pages 3 and 4

The Lisbon Bible - Pages 3 and 4
Copyright © The British Library Board

List of Commandments
Volume 1, folios 13v and 16r

This opening contains Commandments 338-351 (right page) and 403-415 (left page) of the 613 mentioned in the Torah. They cover issues as varied as the treatment of slaves, sacrifices and criminal offenders. The text of the Commandments and the grammatical treatise written in the margins are penned in an unvocalised square script (i.e. without vowels) in a Sephardi style, which is peculiar to scribes of the Iberian Peninsula. Traditionally Sephardi scribes used a reed for copying manuscripts, which resulted in very even letter strokes.

Barely thirty manuscripts, including the Lisbon Bible, survive from the Portuguese school of medieval Hebrew illumination. Owing to their carefully planned and orderly layout and the consistency of their decoration schemes, it is generally acknowledged that there must have been a workshop in Lisbon where these manuscripts were created by a team of artists and craftsmen. The earliest dated surviving manuscript is from 1469 and the latest from 1496, suggesting that the workshop was active for at least 28 years. Considering that medieval scriptoria (writing rooms usually in monasteries where books were made) had no equivalent in Jewish artistic tradition, the existence of the Lisbon workshop is an exceptional phenomenon.

In the Lisbon Bible the hands of several different artists can be detected. However, they have not signed their names, as is often the case in medieval manuscripts, especially Hebrew ones. In contrast, the chief scribe, who was entrusted with the pivotal responsibility of planning the entire manuscript including its decoration, would normally sign it on completion, as is the case here.

The typical combination of eye-catching floral and filigree borders and burnished gold script is repeated in this opening. The external frame on the right is strewn with pink roses and smaller white, blue and gold flowers that alternate with leafy scrolls outlined in gold. Its dense and rich composition is offset by the airy border on the opposite page.

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