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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Passover Art

Passover, 1948, Arthur Szyk. Jewish Passover is as much educational as it is commemorative, yet in Passover art, you won't find baby farm animals (except
for the lamb, which is eaten), but instead, a reading of the Haggadah.
At this particular time of the year we in the Christian world are confronted with two distinct and separate artistic courses--religious and secular. Both are so familiar to all of us in their iconography they need no explanation from me or anyone else. Strangely, this does not seem to be the case in the Jewish culture. Whether because Pesach (Passover) is a much older holiday, or because Hebrew laws forbid it, there seems to be no Jewish equivalent to Peter Cottontail or his secluding colored eggs in the park. However, the plain, undecorated, hardboiled (roasted actually) egg does play a part in the Seder (Passover meal), albeit a relatively minor one. And if you go searching the great art museums of the world, or through the abundant supply of art tomes weighing down the coffee tables of the world, you'll find very little in the way of distinctly Jewish art in general, and even less specifically dealing with Pesach.

Rylands Haggadah, mid-1300s
Art experts disagree as to why this is the case, but many cite one overwhelming factor as the reason--the Jewish literary tradition. Jews have always had one of the highest literacy rates in the world going back thousands of years. Whereas, even up through the Renaissance and Baroque eras in Western art, the Christian church relied heavily on the painted image to lead worshipers minds to God. Judaism did not. Though their ancient scrolls and manuscripts were often illuminated much as Medieval Bibles, Jewish art has always been more decorative than narrative. The Rylands Haggadah (above) dating from around 1350 is typical. However, there are also a few examples to the contrary. They're just not at all common.  One exception, the Darmstadt Haggadah (below, left), is particularly graphic and quite beautiful.
Darmstadt Haggadah, 1430,
Israel ben Meir
A Haggadah is a book detailing the elaborate ritual meals used to mark Pesach. The Darmstadt Haggadah dates from 15th century Germany and was written by the Jewish scribe, Israel ben Meir of Heidelberg. It's speculated by some he also illustrated the text but others have noticed stylistic variances that point toward several artists having had a hand in it, some perhaps even non-Jewish. Stylistically it is Medieval. Historically, there has never been a "Jewish style" of art (at least until very recently). The work itself is quite colorful with reds and greens predominating. The figures have a childlike, almost whimsical, quality to them which is not totally surprising if we assume adults would have Passover lore already deeply embedded in their religious heritage. It's quite likely the Haggadah was more often used to educate children about Pesach customs and rituals. In fact, there is as much about Seder that is educational (aimed at the young) as it is commemorative (for the elders in the family). What is perhaps most interesting about Passover, as compared to Christian holidays, is how little it has changed down through the centuries. Could this be accounted for by the fact that Jewish tradition does not rely upon art and artists to perpetuate its customs and celebrations?

This Haggadah is a far cry from that of just a generation ago,
an "illuminated" comic book is by Richard and Liora Codor

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