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8 / Writing

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r
Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Spain
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1300
Material Ink, gesso, paint, and gold leaf on parchment
Dimensions H: 8 ¼ in. (21 cm.), W: 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm.)
Location The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

expert perspective

Sharon Liberman MintzCurator of Jewish Art, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r

» Unknown artist, Spain

expert perspective

Sharon Liberman Mintz Sharon Liberman Mintz Curator of Jewish Art, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

The beginnings of decorated Hebrew manuscripts are found in Egypt in the tenth century. From there it spreads to various parts of the world including Spain, Italy, Germany, and Yemen. We have a variety of different texts which they did embellish. The two primary works that were embellished were biblical texts and liturgical texts, including Haggadot. Hebrew manuscript production in Europe differs from the rest of manuscript production in Europe in that general manuscript production was originally produced in scriptoriums, and with the rise of universities, we see the rise of book production centers. However, Hebrew manuscripts didn’t have that kind of demand. Rather, what you have for Hebrew manuscripts were scribes, itinerant scribes, who traveled from town to town creating Hebrew manuscripts as they went. Scribes were often housed at the behest of the patron. Not always in perfect condition. You know, scribes sometimes complained at the end of their work that there wasn’t enough heat and therefore they made mistakes. And they were distracted by the chickens in the room. This is true. It’s assumed that a bible could take almost a year to create. A Haggadah, which is a smaller text, could take perhaps only a month or two.

Manuscripts in this particular period are luxury items. It was expensive to hire a scribe to write them. The parchment was expensive; certainly the gold was expensive with which they were illuminated and embellished. Often the colors which they used to decorate and the pigments that decorated the books and manuscripts were expensive. So, therefore, it’s not just that people were using these in the service of God, but they were books belonging to very wealthy individuals who liked to have beautiful things.

Because a Haggadah is a fairly small manuscript and not terribly complicated to write, it was one of the most frequently embellished manuscripts of the medieval period. It was also intended for personal use. Haggadot were owned and commissioned by families and used around the Seder table on Passover eve. The families gathered together to celebrate the holiday of Passover and they retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And even though Jews had a higher rate of literacy, it’s possible that these Haggadot were illustrated not only because they were beautiful luxury items, but also because the illustrations involved one in the story of Passover.” 

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