The Mishneh Torah; Maimonides Would Have Approved Oct 31, 2013 13:18:08 GMT -5
Post by shira on Oct 31, 2013 13:18:08 GMT -5
Maimonides Would Have Approved
One page of a spectacular illustrated volume of the Mishneh Torah, a Jewish-law codex, is now on view in a modest special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The book—created in Northern Italy in the 1450s and jointly acquired this year by the Met and the Israel Museum, where it had been on loan—is far more than a work of Judaic scholarly interest. It's a rich visual feast, though we get only a delightful first course in the Met display. But even that single serving deserves serious attention.
The 14-section text of the Mishneh Torah was the masterwork of Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), a philosopher and official physician to the Egyptian court who ranks among the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, with a staggering range of knowledge. Also known as Maimonides, as well as by his Hebrew acronym, "Rambam" (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), he was born in Cordoba (Spain), moved to Fez (Morocco), but lived primarily in Cairo. Maimonides's philosophical "Guide for the Perplexed," written in Arabic, synthesizes Talmudic and Aristotelian ideas, and it's that range of thinking that explains his influence on slightly later Christian Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.
But it is with the Mishneh Torah that Maimonides had his most lasting influence, since here he managed to organize the staggering, somewhat chaotic, accretion of Jewish laws that had been transmitted through the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and its subsequent commentaries, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. So essential was this work for the understanding of Jewish law that some argued that Maimonides's legal rulings must be followed even when he differed from previous notable rabbis.
That may explain why the lively illustrations in this 15th-century Italian version of one of its volumes have a vivid intimacy reflecting the concept, in Deuteronomy 30:14, that God's word is very close to you.
The page now on display is the beginning of the Judges subsection with the Hebrew word Shoftim (Judges) in bold, glittering gold set against a delicate blue ground with graceful white floral tracery, dividing two very different and inventive figurative narrative scenes. In the lower one, we see several robed men on the right, presumably judges, seated on an elevated bench; they are facing another robed man, probably the one pleading his case or being judged, standing between two young lads in tights, who present him to the judges. It feels so immediate that it seems we're participating in this discourse. The players' red and lavender costumes contrast brilliantly with the enclosed green garden space in which the scene takes place. A lively upper jousting scene may suggest something about the case being heard below and looks like a vignette from Paolo Uccello's slightly earlier paintings "The Battle of San Romano."
The miniatures in this book are attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal, and we can assume that this volume was created for a very rich Jewish patron. Examining contemporaneous Italian panel paintings upstairs at the Met—such as a pair by Biagio d'Antonio or Botticelli's wonderful "Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius"—we see why book illustrations can be so seductive, even if they are less physically accessible in museums. Their intimate, almost cosy, sensibility contrasts with the formal presentations of larger paintings.
We can only hope that the Met will show other pages from this book, such as the illustration of Passover preparations (with a great little barbecue vignette) or the one with the corpse lying in a white tent (illustrating laws of impurity) whose flag sits so comfortably inside one of the gold Hebrew letters. (Meanwhile, these pages can be savored on the metmuseum.org website.)
The Met's book is the second half of this two-volume version of Maimonides's work. The first is now in the Vatican Library. This one was in a German private collection during the 19th century, then given to the Frankfurt Municipal Library by Edmond de Rothschild sometime before 1920. In 1950, it was acquired by a family that in 2007 sold the book to hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt and his wife, Judy. Earlier this year the Mishneh Torah was the star of the Steinhardt's Judaica Collection sale at Sotheby's, BID -0.49% where it was estimated to sell for $4.5 million to $6 million. It was withdrawn just before the April 29 sale when the Israel Museum and Met announced that they had jointly purchased it for an undisclosed sum with the help of donors, including the Steinhardts themselves.
Checkered ownership histories often accompany works of this kind. But it's really unusual for us to have the inventive mise en scène that develops in each of the six full-page and four smaller painted miniatures. So although the Mishneh Torah is more sparsely illustrated than many more famous contemporaneous works, such as various books of hours, it suggests a more vigorous kind of artistic resourcefulness. The visual stories depicted don't rely on other models, as would have been common for Christian devotional books. Their compositional and thematic originality make this one of the most beautiful of all illustrated Hebrew manuscripts. Considering that Maimonides concurred with the Biblical prohibition against the making of images, it's a good thing he meant it only for three-dimensional artifacts, writing that "if the form were to be engraved or painted like sketches on panels of boards…these are permitted."
On view in the Met's Medieval Court is a lovely earlier (1300-1400) German illuminated Mishneh Torah, without narrative scenes, on loan from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Its visual relationship to nearby liturgical objects of the period enriches our understanding of the interplay of Christian and Jewish art traditions. Perhaps another display of the Met's new manuscript will involve such juxtapositions as well, and we will get to see miniature paintings in a gallery along with larger ones.
Meanwhile, a newly acquired Venetian Torah crown of about 1740-50 (also formerly in the Steinhardt collection) is in a gallery with visually related 18th-century Venetian decorative arts. It's probably accidental, but fortuitous, that this large, splendid object is in a gallery right next to the one where the illustrated Mishneh Torah is on view.
These juxtapositions enrich Jewish ceremonial objects in a manner that puts to shame the provincial, sterile and unimaginative approach to Judaica displays at most Jewish museums, including the Jewish Museum just up the street from the Met. Christian and Jewish traditions have many rituals that are clearly related, as in ceremonies that deal with bread and wine. These shared patterns are also reflected in works of art—at least in the West. A permanent exhibition, "Sacred Silver," at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, makes that point using the museum's collection of decorative arts.
How fitting that the Met's acquisition of an illustrated text by Maimonides, a religious humanist whose work drew on both classical Greek and Jewish thought, turns out to be emblematic of how museums can move us beyond easy insularity.
—Mr. Freudenheim served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.