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From Medieval Spain to the Ottoman Empire: a Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible, 1300–50, Castile, Spain, ink, tempera, and gold, 23.7 × 20.1 cm, 2018.59 (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) a conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Ariel Fein. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [First Instructor] We're in The Cloisters, and we're looking at a Hebrew Bible from the 14th century. - [Second Instructor] This Hebrew Bible is especially unique in that it's one of three Bibles that survive from the region of Castile in the 14th century. From the 8th century, the majority of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslims. Beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, we start to see Christian kingdoms waging war on some of these Muslim territories for economic and political purposes, and over time, their motives change and take on a religious connotation. The Christian kingdoms believed that these wars were divinely sanctioned so that they could reconquer the territories that, in their view, belonged to them. - [First Instructor] And so what we have is shifting boundaries, where the Christian kingdoms are increasing their territory. - [Second Instructor] Throughout this time, Jews have been living alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Jews assumed the broader culture around them. They spoke Arabic, they read Arabic, they adopted local customs, and they appropriated and adopted the broader visual culture. - [First Instructor] And that's the reason why we look at this and we notice something that may strike us as looking rather Islamic. - [Second Instructor] We're looking at one of the closing pages of the manuscript, and we're seeing a calligraphic border in Hebrew text surrounding a central field, and we notice that the imagery in the center includes two keyhole arches, forms that we see commonly in Islamic Spain. We see it, for example, in the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and we also see it in Jewish architecture in the region. Surrounding those keyhole arches are beautiful, mesmerizing, interlaced patterns. But if we look really closely, we notice that these are composed of minuscule letters. - [First Instructor] And this is a specifically Jewish art form called micrography. - [Second Instructor] Micrography is a unique Jewish scribal art that forms designs and patterns using tiny letters. What's so exciting here is how Jewish scribes are adapting an Islamic visual language to their own uniquely Jewish art form. - [First Instructor] Since we're looking at a Hebrew Bible we might expect to be looking at one of the Five Books of Moses, or the Psalms, or the writing of the Prophets, but in fact what we have is a different kind of text called the Masorah. - [Second Instructor] These texts are a critical apparatus for reading the Torah, for reading the Bible. Now interestingly, we have these Masoretic texts at the opening of the manuscript and the end of the manuscript, but we also have them throughout the manuscript as well. On every page we see lines of the Masoretic texts that are helping the reader navigate through the manuscript. In fact, at the beginning and end of each of the books of the Bible, we see intricate designs made of Masoretic texts. So these complex designs help the readers see where each section begins and ends. - [First Instructor] So making a book like this was incredibly time-consuming. Scribes were highly skilled. So this is an expensive book to produce, - [Second Instructor] In Judaism, there's an idea called hidur mitzvah, which literally means to beautify the mitzvah. By adding all of this illumination and decoration, it would have enhanced the reading and use of this manuscript for its owner. At the same time, when this Bible was produced, Jewish communities living on the Iberian Peninsula began to call their Bibles by an honorific title, mikdashyah, the sanctuary of the Lord. - [First Instructor] And this is a reference back to the Temple in Jerusalem. - [Second Instructor] The Bible then became a replacement for the destroyed ancient Temple in Jerusalem. - [First Instructor] And that explains also the references we see to architectural forms, thinking back to the architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem. So we've talked about the Islamic influences that we're seeing, but there are also broadly European Christian influences that we could identify as Gothic, which is the name art historians usually give to this period in art history. - [Second Instructor] At the opening of this Bible, we see prefatory pages that have painted and illuminated borders in gold with vine scrolls and flowers and alternating pink and blue sections with white detail and ornament. The styles and the techniques and especially the color palette are indebted to a Gothic manuscript tradition. - [First Instructor] So here we are in the 14th century, less than two centuries away from the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. - [Second Instructor] We see in the 14th century that the Iberian Peninsula, like the rest of Europe, was suffering from the Black Death, and about a third of the population was wiped out. And the Jewish community became an easy scapegoat to blame for this pandemic. At the same time, we see at the end of the 14th century a series of anti-Jewish riots. So the environment in which this Bible was produced was especially fraught for the Jewish community. - [First Instructor] And this Bible doesn't remain in Spain. - [Second Instructor] In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, some moved south into North Africa, some looked for opportunities in Europe, but many Jews crossed the Mediterranean Sea towards the Ottoman Empire, where they hoped to have a better life under this new Muslim dynasty. And in fact, they did. The contract of sale Bible is included in the first folio of the manuscript, and it tells us that this Bible was sold by the widow of Moses Abulafia in Thessaloniki, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. And so we know that this Bible made the long and arduous journey to the Ottoman Empire, where it eventually came into the hands of a leading rabbi and scholar who led a Jewish academy in Thessaloniki. This book tells this incredible story of how the Jewish community defined their place within this complex multi-confessional landscape. (jazzy piano music)