The Illustarted Matzah

The Darmstadt University Library has kindly given us permission to use images from the Darmstadt Haggadah as the basis for the artistic design of the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. We thought it appropriate to talk a bit about the beautiful Darmstadt Haggadah in this special Pesah (Passover) issue. We will take a close look at the only scene in the haggadah which is related in any way to the seder. The 15th-century Darmstadt Haggadah was written by the scribe Israel ben Meir of Heidelberg (whose name appears in a colophon), but it is not known whether he was the illustrator as well; scholars have theorized that the illuminations may be the work of several hands, perhaps even by Christian artists.

The Darmstadt Haggadah
The Darmstadt Haggadah is a magnificently executed work depicting fashionably dressed men and women, in various positions and in fanciful architectural settings, raising their cups of wine or reading with expressive gestures of speech. The pointed arches and vaulted ceilings are characteristic of Gothic architecture, and the clothing represents contemporary dress. The modest necklines and covered heads of most figures (male and female) have no religious-Jewish basis, as similar figures may be found in non-Jewish manuscripts.

The names of ten commentators on the festival of Passover and its manner of celebration are a common feature of all haggadot. These men belong to the tannaitic period, comprising the last years of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE, and continuing to the uprising of Bar Kokhba, about 130 CE. Five of the sages — Eliezer, Joshua, Elazar ben Azariah, Akiba and Tarfon — appear early in the story. They are gathered in Bnei Brak, a city near Jaffa where Rabbi Akiva had his academy, and are "reclining" and discussing the Exodus from Egypt. This Bnei Brak scene is one of the central topics for illustrators of haggadot. In the Darmstadt Haggadah, the one and only scene which is directly related to the subject matter of the haggadah is an illustration of the seder, depicting [in this author's opinion] the Five Sages in Bnei Brak.

Five Sages and Four Sons
The Darmstadt manuscript has puzzled students of Hebrew iconography in that, unlike most Ashkenazi haggadah manuscripts, it lacks many common text and ritual illustrations and has no biblical scenes at all. The one haggadah-related scene that does appear and that we describe here, is inserted in the decorative framework of the text beginning with "Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen."

It is a peculiar seder. There are no women present, only nine men. Of these, six are seated and three are partly behind those seated, but their faces are seen very clearly. Five of the seated men hold one hand on a book and the other raised in speech. They are evidently the five rabbis mentioned above. The sixth man, who is young, holds one hand on a book and the other in his lap under the table. He is the wise son. He touches the book while asking his questions, but does not gesture because he is not required to reply. The three in the rear have strikingly moronic faces. Their hands are not visible, nor do they sit at the table. They are inarticulate and are excluded from the symposium.

(While the interpretation of the five figures representing the rabbis at Bnei Brak is offered here for the first time, the four others were correctly identified as the Four Sons by August L. Mayer, co-author of the Darmstaedter Haggadah. However, Bruno Italiener, the editor of the work, rejected his suggestion without elaboration.)

Thus the illustrator of the Darmstadt Haggadah converted the four different sons (Wise, Wicked, Simple, One who doesn't know to ask) into students. The wise student is admitted into the company of the teachers, while the three others are excluded. There are certain telltale facial expressions in the three poor students. The student on the left with shifting eyes may be intended as the wicked son. The one with a chin band attached to his headdress may be the feeble-minded, while the figure on the right listening intently but unable to understand, seems to be the student whose mind is not yet mature enough to absorb and digest. The two rabbis to whom he listens ignore him completely.[*]

Women in the Haggadah

Women are rarely mentioned in most Passover haggadot, as in the mishnaic period, the Passover meal was attended only by men, and the haggadah was created for fathers to relate to their sons and for teachers to instruct their students (who were only male). The haggadah illustrator (from the 13th century) sought to bridge this gap, given the considerable social differences between the period when the text of the haggadah was compiled and the time the illustrations were first conceived. Illustrations of women, girls and even servant girls begin to appear in the medieval haggadah as participants in the seder, and in galleries of biblical figures.

In 15th-century haggadah illustrations we meet a new type of woman, the woman who has learned to read and who holds her own book. This sight was not ususual in a period when fictional and edifying literature was being developed in Judeo-German and other Jewish dialects specifically for a female audience. The Darmstadt Haggadah is an example par excellence of this development: the reading women are particularly zealous in their activity, perhaps even to the point of exaggeration.


[*] The Four Sons presented a psychological problem with which the [medieval] artist could not always cope. He therefore sometimes portrayed only two or three of them. [back]

sources * This article is based on a chapter on Passover Art by the distinguished historian and critic of Jewish art, Rachel Wischnitzer, in The Passover Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman, JPS, 1193. It is printed here with the permission of the publisher.

Passover in the JHOM Judaica Art Gallery

A short history of the printed illustrated haggadah

The Four Sons in haggadot illustrations from the 16th century to present times



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