The J Paul Getty Museum in California has acquired the Rothschild Pentateuch, the most rare and spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript to become available in more than a century.
‘The Rothschild Pentateuch will be the greatest High Medieval Hebrew manuscript in the United States, and one of the most important illuminated Hebrew Bibles of any period,’ says Timothy Potts, Director of the J Paul Getty Museum.
‘Its richly illuminated pages – a great rarity in the 13th century – make it a work of outstanding quality and importance that represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement of its day. It will be one of the most signal treasures of the Department of Manuscripts and, indeed, of the Getty Museum overall.’
Created by an unknown artist and dated 1296, the manuscript’s pages are filled with lively decorative motifs, hybrid animals and humanoid figures, and astonishing examples of micrography – brilliant displays of minute calligraphic art in elaborate patterns and designs.
The vibrant colours and gleaming gold make this manuscript stand out from most other medieval Hebrew books, which followed a largely textual tradition. It also stands apart because of the quality and subject of its illustrations.
The text contains features that indicate it may have been written in France for Jewish emigrés who had been expelled from England in 1290. The illumination was probably completed in France or Germany. The Pentateuch contains the central sacred text of Judaism – the Torah in the strictest sense – comprising the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The manuscript’s lavish illumination divides the text into sections to be read weekly, so that the entire Torah would be read over the course of a year. The opening of each of the five books is celebrated with monumental Hebrew initials intertwined with lively marginal figures and, in one case, a full-page illumination.
With its seemingly endless variety of illuminated motifs, ranging from the imposing to the whimsical, the Rothschild Pentateuch is a prime example of the heights of originality and magnificence that Hebrew illumination achieved; it is the most extensive illuminated example of any northern European Hebrew Bible to survive from the Middle Ages.
In a rare deviation from the rest of the manuscript’s aniconic approach, there is one illumination featuring full human figures that was added at a later date. In the second half of the 15th century one page was replaced with a new insertion, carefully replicating both the text and commentaries. The folio can be identified as the work of Joel ben Simeon, one of the most celebrated Jewish artists known from the period. The replacement miniature represents the sole figural narrative in the Rothschild Pentateuch, but was inspired with the same kind of ingenuity that characterises the rest of the manuscript.
‘This acquisition allows us to represent the three Abrahamic religions of the period, and for the first time brings a medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscript to the Los Angeles area,’ says Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator in the Getty’s Manuscripts Department.
The Rothschild Pentateuch was created six years after the Jews were expelled from England, perhaps for an English patron. It was carried through the centuries from France or Germany to Italy and Poland, and was eventually acquired by Baroness Edmond de Rothschild at some point before 1920, and then given after the Second World War to a German-Jewish family, who later settled in Israel, as part of an exchange agreement.
‘The storied voyage of this manuscript follows the history of the Jewish diaspora across time and space. This newest addition to our collection will allow us to present a more inclusive story of the Middle Ages at a time when the Getty is increasingly looking to a global approach in the visual art,’ adds Morrison.
The Rothschild Pentateuch is making its debut in a new exhibition showcasing the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The practitioners of these three faiths have been called ‘people of the book’ for their shared belief in the importance of divine word, rendered in medieval manuscripts in glowing gold and luminous colours on parchment.
Three spectacular examples from the Getty’s permanent collection, including a Christian Bible and a Qur’an, together with the newly acquired Torah, will be featured in this spotlight show. The acquisition of the the Rothschild Pentateuch was made possible with the generous support of Jo Carole and Ronald S Lauder. • The Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible and a Qur’an is on show at the Getty Center until 3 February 2019. (www.getty.edu)
TEXT: Lindsay Fulcher
All images: The J Paul Getty Trust.