Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Golden Picture Frame

The chairman of the humanities department stopped by my desk in the library and asked for help with a picture that he bought at a garage sale for $5.

The gold frame contained a page with four pictures that looked medieval. Because the picture was under glass we could not determine the material.[fn 1] It could have been velum or paper. It was hand drawn, without brush marks. The professor told me that when he bought it he didn’t notice the hand written Hebrew lettering.

The pictures in French gothic style lacked depth and perspective. The people seem to be dressed in medieval clothes. Only the bottom left panel made any sense. It seemed to be fish in a red body of water.

The first part of the search was to look for books on medieval Jewish art. I checked the catalog and found three books. I was able to confirm that the period was medieval. I read up on Jewish art in the Middle Ages. The bottom left picture reminded me of the ten plagues. After several searches that didn’t work, I constructed a Google image search with the words Jewish art medieval ten plagues. After examining 100s’ of hits I found some pictures that looked similar in a book known as the “Golden Haggadah.” I found the full book of 86 leaves was digitized by the British library (identified as: Add. MS 27210)
( I examined the pages until I found the match. This is a page from an illuminated manuscript created in approximately 1320 near Barcelona, Spain. The binding was done in Italy in the 17th century. Since the British Library owned the complete copy, the professor’s copy must be a facsimile.[fn 2] The smudged letters in the picture and in the British Library copy are exactly the same.

Next I searched for a facsimile edition using WorldCat. There were 15 hits for a 1970 facsimile edition. Most of the records were not helpful. Below is the best record. It lists the libraries of Spertus Institute, Hebrew Union College and Columbia University as owners of copies.
סדר הגדה של פסח :‏ ‏עם שירים מיוחדים על כל הנפלאות והניסים, שנעשו ביציאתם ממצרים בני חורין
Seder Hagadah shel Pesaḥ : ‘im shirim meyuḥadim ‘al kol ha-nifla’ot ṿeha-nisim she-na’asu be-yetsi’atam mi-Mitsrayim bene ḥorin.
Author: ‏Bezalel Narkiss; British Museum.; Zaehnsdorf (Firm)
Publisher: [London : Eugrammia Press, 1970] [fn 3]

The edition was limited to 520 copies of which 20 unnumbered copies are not for sale.

I then searched for some sort of value for this edition. I found one copy for sale at $2700. WorldCat had another edition of this book published in 1997. I searched on Amazon and found used and new copies for sale, costing $1.75 to $999.00. I went to Northwestern University Library and found the 1997 edition. It contained the reproductions of the pages, but it was mostly commentary by Bezalel Narkiss. He described each panel in the picture and give the Biblical text that was the basis for the picture.

Upper right -- Pharaoh commanded the task masters to not give straw to make bricks. Ex. 5:6-13
Upper left -- They built for Pharaoh the store-cities of Pithom and Raamses. Ex. 1:11;
Bottom right – Aaron, your brothers hall speak to Pharaoh. Ex. 7:2
Bottom Left – The words are unreadable, The is based on the verse: The Egyptians dug around the river for water to drink, because they couldn’t drink from the river. Ex. 7:24.

These pictures are interesting from a costume point of view. The artist gave the people contemporary (i.e. 14th century) costume, not costume from the Biblical era. Pharaohs did not have beards did not have crowns as pictured. The illustrations found in museums of Egyptian pharaohs have false beards and nothing on their heads like a crown.

While this search took a lot of specialized knowledge of books and searching, I was lucky. If the British Library had not posted a digitized version, I would have never been able to figure out the source or meaning of the pictures.

1. When I was discussing this search with some fellow librarians, one said opening up a frame is a "no,no," One should not take apart an object to determine it's worth. She said that she learned this from the TV show, Antiques Road Show.

2. On Nov. 25, 2011 I received an e-mail from Dr. Barry Dov Walfish, Judaica and Theology Specialist of the University of Toronto Library, who suggested that the picture in the frame may be from an art calendar produced in the 1990's or 1980's. This is possible. However,the facsimile edition is 26 centimeters and so is the picture. If this was from a calender, I would expect the dimensions would not be the same are the original. I examined many art calendars and found none of the pictures match the original size of the objects. The facsimile was printed on specially manufactured paper made by Tullis Russell and Co Ltd. If I were to open the frame and examine the paper, I would immediately know if this was a framed picture from a calendar or the 1970 facsimile. As mentioned above, since opening the frame would diminish the value I will not be able to examine the paper by holding it. I ordered a copy of the 1995 reprint edition for my collection.

3. I was not able to find out anything about Eugrammia Press. Searches of the Web and business databases did not yield any information except for a directory listing stating that the company no longer exists.


March10, 2013

I attended a lecture this morning given by Mark Epstein, Professor of Religion at Vassar College on the topic of the medieval Haggadah.  Most of his remarks concerned the Golden Haggadah.  He described the pictures and showed us that many if not most of the pictures had women displayed proximately in the frame.  One of the pictures depicts Miriam beaming the drum during the Song of Miriam.  This is the cover illustration of the 1997 edition that I bought.   Since I don’t have much interest or knowledge in art history or analysis I never paid attention to the women in the pictures.

Professor Epstein said that the name of the person(s) who commissioned this manuscript is not known.  It is also not known if the artist was illustrating women based on contemporary events or if the pictures are based on a hopeful or fantasy view of women.   While he could describe the pictures the name of the original owner and the story of how and why these pictures were created remains a mystery.


Gay Tanner said...

Fascinating...thanks for such an interesting search.

johnnywhistel said...

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