The Arts: The Golden Touch
For artist Barbara Wolff, God is in the details. Her tiny illuminated works—now on exhibit in New York—highlight the wonders of nature and the beauty of biblical verse.
The art of New York artist and illuminator Barbara Wolff is a delicate thing. On one of her small, elegant paintings, branches laden with ripening figs frame a pair of embossed and burnished gold leaves. On another, red corn poppies rendered in exacting naturalistic detail border the word mizrah; the gilded Hebrew letters themselves are etched with fine scrolling lines.
Her miniatures—the one with the figs is only 2.5 by 3.75 inches—evoke the natural beauty of Israel and the literary beauty of ancient Hebrew texts. “My aim is to bring the viewer into the exchange between the phenomena of nature and the poetry of Hebrew literature,” says Wolff.
Her series of mizrahs, signs placed on the wall of a home or synagogue to denote East, combine biblical verses with illustrations of flowers or the sun rising over the rocky terraces of the eroded limestone hills east of Jerusalem. On some, a favorite verse appears: “From the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof—the Lord’s name be praised” (Psalms 113:3).
Another piece gives visual expression to three verses from the Song of Songs (9:12-14), in which a man’s beloved is compared to a walled orchard filled with the most fragrant, exotic spices and tempting fruit. Gold text wraps around a square that contains Wolff’s delicate depiction of pomegranates, saffron and henna—all indigenous to biblical Israel—as well as such luxury imports as cane, cinnamon and myrrh. Equally exotic is the artist’s palette: The painting is fashioned of 23.7-karat raised gilding, shell gold and pigment tempered with glair (glaze made of egg white) on goatskin parchment. These unusual materials are the crux of Wolff’s work, much of which is inspired by the gilded and illuminated manuscripts and miniatures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The “walled orchard” painting is one of 18 works in “Kikar Zahav Tahor–A Talent of Pure Gold: Illuminated Miniatures by Barbara Wolff,” currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. The talent in the title has multiple meanings. It pays tribute both to Wolff’s abilities as well her fluency with ancient artists’ materials, such as burnished gold on vellum and hand-ground pigments made from semiprecious stones—blue azurite, green malachite and turquoise lapis lazuli. The biblical verse from which the title is drawn (Exodus 25:39) also refers to the quantity and quality of gold used to construct the menora—an object of illumination in the Tabernacle during the wanderings of the Jews in the desert that later stood in the Temple. Lastly, a talent is a measure of gold, which has a defining presence in illuminated manuscripts.
The word miniature also has more than one meaning. It is both literal and symbolic, referring not only to the small scale of the paintings but also to the “condensed, infinitely detailed view” typical of medieval and early-Renaissance art, says Wolff. “That means within the paintings are tiny worlds and intimate landscapes meant for one viewer at a time. Medieval work was limited in size by the page and the material.”
A number of pieces from her mizrah series are featured in the exhibition, including the one with the corn poppies. Another has fragrant roses surrounding the text of Psalms 113:3, as if they were forming a picture frame. This mizrah is also done in 24-karat raised gilding, shell gold and pigment tempered with glair on calfskin parchment.
“We like to show all varieties of Jewish expression in the arts,” says Sylvia A. Herskowitz, Yeshiva University Museum director, explaining the decision to stage the exhibit. “Some varieties of art bring forth immediate floods of emotion, such as the painted image. But in addition to beauty, Barbara Wolff’s art has astonishing detail and almost microscopic images. I’ve met very few people who are drawn to [creating] such miniscule detail.
“Of course, her work is beautiful,” she adds, “but to appreciate that, you have to also appreciate her passion, skill and commitment. Barbara has to sit alone in a small room, and no one can open the door because a breeze might make the gold leaf fly away, and she can’t retrieve it.”
Wolff, who grew up in a traditional Jewish family, draws on her background as well as her familiarity with the modern State of Israel for her art. She has spent a great deal of time in the country with family, including a brother-in-law who is a farmer there.
“For the great part of our history we have been thought of as an urban people, as merchants and traders, city dwellers separated from nature,” Wolff says. “But our literature and poetry tell another story. They tell of the many ways we as a people, throughout our long history, have interacted with nature. Simile and metaphor are expressed in terms and symbols of nature—specifically the natural phenomena and seasons of the ancient Middle East. Our festivals, celebrated for millennia, have coincided with those seasons and the produce of their harvests.”
The artist has painted miniatures of each of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel, which are described in the Torah. She has also painted other plants with Jewish significance, for example, the etrog (citron). Her golden etrog—the lumps and bumps of the fruit tempting the viewer to touch them—is surrounded by palm, myrtle and willow branches, the other three species associated with the holiday of Sukkot.
Some of her art is purely naturalistic, such as a painting of the scented white lily found in the woods of the Galilee and the Carmel that blooms at the end of the rainy season, marking the coming of summer.
Wolff’s work looks back not only to the Bible but also to a time when artists fashioned their own pigments and glues, when they pounded real gold into powder to make the leaf that defined handmade books and art. Her backgrounds sometimes use a range of medieval and Renaissance styles—patterning and stamped and tooled gold. “I love research and learning, picking up the strands from the past and bringing them into the present,” she explains. “I also gain much by experimentation, adding to the experience of others.”
To retrieve ancient techniques and materials, she has become more than a bit of a detective, studying centuries-old artists’ manuals and seeking the advice of calligraphers, medievalists and art historians. One set of artists’ recipes that Wolff uses was written in 1262—in Portuguese with Hebrew characters—by Abraham ben Judah Ibn Hayyim (she found an English translation in the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York). Other works were collected and translated into English in the 19th century by Mary P. Merrifield. Among the artist instruction and recipe books Wolff has delved into are Les Encres Noires au Moyen Age (The Ink of the Middle Ages) by Zerdoun Bat-Yehuda; Mappae Clavicla (A Little Key); and De Arte Illuminandi (Of the Art of Illumination).
And to obtain the materials described in these texts, a trip to the nearest art-supply store will not suffice. Wolff paints on fine calf or goat parchment, which she buys from sources as far afield as Maryland and Jerusalem. The ground stone she uses as paint as well as raw or potentially poisonous colors such as red and white lead are ordered from the New York branch of the German firm Kremer Pigments and from Natural Pigments on the West Coast. Sepp Leaf Suppliers in New York is one source of gold leaf and powder, which, more successfully than an alchemist’s sorcery, are turned into gold illumination.
Despite the artist’s extensive and ongoing study of historic pigments, Wolff’s work is often an amalgam of the old and the new. She brings her own sensibility to her paintings—and a more modern typeface. For the lettering of the verses in her miniatures, Wolff uses stencils—drawing with a pen and filling in by brush. She is not a calligrapher, nor does she aim to be. “What always interested me was the beautiful poetry in the literature,” she says. “That converged with my art interest. All facets of my interests have converged in my illumination work.”
In another modernization, many pieces exhibited at the YU Museum were created with a combination of modern, reasonably light-fast pigments and stable, nonfading mineral colors. “Most of the historic organic colors are extremely fugitive—fading when exposed to light,” Wolff explains. “They have survived precisely because they were protected from the light between the closed covers of the manuscripts.”
From her 12th-story apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, Wolff can see the full expanse of Central Park. The view reminds the artist every day how much nature has always appealed to her. The city’s art riches are another inspiration. The collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, The Frick Collection and The Morgan Library & Museum are like old friends. “I’d be hard put to choose specific works I liked,” she says. “But among the treasures there are certain manuscripts that are shown rarely and for very short periods of time. I’ve marveled at them since I was in high school. Jean Bourdichon’s miniature borders of plants, flowers and insects for a French queen stand out, as does the Da Costa Hours, illuminated by Simon Benings with tiny windows on the passing seasons.”
A native of new york, wolff spent her formative years in Seagate, Brooklyn. Her father’s example influenced her artistic focus. He was deeply devoted to his garden and often communed with nature in a nearby park.
Wolff began her artistic career at McCall’s magazine doing layouts and paste-ups. Finding the work unsatisfying, she began illustrating natural history subjects, especially botany.
All along, Wolff had the encouragement of her husband, Rudi, art director of an advertising firm and a silkscreen artist who also exhibits. She became known for her botanical textbooks and nature guides on an imprint of Golden Books and the Time Life Nature Library. Wolff’s corporate clients have included The New York Botanical Gardens, Hoffmann-LaRoche and Xerox; her work has been shown at the New York Horticultural Society, New York Art Directors Club and the Cornwall Arts Collection, among others.
As she worked on illustrating a variety of books, the artist began to ask herself why there are so few illuminated Jewish books. After all, Jews lived in the countries where the art of illumination flourished, and they were usually literate. “Once you ask that question,” Wolff says, “you find out about the enormous destruction, the burning of Hebrew books, from the Middle Ages—and it fascinated me more. I began to imagine what was in those books.”
A seminar on manuscript materials and techniques years ago further intrigued Wolff. “I was always fascinated with the miniature worlds of manuscripts, with their quality of light and color and spirituality,” she says. “It was as if I had stepped into another universe, one filled with strange and exotic materials, but one which was as much a part of the natural world as my paintings.”
Recently, Wolff had the chance to apply those imaginings and her extensive research to a rare project. JTS approached her to complete and re-create two pages from the Prato Haggadah, an unfinished circa 1300 illuminated work from northern Spain that is one of its collection’s treasures.
“We gave Barbara duplicate images, and she completed it using the techniques as close as possible to the ones the medieval artist would have used 700 years ago,” says Sharon Mintz, curator of art at the JTS library.
The pages contain part of the famous “Dayenu” hymn from the Seder-night liturgy and the opening of the song of praise that starts “Lefikhakh,” (“And therefore”), complete with a single human figure. After a three-year conservation process, 50 original folios from the Prato Haggadah were exhibited at JTS last June. (For more information on the manuscript, go towww.jtsa.edu/library/conservation/prato)
The Prato, one of the few illuminated Haggadot that remain from pre-Inquisition Spain, was in pretty good shape. However, the text and gold illuminations were flaking away from the parchment and there was pigment loss. The JTS curators also wanted the artist to explore what the book looked like “when its colors were still brilliant, its vellum white and its gold still dazzling,” Wolff recalls.
In re-creating the folios, Wolff utilized the pigments and materials of 700 years ago, with a palette that included gold leaf, azurite, brazilwood, red lead, vermilion, white lead, lamp black, saffron, ocher, pomegranate and iron sulfate ink. The pages themselves were made of calf vellum. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says.
Following in the footsteps of her artistic forbears is laborious work, but also particularly rewarding. “Every brushstroke is a point of focus…and painting takes on a meditative quality,” Wolff says. “It becomes a spiritual journey in an intimate landscape.”
Once, medieval artists had apprentices who continually prepared their pigments; Wolff works on her own. While her spacious apartment allows her several places in which to paint, her miniatures emerge from a small room with no window and no telephone, allowing for no distractions from friends and family.
“You never can quite predict how natural materials will react,” she explains. “One day the parchment doesn’t want to stay flat or, on a dry day, the gold leaf may not want to stick. On any day, the pigments may not turn out the way you want them to. But that is what’s so beautiful about old books….”
The value of each of wolff’s miniatures—most are commissioned, like those of Middle Ages and Renaissance artists—varies with size and complexity as well as materials. It depends on the kind of parchment, the amount of gold, silver and platinum and whether she uses semiprecious stones. The range is generally between $10,000 and $50,000 a piece.
An as-yet-unfulfilled ambition is to receive a commission for an entire illuminated book, possibly another Haggada. “These books represented a huge investment of human capital,” she says. “Every step was done by hand…. It would be wonderful to do what was done in the past, so the book itself would have value.”
Wolff’s miniatures shed light on the convergence of history, literature, art and faith. Her illuminations, she says, “are threads going back to past techniques, making connections…to find beauty in the artwork of today.”
“Kikar Zahav Tahor–A Talent of Pure Gold: Illuminated Miniatures by Barbara Wolff” will be on display at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York through May 31. Call 212-294-8330 or go to www.yumuseum.org for more information.
View more of Barbara Wolff’s miniatures atwww.artofbarbarawolff.com