Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink
Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts Edited by Marc Michael Epstein. (Princeton University Press, 276 pp.)
This magnificent book gathers 278 color illustrations of the most celebrated ancient and modern illuminated Jewish manuscripts and a comprehensive scholarly history of illuminated manuscripts.
Marc Michael Epstein, the Mattie M. Paschall and Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, with nine other collaborators writes about the patrons, calligraphers, artists and illuminators of manuscripts beginning in 1106 Persia (the first was a mini Parshat Shelakh Lekha intended for bar mitzva study).
Skies of Parchment explores multifaceted aspects of the works: Were the artists and illuminators Jews? Does the visual diversity of figures, icons and calligraphy in Spain, Portugal and Amsterdam—for the most part following Christian and Islamic artistic styles—indicate the artists were non-Jews? Or were they Jews imitating other styles? What are the similarities or differences among Ashkenazic, Sefardic and Eastern styles? It looks at the way Jewish prohibition against portraying the human face played out as well as at the mysterious use of birds’ heads in The Birds’ Head Haggadah, which Epstein alternatively calls, more accurately, The Griffin Haggadah (13th century).
Most of the illuminated works are Haggadot, siddurim, mahzorim, Esther scrolls, ketubot and psalms, some featuring single figures, others giving a broader narrative. They range from The Sarajevo Haggadah (Catalonia, Spain ca. 1350), the first significant scholarly work on medieval Jewish book arts to be studied, to the sophisticated spatial and figural rendering of a 15th-century Book of Psalms (Parma, Italy), to the folk style of a 1720 German Megilla. More contemporary is the bold Haggada of 20th-century graphic artist Arthur Szyk and the biblical bestiary art of Ilene Winn-Lederer. Contributer Barbara Wolff, creator of the book’s cover illustration, demonstrates in six pages the ancient methods of illumination: from use of parchment to burnishing gold.
All this is but a drop in the sea of history and information that this book offers.