Text/Context October 2009: Beyond Decorative

Special to the Jewish Week
Friday, October 2, 2009

He was speaking English, but the words just weren’t registering. Here I was, in the inner sanctum, the book and artifact-lined Mount Scopus office of my academic idol, the man I hoped would be my mentor. And he was saying what? “Mr. Epstein, I have been studying Hebrew illuminated manuscripts for over 50 years, and I can assure you that no image of any animal in these works has any significance beyond the decorative.”

“Then, Professor Narkiss,” I piped up, my barely post-adolescent voice cracking, “does this mean you won’t support my research?” “On the contrary,” intoned the great man, “I will OPPOSE it!”

A longtime lover of medieval art, I’d been fascinated with art that depicted animals ever since I could toddle. And I had come to the Hebrew University as a visiting student for my junior year intending to study what “my guys”—medieval Jews—had done with animal symbolism. In my beloved Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters, for instance, I knew that for medieval Christians the unicorn represented Jesus, and the hunt represented his Passion. And I suspected that medieval Jews found animals equally significant and meaningful, but in a different way.

In fact, immediately before my fateful visit with (the late) Professor Bezalel Narkiss, I had visited the Israel Museum. There I saw a magnificent 15th-century Ashkenazi siddur open to the folio containing the powerful first phrase of Tractate Avot (“The Ethics of the Fathers”): “Moses received the Torah [from God] at Sinai, transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Men of the Great Assembly.” The word “Moshe (Moses)” was elaborately illuminated, and above it stood a black dog, relatively large, compared to the size of the page. The initial word of the Ethics of the Fathers seemed to me a manifestly inappropriate place for a canine romping ground. My second question to Narkiss would have concerned the meaning of such a prominent and yet incongruous image. But now, it seemed, I would be banned from exploring the role of animal symbolism in medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Which was frustrating, because I suspected that animals in Jewish visual tradition had profound and interesting meanings that went “beyond the decorative.” They just had to.

How did I know? Well, besides my intellectual hunch that medieval Jews must have shared with their Christian neighbors a love of animals and their depictions, but expressed it in a different “key” as it were, I had concrete confirmation—through actions, rather than theory—about the connection of (at least some) Jews with (at least some) animals from my other great hero. My Zayde, Harry Epstein, was a retired junk man of New Haven, Conn., and the opposite of Professor Narkiss, the urbane academic. Once, when he was quite old, I sat with him as he davened Shachris (prayed the morning prayer) on the couch, arrayed in tallis and tefillin. Zayde’s faithful canine companion Mutik (“Sweetie”)—a compact mutt of ambiguous origins—literally rested his head on Zayde’s feet. Into this scene of blissful domestic piety walked Rabbi X who had come to visit, but did a double-take. I could read his thoughts in his eyes: “Wearing tefillin, which require a guf naki (a clean body) and touching a DOG?” “Passt nisht! (Unacceptable!)” he hissed, gesturing at Mutik as if he were some unclean cur and not Zayde’s best friend. Zayde, who knew the halacha as well as anyone, and could not interrupt his prayers to engage the rabbi in a response, was unfazed. He simply turned around his siddur and pointed to the verse he had just been chanting, “Kol HaNeshamah tehallel Yah—Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” The rabbi had to smile. And my Zayde smiled back.

“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Psalm 150.6). The medieval Jews who created or commissioned illuminated manuscripts, like the Christians among whom they lived, regarded nature and her creatures to be a book that the Creator had given humans to read and in which they were invited to discern a myriad of ways of understanding God, divine providence and mercy, and the lessons that God sought to transmit to human beings: “Lazybones, go to the ant; Study its ways and learn,” admonishes the author of Proverbs (6.6). The Talmud, in Tractate Eruvin even tells us that “If the Torah had not been given, we could learn modesty from the cat . . .” (100b).

I knew that that the dog in the siddur I’d seen had to mean something. Manuscripts were expensive. Every brushstroke cost time and money. A tiny dog in the margin might have been “merely decorative,” but what Jewish patron would tolerate the image of a large black dog directly over the name of Moses without at least considering its meaning or its reception?

Dogs abound in medieval Jewish manuscripts. Lapdogs accompany Pharaoh and the Egyptians in one medieval Spanish Haggadah. In another, a tongueless dog barks representing the effects of God’s redeeming power at the Exodus when “not a dog  shall whet his tongue at the Children of Israel” (Exodus 11:6–7.) A dog chases a hare in another example, right under the rubric, “And the Egyptians pressured us.” In all these cases, dog is clearly a symbol for the Egyptians, or the enemies of the Jews more generally. This is particularly evident in the famous Jagdenhas (hare hunt) illustrations in Ashkenazi manuscripts and printed Haggadot, and their Sephardic parallels in depictions of the hunt of Esau. It is corroborated by illustrations such as one in the 14th- century Barcelona Haggadah, reversing the image of the dog pursuing the hare. Here, a dog serves a drink to an enthroned hare, as an upper marginal illustration for the text, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” The lower margin depicts the Israelites slaving in Egypt. The implication: “We were slaves, but one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us!”

It’s clear that dogs were not necessarily merely decorative as Narkiss insisted. Certainly some might have been, but others could represent a range of meanings, slightly different in each manuscript, as each manuscript represents a particular constellation of patrons, artists and rabbinic advisers.

The problem is that in Jewish texts, dogs represent, for the most part, the pursuing, rapacious enemies of the Jews. “Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me” (Psalms 22.17). The image of a dog as a symbol for Moses seems disrespectful at best and blasphemous at worse.

But on the other hand, if this particular dog is “read” according to the traditions of medieval animal lore and of common wisdom, what better metaphor could we have for the loyal transmission of the divine mandate from generation to generation than the loyal and obedient dog? And what better symbol for Moses himself, called by God “faithful throughout My household” (Numbers 12.7)?

Pre-modern Jews had a truly kaleidoscopic view of the animal kingdom, and their visual culture demonstrates a variety of ways in which this was manifest. Some are “obvious” (dogs pursuing hares); others are more hidden (the dog representing Moses). We must always maintain a certain skepticism with regard to “universal” meanings of symbols. Some seem to have a universal meaning but may, in the end, have a particular meaning that has been lost to history and which must, thus, continue to elude us. When I examine animal motifs in 17th-century Polish synagogue ceilings, I am always acutely conscious that even as I interpret a hare hunt as an allegory for the persecution of Israel by the nations, in a particular synagogue, a specific hare may have been depicted as being attacked by an eagle because the artist or patron was named Haas (hare), and was involved in a personal conflict with a landlord (porets/perets [eagle/vulture])! Such a reason, deeply enmeshed in the social universe in which the art was created, is unrecoverable.

Animals in Jewish art are intended to lend specific emphasis to the texts they accompany. They can be symbols of noble and edifying qualities, like the dog in the medieval siddur, or they can be earthy and—well—animalistic. I’ll close with an example of the latter in the depiction of the plague of frogs in the “Golden Haggadah,” a Spanish manuscript of the mid-14th century. Aaron thrusts his staff into the Nile, and frogs emerge to fill the palace of Pharaoh. The illustration here follows rabbinic legend by showing a monstrous frog emerging from the river to disgorge a host of smaller frogs, a detail that serves to emphasize the miraculous power of God to produce a plague in a way that is unexpected and beyond the natural, as well as the horrific nature of the plague itself. I once was presenting this image to a large audience as an example of how animals in midrashic literature are “translated” into visual form, when my then 8-year-old daughter Shevi raised her hand and announced that she had noticed that in this particular illustration, Aaron was striking the big frog’s head and that the frog was excreting all the smaller frogs from its rear end (an observation offered in language slightly more blunt). This detail of animals behaving “animalistically” had eluded my attention in all my years of looking at the manuscript. To notice it required the eyes of an 8-year-old, un-jaded by art history training. Like the image of the dog in the siddur, the startling, unexpected nature of the image of this frog in the Haggadah was a clue to its meaningfulness. It helped me to understand that the authorship of the manuscript not only knew its midrash, but was able to use this earthy animal image in the midst of an otherwise elegant presentation of the events of Exodus. It made the midrash more graphic and its message stronger, conveying a message of divine omnipotence over nature, highlighting the repulsiveness of the plague and emphasizing its supernaturalism.

In a way, the images in medieval Jewish illuminations accomplish a supernatural task themselves. In Jewish tradition, nature is divided hierarchically into the silent (inanimate objects), the growing (plants), the living (“dumb” animals), and the speaking (humans). But through the magic of visual midrash, “mute dogs that cannot bark,” (Isaiah 53.7) are made not only to speak, but to do so most eloquently.

Marc Michael Epstein is Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Vassar College, and the author of “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature” (Penn State Press, 1997). His newest book is “The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination” (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2010). Epstein was Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby’s Judaica department, and continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world.

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