• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Passover: The history of Haggadah art, and how the illustrators worked

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 2 April, 2021.

    A page from the Darmstadt Haggadah

    One year, the trustees of the Blake Prize in Australia included me among the competition’s judges. A journalist strongly objected because he thought rabbis knew nothing about art. He got his ideas from a line of thinking that says that Jewish art is largely non-existent because the Second Commandment bans the depiction of the Divine or anything in God’s Creation.

    There was a fear of graven images, but artistic creativity was not completely prohibited or circumvented. It is true that Judaism has problems with the visual arts, and there are very few artistic works in the synagogues, though the mosaics in ancient synagogues in Israel are often strong and powerful. They do not portray God or human beings, though animals and birds and geometrical designs abound.

    A major category of Jewish art is that of manuscript illumination, though its early history is not greatly known. Among Jewish literary works, the Torah strictly abides by the prohibition of images, but there is a spirit of leniency in other directions. The Passover Haggadah almost always has pictorial illustrations without which it would be a quite different and less exciting book. Haggadot produced in the medieval period are especially embellished with all sorts of illuminations as well as dramatic illustrations.

    Not that the artists always agreed with each other. In the Middle Ages, when manuscript illumination was at its peak, there were two main schools of illustration. As Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz points out in one of his articles about Jewish books, the German school tended to limit itself to depicting the Seder service: the family at Seder, the four sons, the 10 plagues, the rabbis at Bnei Brak, and the hiding of the afikoman.

    The Spanish School concentrated on the creation, depicting what took place on each of the first seven days of history. Apart from the flora and fauna, we see Adam and Eve establishing human history. We see the animals coming to Adam to receive their names. We see Eve emerging from the rib of Adam. Later figures such as the patriarchs Moses, Aaron and David were also depicted.

    Among the works of artists who believed that the Second Commandment prohibited depictions of the human shape, we see the so-called Bird’s Head Haggadah, where human heads are replaced by birds. Most illustrators, whatever their provenance, depict biblical themes, though sometimes they give a contemporary appearance to figures from the Bible.

    In Dutch Haggadot of pre-modern vintage, Moses looks like an Amsterdam burgher of the time of Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself produced quite a number of Jewish-themed paintings. In more recent Haggadot, the wise son looks charedi, ultra-Orthodox. The wicked son looks like a Cossack. The simple son has nothing special about him. The son that knows not how to ask looks quite puzzled. One of the strangest Haggadot shows the head of the family pointing to his wife when referring to the bitter herbs!

    Illustrations became commonplace on Seder plates. They depict the family seated around the festival table and often go back into history with the finding of baby Moses, the Hebrew serfs laboring for Pharaoh, the people in flight from Egypt, and even the first Passover celebrated the year after the Exodus. These Seder plates became popular amongst the well-to-do, more among Ashkenazim than Sephardim.

    One of the wedding presents my wife and I received was an Arthur Szyk Seder plate, which we use to this day. It was given to us by the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain, whose religious director I was at the time.

    What happened with the Blake Prize of which I was one of the judges? There was public support for my nomination, and the other judges recorded their appreciation of my contribution to the discussions. The religion writer for The Australian, a national daily, said I was an urbane man and widely respected.

    I think gratefully that my parents chose well when they gave me the Hebrew name of Bezalel. I was named after my grandfather but have had a lifetime yearning to deserve the name, since the original Bezalel was “filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, understanding and knowledge” and had the instinct to know what turned a building into a sanctuary.

    Comments are closed.