Illuminated manuscripts began to appear in Jewish society in the 10th century in the Middle East and around the 1230s in Iberia, France, the German Lands, and Italy. Whereas the colophons in some of the books indicate that the illuminations and illustrations were done by Jewish artists whose names are known to us, other manuscripts indicate, rather, that they were embellished by Christian miniaturists. Hence the definition of “Jewish (Book) Art” in the Middle Ages does not solely depend on the artist’s identity.
For the purpose of this survey it refers not only to illuminations that were actually done by Jews but to art made by and for Jews. The first Hebrew illuminated manuscript to attract scholarly attention was the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Sefardi manuscript from the 1330s. It was eventually published in 1898, and from that time on scholars have utilized various methodological approaches to study and analyze medieval Jewish book art. Whereas the bibliographical approach was prevalent during the earlier decades, since the 1950s narrative art has been studied primarily by means of Kurt Weitzmann’s recension theory, Weitzmann’s method is based on the assumption that every narrative image cycle was necessarily copied from an early predecessor, and that it is the aim of the art historian to reconstruct a prototypical version. Weitzmann’s methodology was also the dominant approach in the study of Christian manuscript painting.
The more recent discourse about “New Art History” began to shape research into medieval manuscript illumination in the early 1990s, and it soon influenced the study of Hebrew manuscripts. Questions such as patronage, function, reception, and others entered the discourse. The earliest surviving example of a Hebrew illuminated manuscript is a Pentateuch fragment from Egypt, dated 929, and several Middle Eastern Bibles and other texts were produced during the subsequent centuries. The decoration of these books was rooted in the tradition of Islamic book illumination and did not include any figurative art. A similar tradition of aniconic book decoration appeared later in post-reconquest Iberia. In parallel, beginning in the 1230s, a rich figurative and narrative art began to develop in Christian Europe, including Bibles, prayer books, haggadot (the liturgical text for the Passover ceremony), compilations of the ritual law, and miscellanies. Hardly any Hebrew illuminated manuscripts from the Byzantine world have survived, the only extant works being a few haggadot from the 16th century, which have not yet been studied in any depth.
Kogman-Appel, Katrin. “Jewish Manuscript Illumination”. Oxford Bibliographies, 26 Aug. 2014. Web. 08 Jan. 2017.