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The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context

This installation is made possible in part by The David Berg Foundation.

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The Washington Haggadah: The Life of a Jewish Book

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The Washington Haggadah is one of the most important illustrated Hebrew manuscripts preserved in an American public collection. A Haggadah is the book used at the Passover seder, the ritual meal that commemorates the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt, and indeed, the margins of the Washington Haggadah are alive with illustrations of medeival Jews preparing for and participating in the seder. With captivating images in tempera and gold on parchment, the Washington Haggadah bears the date January 29, 1478, and the signature of the renowned scribe and illuminator Joel ben Simeon. The exhibition The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context offers a strong testimony to the vitality of visual arts in Jewish history.

Professor David Stern of University of Pennsylvania speaks about the life of the Haggadah, comparing the itinerant life of the Jewish book to that of the Jewish person. He sets the Haggadah in historical context, explaining the rise of haggadot, the evolution of the seder ceremony, and the history and folklore of Jewish illuminators throughout Europe. Seder, in a sense, is a ritual of storytelling, and Stern's introduction of haggadot sets the stage for the fascinating story of the Washington Haggada, and the ritual stories depicted therein.

David Stern, Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature, University of Pennsylvania; introduced by Melanie Holcomb, associate curator, Department of Medieval Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Among nearly twenty thousand Hebrew books in the Library of Congress, the Washington Haggadah is of unique importance as a work of art. Its unprecedented presentation at the Metropolitan Museum inaugurates a series of loans, each of which will focus on a single, illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscript, that will take place over the next three years in the Main Building's medieval art galleries. Each loan will be set in the context of related treasures from the Museum's collection.


Learn more about the Washington Haggadah at the Met:
http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/features/2011/the-washington-haggadah-the-delights-of-ornament

Learn more about Jewish art in Medieval Europe:
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jewm/hd_jewm.htm

Learn more about the art of the book in the Middle Ages:
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/book/hd_book.htm

The Washington Haggadah

Medieval Jewish Art in Context

April 5–July 4, 2011

This presentation features the Washington Haggadah, one of the most important illustrated Hebrew manuscripts preserved in an American public collection and an unprecedented loan from the Library of Congress. A Haggadah is the book used at the Passover seder, the ritual meal that commemorates the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. Although the essential components of the text were established in the second century, the Haggadah was first made into an independent, illustrated book in the Middle Ages.

With captivating images in tempera and gold on parchment, the Washington Haggadah bears the date January 29, 1478, and the signature of the renowned scribe and illuminator Joel ben Simeon. Born in Cologne around 1420, Joel ben Simeon worked in both Germany and northern Italy. Ten Hebrew manuscripts bearing his signature survive, and haggadot were something of a specialty. Certain details of the text of the Washington Haggadah—including an early, specific reference to horseradish as the bitter herb to be used at the meal—distinguish this book as one created while Joel ben Simeon was working in Germany.

The Haggadah offers particularly strong testimony to the vitality of visual arts in Jewish life. Its margins display numerous depictions of medieval Jews preparing for and participating in the seder: removing leavened bread from the house and burning it, roasting the lamb, and drinking wine.

The Haggadah is displayed alongside medieval works of art in other media, including German glass vessels and Italian ceramics similar to those shown in the manuscript.

Among nearly twenty thousand Hebrew books in the Library of Congress (the earliest of which come from Thomas Jefferson's library), the Washington Haggadah, purchased before 1920, is of unique importance as a work of art. Its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum inaugurates a series of loans, each of which will focus on a single, illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscript, that will take place over the next three years in the Main Building's medieval art galleries. Each loan will be set in the context of related treasures from the Museum's collection.

Read a series of related Now at the Met articles by Curators Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb.