After 500 years, Catalonia’s haggadahs come home
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After 500 years, Catalonia’s haggadahs come home

Everything's illuminated at new Jewish liturgical manuscripts exhibit in Barcelona

Detail of a historiated initial-word panel: Barukh (blessed) at the beginning of the benediction for the ending of the Shabbat (Havdalah ceremony). An elderly man lifts a goblet while performing the Havdalah blessing over a twisted candle held by a young boy. Origin: Catalonia/Barcelona (public domain)
Detail of a historiated initial-word panel: Barukh (blessed) at the beginning of the benediction for the ending of the Shabbat (Havdalah ceremony). An elderly man lifts a goblet while performing the Havdalah blessing over a twisted candle held by a young boy. Origin: Catalonia/Barcelona (public domain)

In the 14th Century, Catalonia was the home of one of the most cultured Jewish communities in the world. It is here that some of the most famous illuminated haggadahs were commissioned. However, when in 1492, the Catholic monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree, Jews were officially expelled from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and the Jews there had two choices: either convert to Catholicism, or flee.

Although Catalonia’s haggadahs left with their Jewish owners in 1492, from March 26 through July 5 some of these famous liturgical works will be on show at “home” in an exhibit at the Barcelona Museum of History.

Illuminated manuscripts are texts written by hand, and decorated with enlarged letters, ornamental borders, and miniature illustrations. Originally, only those manuscripts that were ornamented with gold and silver were considered “illuminated” or “lit up.” In modern scholarship, any manuscript that is embellished, from both the Islamic and Western traditions, is considered illuminated.

The oldest illuminated manuscripts originated in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire in around 400 CE. They were preserved by the monastic orders, whose monks copied them. Most of the illuminated manuscripts that have survived are from the Middle Ages and initially these manuscripts were created for religious use.

In the 1100s, the ancient classics, and texts about science, were also produced in the Iberian Peninsula. Precise illustrations were needed to accompany this written material and these texts were used to teach in the first universities of Western Europe.

Beginning in the 13th century, secular manuscripts were also illuminated. Wealthy patrons commissioned manuscripts for their personal libraries. This included some of Catalonia’s most prominent Jews.

Historiated initial-word panel Ha lahma aniya (The Bread of Affliction), at the beginning of the text of the Haggadah. Origin: Spain, N. E., Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)
Historiated initial-word panel Ha lahma aniya (The Bread of Affliction), at the beginning of the text of the Haggadah. Origin: Spain, N. E., Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)

Medieval illuminated manuscripts were written on vellum and the whole page was planned in advance on parchment cut to the desired size. Lines were lightly ruled with a pointed stick and then the words were added, written with a quill pen or sharpened reed, and ink. Blank space was reserved for the illustrations and decorations. The design for the drawings was delineated on a wax tablet, then traced onto the vellum, sometimes with pinpricks.

There was an order to creating illuminations: First, the drawing was outlined with a silver wire, then gold leaf was glued to the parchment. Gold was applied before the drawing was painted because gold would stick to any paint, potentially ruining the design. The process of gluing the gold leaf included polishing (burnishing) the gold once the glue was dry. This vigorous action could smudge any paint that was already there. Once the gold leaf was in place, natural pigments, made from plants, insects, and minerals, were applied with brushes to the rest of the design. Finally, the decorative border was painted.

Up to the 1300s, the painstakingly writing and drawing of each manuscript was both done by monks. In the 14th Century, the text was written by a scribe, and the illustrations were executed by secular artists. Secular workshops were created, with artisans so skilled, that by the 15th Century the monasteries outsourced their work to them. In France, much of the artistic work for the manuscripts was done in these workshops by women.

The illuminated manuscripts commissioned by the Catalan Jews were of the Gothic style, which developed in the 1100s. It was naturalistic, showing emotions in faces and gestures, leaves cascading along the borders of the page, sketches in the margins and grotesques (now called drolleries). The haggadahs on show in Barcelona were collaborative projects between Jewish scribes and Christian artists.

Detail of a page: miniature of a pig-like figure lifting the first cup of wine and a hare placing a stick upon a dog's head. Origin: Catalonia/Barcelona (public domain)
Detail of a page: miniature of a pig-like figure lifting the first cup of wine and a hare placing a stick upon a dog’s head. Origin: Catalonia/Barcelona (public domain)

When Charlemagne completed his reconquest of Catalonia from the Muslims in 1150 CE, Catholic censors began reviewing Jewish books. Usually recent converts from Judaism to Catholicism, these censors knew how to read the books and were tasked with finding blasphemous passages.

Some of the Catalan haggadahs bear the inscription of the censors. One example, which is unfortunately not included in this exhibition, is the Barcelona Haggadah, currently owned by the British Library. Luigi da Bologna, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism, worked as a censor for the Inquisition. On the bottom of a page of the haggadah it is written, “Seen by me, Brother Luigi of the order of Saint Dominic on 1599.”

This Barcelona exhibit is in response to a trend called “the recuperation of memory” among some Catalans. Some vaguely knew about the Jewish origins of their families, including in some cases a “Jewish” last name. Others have discovered evidence of crypto-Judaic observance among their ancestors.

Detail of an historiated initial-word panel: Pesah (Passover lamb) depicting a young man roasting the Passover lamb. Origin: Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)
Detail of an historiated initial-word panel: Pesah (Passover lamb) depicting a young man roasting the Passover lamb. Origin: Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)

There is tremendous ignorance about Judaism in Catalonia and Judaism was considered by some a forbidden subject until very recently. Incredibly, it was technically illegal for Jews to live in Spain until 1968, when the Alhambra Decree was formally revoked.

Now, there is a renaissance of interest in Catalonia’s illustrious Jewish past, as seen in the illuminated haggadahs exhibit. This exhibit will bring together the Rylands Haggadah, currently at the University of Manchester; the Graziano Haggadah from the Jewish Theological Center in New York; the Mocatta Haggadah, from the University College London, the Bologna-Modena Haggadah from the University of Bologna & Biblioteca Estense, Modena; the Cambridge Catalan Haggadah from Cambridge University, the Kaufmann Haggadah from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; and the Poblet Haggadah from the Poblet Monastery in Catalonia.

The only haggadah that currently resides in Catalonia is the Poblet Haggadah. The story of its return was recounted to The Times of Israel in consultation with Frai Xavier Guanter, the librarian of the Poblet monastery.

The Poblet Haggadah was written in the 14th century in Catalonia and taken to Italy by its Jewish owners in 1492. In 1672 it was purchased in Italy by Pedro Antonio de Aragón, the Viceroy of Catalonia, who brought it back to Catalonia and donated it to the Poblet Monastery.

Full-page initial-word panel with gold letters and foliate decoration at the conclusion of the Haggadah: La-Shanah ha-Baah bi-rushalayim, amen (Next year in Jerusalem, Amen). Origin: Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)
Full-page initial-word panel with gold letters and foliate decoration at the conclusion of the Haggadah: La-Shanah ha-Baah bi-rushalayim, amen (Next year in Jerusalem, Amen). Origin: Catalonia/ Barcelona (public domain)

Throughout its history, the monastery of Poblet always had a good relationship with the Jews living in the area. The monks, some of who were converts from Judaism, preserved the haggadah, sometimes at great risk to themselves.

When in 1836 the Spanish government embarked on a program of confiscating church lands to finance itself, the monks were forced to flee Poblet, and monastery’s library was dispersed. Eventually, the Poblet Haggadah was acquired by Jaume Mans I Puigarnau, a professor of canonic law at the University of Barcelona. Upon his death in 1983, he left instructions that the haggadah was to be returned to the monastery and 20 years ago, a priest delivered it there.

This museum exhibit is a fleeting experience, which will be over on July 5. However several academics have embarked on a project whose goal is to reclaim the Jewish history of Catalonia’s haggadahs for posterity and are creating a documentary that will go back in time to14th Century Barcelona.

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