The Jewish holiday of Chanukah lasts eight days, but New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is celebrating over the course of eight weeks, in the form of its recently opened exhibition “Lisbon’s Hebrew Bible: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” on display through Jan. 16. And the contexts are plural, not singular.
Produced in Cervera, Spain between 1299 and 1300, the “Cervera Bible” as it is called, is an illuminated manuscript that is both a sacred Jewish book and a masterpiece of the Gothic era. Its most famous image — of a resplendent seven-branched golden menorah (candelabrum) framed by two large olive trees — is familiar from its frequent use on Jewish-themed holiday cards (though it is a temple-style rather than a Chanukah menorah, which allows for eight lights) and innumerable book covers.
The opportunity to see this iconic illustration in its original context is indeed a gift. Week by week, curators Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Boehm will open the Bible to a different two-page spread, with this most popular illustration on display during the week of Chanukah itself, which begins this year on the evening of December 20. That is fitting because it is a depiction of the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the lamp stand, a text traditionally read on the first Sabbath of Chanukah.
But the ironic historical context is that this masterpiece of the Jewish Iberian experience has been housed since 1804 in Lisbon, at the National Library of Portugal, a country that in 1496 (just four years after Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492) decreed that its Jews must convert to Christianity, and where the Inquisition did not officially end until 1821. Yet the Cervera Bible is now considered a national treasure, a status reflected in the fact that Portugal chose to include two images (the menorah, and a lion pictured within a six-pointed star) from it in its 2004 series of postage stamps honoring the Jewish heritage in Portugal.
The exuberant illustrations to be found in the Cervera Bible give no hint of the darker side of the Sephardic (the word comes from Sepharad, Hebrew for the Iberian peninsula) heritage. Rather, many display a brilliant array of sophisticated ornamental frames and architectural patterns, whimsical depictions of such mythological creatures as mermen and centaurs, and scenes of such pastimes of the nobility as falconry and hawking. There is even an armor-wearing, sword-bearing figure to be seen.
Such images may not particularly resemble what we usually think of as Jewish content, but they do suggest the particular artistic and social contexts in which the Cervera Bible was created. By 1300, Jews had lived in parts of Spain for approximately a millennium, enduring any number of alternating periods of tolerance and persecution as subjects to a succession of conquering powers of different cultures and religions. The first so-called Golden Age of Spain for Jews — which had begun with the Moorish conquest and rule of Iberia in 711 — had ended. But the Christian Reconquista of Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries yielded something of a second Golden Age, during which Christian rulers enlisted Jewish craftsmen, traders and administrators to help them rebuild the country.
In this way educated Jewish families were able to enter into the aristocratic world of the Christian royal courts — a status that could allow a Jewish family to commission a luxury volume like the Cervera Bible that also would reflect this prestigious milieu. In this context, too, it is probably no wonder that Joseph the Frenchman, the Jewish artist of the Bible’s illustrated pages (the scribe Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan was responsible for the Hebrew text), felt so comfortable simulating the decorative flourishes, patterns and color palette found in the Christian Gothic art of the time, even while also showing the artistic influences of Islamic Spain and Northern Africa.
There is one more context in which to view the Cervera Bible’s menorah illustration — that of the Chanukah holiday itself. The events on which the holiday is based — the re-dedication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the wake of the victory of the band of Jewish fighters known as the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus IV and his Greek-Macedonian empire — are not recounted in the Hebrew Bible (or thus in the Cervera Bible) because the Books of the Maccabees are not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, the child-friendly tale of the discovery in the despoiled temple of a mere day’s worth of oil that nonetheless manages to keep the temple lamp alight for a full eight days is almost certainly no more than a questionable legend. Even so, the tradition is to kindle one additional light each night of the eight days of the holiday, with the aid of a ninth “helper” candle. Clearly, the seven-armed menorah depicted in the Cervera Bible was not for Chanukah use. But if we see in our own Chanukah holiday lights the symbol of Jewish survival against the odds, it is within the context of Jewish history.
“Lisbon’s Hebrew Bible: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” is on display through Jan. 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street (www.metmuseum.org).