‘It’s Magic, Turning These Pieces Into Gold’
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‘It’s Magic, Turning These Pieces Into Gold’

Barbara Wolff brings medieval artistry to contemporary Hebrew manuscript design.

In the lush greens of a great Tabor oak tree, 24 species of birds perch in their finery, with a black stork, a great white egret and a black-crowned night heron poised in the reeds below, and a yellow-breasted bird in mid-air. The tree is indigenous to the Middle East, and each of these birds is native to the Land of Israel or part of the large migration of birds that flies over in the spring and fall.

In Barbara Wolff’s work illuminating Psalm 104, now at the Morgan Library & Museum, each bird is brilliantly colored and artfully realistic. The tree is set against a background of gentle hills, a stream of water whose waves look etched, and a gold sky adorned with line 12, which concludes, “Among the branches they sing,” the title of the piece. Ten of Wolff’s folios illuminating the psalm are now on view along with the Rose Haggadah, her original illuminated text.

The exhibition, “Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff” is significant for its spectacular beauty, and for the artist’s workmanship: She uses the elements and methods of medieval illumination. It can take her months to prepare her materials.

This is only the Morgan Library’s second show of Hebraica in its more than 100-year history, the first being a 1989 exhibition, “Hebraica from the Valmadonna Trust.” The exhibit marks the first time the Morgan has been able to draw from its own collection — both of the works on view (the rendering of the Psalm and the Rose Haggadah) were commissioned by Joanna S. Rose and recently donated to the Morgan. This is the first Haggadah in the Morgan collection.

The Morgans —bankers Pierpont Morgan and his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr. — were collectors of rare books and manuscripts but did not collect Judaica, explains Roger Wieck, the Morgan’s curator and acting head of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, who curated this show. “We’re very happy for this gift. It fills a lacuna in our holdings.” The museum already had scrolls of Esther and a hand-written Hebrew Bible from France (1422) in its collection.

For Wieck, whose specialty is Western illumination of the late middle ages, particularly Books of Hours (Christian prayer books), this is the first show he has worked on with a living artist.

“She has an ability to work with gold, silver and foils in a manner I’ve never seen anybody in the modern age command,” he says.

The French Hebrew Bible is on display in a glass vitrine, along with other medieval illuminated works, including Hebrew manuscripts borrowed from JTS and private collections, in order to provide context for the exhibition, according to Wieck. By juxtaposing the works, he hopes to show parallels between Christian and Jewish illuminated work, in particular Christian Psalters, or collections of psalms; to show the historic manuscripts that directly inspired the work of Wolff, who frequently visited the Morgan; and to show her work as part of a long tradition and in conversation with that tradition.

For her depiction of the Zodiac in “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” (104:1-2), referring to the heavens, Wolff presents the sign for the twins in gold, in a direct inspiration from an illustrated Book of Hours from Italy, ca.1470, that is in the Morgan’s collection. Similarly, she dyed the vellum folio for “To Bring Forth Bread” (104:14) a deep red, in the tradition of another Italian Book of Hours known as “Rose Hours.” The walls of the exhibition are painted a close shade called pomegranate.

Wolff’s drawings are beautifully detailed and executed with precision — it’s no surprise to learn that she worked as a botanical and natural science illustrator before turning to this work. In the fullest sense, she illuminates the text, interpreting the words through her art and teasing out new meaning, and, through the shining gold and deep colors, bringing light to the room. She’s inventive, often playful — again echoing the medieval artists, who sometimes added small elements of surprise. If you keep looking, you’ll find something new.

In “The Mountains Rose” (104:6-8), she shows layers of earth — gold angular stripes, adorned with carvings and letters of the text — with the mountains above and the sea rising, its waves like a gold tsunami. On another page, a wisp of greenery flows out beyond the border, with a column of ants marching along.

Wolff explains that she always loved Psalm 104, as a “song in celebration of all creation.” The English she uses is drawn from a 1917 translation of the Psalm, which Wieck recognizes may sound archaic, but these were the words that inspired her. She points out that she’s not a calligrapher; these letters are drawn and filled in.

In a film that’s part of the exhibit, Wolff talks about how she prepares the gold, glues and pigments she’ll use on animal skins. Her work is very much in the tradition of medieval artists who painstakingly and patiently illuminated pages of manuscripts. When she’s at work, even the slightest breeze or even a breath can make the gold leaf crumble.

“It’s like being an alchemist,” she says in an interview. “It’s magic, turning these pieces into gold.” She adds, “You live a 13th-century timeline in the 21st century.”

The work is slow, she says, “in the best sense of the word. By slow I mean with thoughtfulness, deliberation, great care.” It’s also the kind of work that requires a patron “who can afford an artist medieval kind of time to work.” For the Haggadah, she spent three years, sending folios back and forth to the calligrapher, Izzy Pludwinski, who wrote the text in Jerusalem. Once she designed the pages, he would write the letters, and then she would do the illumination and gilding around his work. English captions in the margins were done by New York calligrapher, Karen Gorst.

Wolff’s illuminations combine traditional decorative elements with scenes that specifically illustrate the text, such as Hebrew slaves at work in Egypt, grouped in the shape of a pyramid, and the symbols of the seder floating in a blue sky above a Manhattan skyline with the words “Ma Nishtana” in Hebrew and the caption, “Why is this night different,” above. In her depiction of the Ten Plagues, frogs escape through the frame. Among the most beautiful images is a simple olive branch at the very end of the text, suggesting the longing for peace.

In a nearby vitrine, the “Prato Haggadah,” one of the earliest surviving illuminated Haggadahs, from Spain, ca. 1300, on loan from JTS, is open to a page with decorative panels and enlarged letters. (During the course of the show, someone from JTS will turn the page, to limit any one page’s exposure to the light.) There are also examples of 18th-century Hebrew illumination from an unnamed private collection, a Book of Genesis from Vienna, 1716, with letters so perfect it looks printed, and a magnificent and tiny prayer book, Me’ah Berachot (100 Blessings), probably from 1740s Vienna.

Wolff, who lives and works on the Upper West Side, has exhibited at JTS, Yeshiva University Museum and The Museum of Biblical Art. She “backed into” this kind of work about 15 years ago, when she began to see that with the advent of the computer, there would be less need for her hand illustrations of the natural world. She thought that she might like to do botanical drawings on parchment, so she signed up for a weeklong course on manuscript illumination. As part of the course, she began working with Hebrew words. The week was transformative.

“I felt as if I was intended to be in this world, as if I had been doing it all my life,” she says.

“Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff” will be on display at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., through May 3rd. On Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m., Wolf and Sharon Liberman Mintz will speak in conversation about “Hebrew Manuscripts, the Creation of the Rose Haggadah, and Psalm 104” at 7 p.m. Marc Michael Epstein will speak on Wednesday, April 1, at 6:30 p.m., on “Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Barbara Wolff and her Place in the History of Jewish Manuscript Illumination.” Tickets for each talk are $15, $10 for members; the exhibition is open is prior to the program.

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