An Illuminated Hebrew Bible Has a New Home

Posted December 22, 2017 7:14 p.m. EST

On Wednesday, the final day of Hanukkah, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its acquisition of an illuminated Hebrew Bible from 14th-century Spain.

The Met bought the manuscript for an undisclosed sum from collector Jaqui E. Safra before it went to auction in Sotheby’s Judaica sale. The auction house had estimated the piece would sell for $3.5 million to $5 million.

“We are thrilled to add this treasure of Jewish artistic heritage to the Met’s growing collection of important Judaica, where it will join recent acquisitions such as a 15th-century handwritten copy of the Mishnah Torah and a Torah crown and pair of finials of 18th-century Italian silver,” Daniel H. Weiss, the president and chief executive of the Met, said in a statement. The Bible will be displayed at the Met Cloisters museum in spring 2018.

The museum’s new acquisition is one of only three surviving embellished Hebrew Bibles from the 14th-century Spanish kingdom of Castile. Sharon Mintz, a Judaica expert at Sotheby’s, said the other two similar Bibles are only minimally decorated and entirely lacking in illumination, making the Met’s new Bible rare.

The practice of embellishing the Hebrew Bible was widespread and highly developed on the Iberian Peninsula in the first half of the 13th century. The tradition began to wane in the mid-to-late 14th century as Jews were increasingly persecuted in the area. This is one reason, Melanie Holcomb, a curator in the Met’s department of medieval art explained, it is thought that the Bible dates from the early part of the 14th century, despite bearing a colophon dated A.D. 1366. That date probably marks when an owner took possession of the text, she said by phone.

The Bible is also notable for its exhibition of both Christian and Islamic aesthetic influences. The text’s early pages are replete with gilding, floral motifs and other Gothic Christian staples, while later pages exhibit the tightly woven geometric patterns that are one of the hallmarks of Islamic aesthetics. Jewish micrography is used throughout the manuscript.

“This came to our attention on the first day of Hanukkah, and it was all wrapped just before it ended,” Holcomb said. “We kind of feel like it’s a little Hanukkah miracle. It all just came together very quickly, very serendipitously.”