What can a Bible look like? A good place to start is the so-called Kennicott Bible, part of the Bodleian library at Oxford University and now on view at the Jewish Museum’s exhibit Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeteing-Place of Cultures. It is one of the most spectacularly illuminated Hebrew Bibles ever produced, combining Islamic and Christian iconographic and decorative elements. The Kennicott Bible dates back to 15th C. Spain, some time prior to the Expulsion of the Jews from that country. It is named after the British Hebraist Benjamin Kennicott, who acquired it sometime in the 18th C.
At the Jewish Museum, all you’ll see is a pretty cool page-spread under glass, which doesn’t leave much of an impression. And don’t bother doing a Google-image search because what you’ll mostly find are overly familiar gothic looking motifs as well as arabesque “carpet pages.” If you really want to see what a Bible can look like, the Bodleian Library and the Jewish Museum have reproduced high quality digitized images of each and every single page of the text. These are on display on mounted iPads at the Museum and you can visit them as well as here at the Jewish Museum’s website. At the website the images are organized book by book of the Hebrew Bible. Produced especially for the exhibit, I hope the Library and Museum find some way of keeping these online permanently.
I liked a lot the opening page of Genesis. You knew they were going to make this one look good, and it doesn’t disappoint. There’s a lot of gold leaf (?) and red ink (?) decorative elements. It looks medieval, but not Gothic and not arabesque per se. The figures are jewel like. As you start to scroll through, there are a lot of “plain” looking pages with no illumination. The text is presented in two columns. But keep scrolling and you find exquisite little decorations on either side and between the columns. There’s a beautiful David that stands out somewhere in Samuel I. Most of the decorative motifs are abstract and animal, with lots of griffins and dragons. The front page of Deuteronomy and the last pages of Proverbs and Job are pretty fabulous. Psalms, unsurprisingly, is probably the most decorated of all the books I’ve looked at so far, given the liturgical status and lyrical quality of the book and its contents.
So what does this Bible look like? Austere and illuminated. Black, gold, red, blue. Carefully tended. Deluxe. I think this says a lot about the Spanish Jewish milieu in which this thing was produced. Does it say anything about the Bible itself? It suggests something about the plastic character of a text, including Holy Writ, something about the shape of its appearance. We’re so used to reading the Bible, to the idea that the Bible is something to be read, that we lose sight of its objecthood and the fact that it is also something to look at. The decorative device frames the physical text and also its “sense.” About all the animals, I can only guess. Are they “merely” decorative or do they lend some special animation to the text? I’m pretty sure that this is not the same Bible that “we” read today. “Our” Bible is more folksy and Ashkenazi. This one is very aristocratic and Sephardic. And private. It’s not something that the original owners would have probably wanted to share with too many others outside the small circle around him and his family.
By the twist of historical fate and technological design, we all get to see it now. Alas, Library and Museum aren’t letting you copy pages. Their generosity goes only so far. But you can have a look for yourself as long as the display remains up online. The fact that you can see an image of the whole thing at home on your computer or on a mobile device is rather remarkable. I first saw the images in the darkened exhibit space. The technology cast its own special illumination. I’m sure the manuscript pages will look different in a more well lit place.