Marc Michael Epstein’s edited Skies of Parchment/Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts is a recent addition to the Jewish art scholarship. It’s bold approach is to treat the subject topically, as opposed to chronologically or geographically. This gets you a big picture. What’s going on with scribes and illuminators, patrons and audience? And how does Jewish art map out worlds –Jewish geography, home, and “fantastic horizons and unseen universes.” Epstein assembled a team of scholars, which contributes to the big picture character to the book as a whole.
Re: the choice to call these “Jewish illuminated manuscripts” as opposed to the more typical “Hebrew,” I have mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s every reason to part with the more archaic and snobbish “Hebrew” as a way to advance the point that regardless of the identity of the artist, these books were made for Jews, that they draw on the Jewish iconographical tradition. This is important. Not all the artists were Christian, but it is safe to assume that some or perhaps many were. One important point made here is that non-Jews create Jewish art. A perhaps more interesting possible conclusion is that when we’re talking about Jewish art and identity, we’re talking about the object, the book, not the identity of the creator, which hides behind the artifact.
But, visually speaking, what’s “Jewish”? By that I don’t mean narrative elements taken from the Hebrew Bible or from Jewish ritual life. Because if you look at the late 17th century Iranian material, what is going to distinguish these figures from other identical looking figures in the Persian miniature tradition? Given the wide range of ethno-cultural styles from medieval Ashkenaz, Renaissance Italy, Safavid Persia, and rococo Germany, the only thing that will stitch the material together as “Jewish” is nothing but the “Hebrew” script that appears in virtually every single one of the works brought together in this volume. Usually we think about Jewish culture and religion in dull black and white. That’s the way it appears to most of us. In contrast to that impression, Jewish illuminated art is a motley assemblage of black ink framing the bright and lively color brought to the world of Jewish visual life.
On a lachrymose note, studies like these contribute to a diasporism that for its capacious cosmopolitanism is very much in vogue across an influential sub-set of Jewish intellectuals today. But what struck me reading was how little Jewish illuminated art has survived the Diaspora that created it. Epstein remarks at a number of critical junctures about the destruction and loss of Jewish manuscripts and entire collections, particularly during the public burnings of the Talmud and other Jewish books in Paris, in 1242. What we look at when we look at pre-modern Jewish art is what turns out to be a very small sample of objects about which there is so much missing information (about the patronage system, the identity of the artists, and so on).