The Getty Museum has an impressive holding of illuminated Christian manuscripts, but it hasn't had any Hebrew texts in its collection until now. It's not for lack of trying, though. The Getty has been on a quest for medieval Hebrew texts over the course of the past 35 years, and now, that search has been fulfilled with the acquisition of the stunning illuminated Rothschild Pentateuch, which by definition includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, otherwise known as the Torah.
As a way to provide context to the massive 13th-century manuscript, the department of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum has chosen to display the Medieval Torah with a Christian Bible from the Middle Ages written in Latin and a 9th-century Qur'an, effectively highlighting the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam by emphasizing their common origin: Abraham.
Getty Museum director Timothy Potts says of the document, “It has provided for us not just a Hebrew manuscript but one of the greatest Hebrew manuscripts of the Torah in existence.”
Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty, agrees. “One of the reasons that we were so excited about adding this manuscript to the collection is because it really enables us to tell much more complex and enhanced stories about the Middle Ages and the relationships between the great faiths represented in sacred books in the Middle Ages.”
While Morrison emphasizes the importance of the Hebrew manuscript tradition, specifically illumination in the Middle Ages, she says one of the biggest challenges in acquisition was that there are far fewer examples of surviving Hebrew manuscripts, especially in illuminated form, than there are in the Christian tradition, which tends to be the basis of most of the Getty's collection.
There are several reasons for this. Prior to the 13th century, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts were rarely published: a consequence of the Jewish people being barred from artistic guilds during the Middle Ages. “And so in the case of this manuscript, we think probably what happened is that Jewish scribes wrote out the text in Hebrew and then the patron hired a Christian artist to actually come through and do the illumination,” Morrison explains. “The manuscript itself is over 1,000 pages long, and about 150 of them contain significant decoration.”
Just as interesting as the text is the journey the Rothschild Pentateuch has made across time, ever since it was completed on March 17, 1296. The completion of the manuscript coincides with the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and according to Morrison, “There's certain liturgical aspects of this text which indicate that it might have been made for an emigre from England or by a scribe who had been trained in England.” The Getty believes the manuscript was probably written in France and illuminated in either France or Germany. By the 15th century, it had made its way to Italy, when a Jewish artist named Joel ben Simeon replaced one of the pages. By the end of the 16th century, the manuscript had traveled to a family of rabbis in Poland, then back to Germany about 300 years later. “It was owned by the Rothschild family, who is probably one of the most famous collecting families of the modern era, and the Baroness Edmond de Rothschild actually donated the manuscript to the Frankfurt Library sometime before 1920.”
No one knows how the Rothschilds got their hands on the manuscript, but somehow, it remained in a library in Frankfurt through World War II. In 1950, a Jewish family whose land in Frankfurt was seized during the war formally exchanged the property with the German government for 10 Hebrew manuscripts, the pièce de résistance of which is on view at the Getty today. The family relocated to New York City, then Israel. “So one of the things that I think is wonderful about this manuscript is, if you trace its route through the Middle Ages all the way till today, you actually trace the route of the diaspora of the Jewish people through all these places,” Morrison says.
Kristen Collins, co-curator of “Art in Three Faiths,” adds, “This Hebrew Bible is a personal book. It was for the home. It was for an educated elite who could afford to commission such a luxurious manuscript. Our conservator believes it may be sheepskin. It's incredibly light, soft, high-quality parchment.” In fact, according to the Getty's manuscripts department, one visiting rabbi even pointed out that the preparation of the manuscript's parchment must have been a kosher process in itself.
Together with the Medieval Bible (which is still in its original binding) and the 9th-century Qur'an, most of the sacred texts in the exhibition use words as the basis for the visual decoration. For instance, in the Bible, the figure of St. Paul is represented in the letter “P” throughout the entire manuscript. In other words, the text is not simply meant to be read but also to be examined, appreciated and studied with the aid of illumination.
”The three objects on display are exceptionally beautiful artworks that we hope will spark meaningful dialogue among various audiences,” Morrison says. “We're incredibly honored now to become the last link in that chain and have [the Rothschild Pentateuch] come to Los Angeles, where we can share it with all sorts of audiences who I think would be fascinated by its history, by its illumination, by the text. All these elements are coming together in one unique object that really shows how these portable objects that are cared for over long periods of time can embody history and stories in such an incredible way, that I think really makes a connection with all kinds of audiences, both here in Los Angeles and all across the world.”
“Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible and a Qur’an” runs through Feb. 3 at the J. Paul Getty Museum,
1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood; free (parking is $15); (310) 440-7300; Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.