The Birds’ Head Haggadah, a manuscript dating from around the year 1300, is considered one of the most interesting and mysterious pieces of Jewish art from the Middle Ages. In “Birds Head Revisited: Identity, Politics and Polemics the Birds’ Head Haggadah”, a special lecture held at the University of Toronto last month, Professor Marc Michael Epstein offered some new insights into this work, the earliest surviving illustrated version of the Haggadah text.
Readers of this particular Haggadah, which is a collection of prayers, illustrations, and stories recited on the Jewish holiday of Passover, will immediately notice that all of the illustrated Jewish figures are not depicted as people, but appear to have bird’s heads on the bodies of human beings. Epstein, Professor of Religion at Vassar College, explains that the figures are drawn to be Griffins, which were very popular figures in medieval Jewish literature.
The Birds’ Head Haggadah is one of a whole series of manuscripts from medieval France and Germany that were deliberately illustrated not to show the human faces. In others medieval texts other kinds of animal heads were used instead. Meanwhwile, the Birds’ Head Haggadah originally depicted the non-Jewish characters in its illustrations as having blank faces – centuries later faces were drawn onto these figures.
One of the main topics of Professor Epstein’s discussion were the illustrations found on folios 25v and 26r of the Haggadah, which depict the making of Matzah, an unleavened bread traditionally eaten by Jews during the week-long Passover holiday. Epstein believes these illustrations, which show the pricking of the bread and then placing it into an oven, were meant to counter accusations from the Christian community that the preparation of Matzah was a mockery and attack towards the Christian practice of Communion.
Epstein notes that in the 13th century religious persecution against Jews in medieval Europe became more widespread, and that accusations were made against local Jewish communities of the ritual murder of children, using blood for magic, and the desecration of the Eucharist. Several medieval writers described how “Jews were tempted to relive the crucifixion” by stealing pieces of the Christian Eucharist and making various attacks upon it. Christian theologians even saw Matzah as a kind of Jewish imitation of Christian practices, and were worried that some nefarious means were being used in its baking process.
By depicting the very mundane and regular practices involved in making Matzah bread, the illustrator of the Birds’ Head Haggadah was, in Epstein’s view, trying to explain that this baking process was not evil or threatening as Christians believed. It can be seen as an attempt by the Jewish community to counter the increasingly anti-Jewish views that were coming from various parts of Christian Europe.
Epstein also used the lecture to discuss some other interesting aspects of the Birds’ Head Haggadah, such as why certain Jews were portrayed in the illustrations wore hats and beards, while others did not. His research is also detailed in his book The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination, which was published last year by Yale University Press. The book examines the Birds’ Head Haggadah and three other Haggadot from the early 14th century.
Epstein writes: “During the early thirteenth century, by which time Jewish settlement had spread throughout Christendom, Jews in both Ashkenaz and Sepharad developed a renewed interest in narrative painting coterminous with the emergence of Christian narrative art from monastic contexts into urban workshops. By the early fourteenth century, narrative, figurative art in Jewish culture had reemerged and reached its most articulated development. The manuscripts I will examine are products of that renaissance.”
See also this recording of a lecture by Professor Epstein, on the Medieval Haggadah, delivered in 2011