Rare 15th-Century Manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah purchased by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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 A 15th century manuscript containing the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides has been purchased by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The manuscript was going to put up for auction by Sotheby’s as part of the collection of Judy and Michael Steinhardt, but the two museums purchased it on Monday before the sale began.  The exact price was not revealed, but is more than $2.9 million. It will be displayed at both museums on a rotating basis.

Mishneh Torah - photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Mishneh Torah was created by Moses Maimonides (d.1204), and is considered one of the most important documents of medieval Jewish law. This manuscript was created in Northern Italy in around the year 1457. It contains a beautifully illustrated Hebrew text of the eight final books of the Mishneh Torah.

The manuscript is richly illuminated, with six large painted panels decorated in precious pigments and gold leaf, as well as forty-one smaller illustrations with gold lettering adorning the opening words of each chapter. These detailed illustrations, executed in the style of Northern Italian Renaissance miniature painting, along with the manuscript’s elegant script, make it one of the finest extant illuminated copies of the Mishneh Torah ever to be created. The manuscript underwent a complete restoration in the Paper Conservation Laboratory at the Israel Museum, where it has been on long-term loan since 2007 and on view to the public since 2010.




“The Mishneh Torah is a rare treasure that unites Jewish literary heritage with some of the finest illuminations from the Italian Renaissance,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “On loan for display in our galleries in recent years, the manuscript now becomes a seminal addition to our extensive holdings in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. We are very pleased to be acquiring this work jointly with The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the shared enjoyment of our publics in Jerusalem and in New York and are grateful to the international group of supporters that enabled this important acquisition.”

MishnehTorah2Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, stated, “We are pleased and proud to collaborate with the Israel Museum on acquiring such a rare and important manuscript for both of our institutions. The Mishneh Torah is a justly celebrated work that attests to the refined aesthetic sensibility of members of Italy’s Jewish community as well as to the opulence of North Italian book decoration in the 15th century. In recent years, through stellar loans provided by a number of institutions, the Metropolitan Museum has exhibited several major illustrated Hebrew manuscripts in rotation. The Mishneh Torah, a document of great historical and literary importance, and a masterpiece of illumination, will be a major addition to the Museum’s permanent and encyclopedic collection, and will provide audiences in New York and Jerusalem with a vastly rewarding viewing experience for generations to come.”

Michael Steinhardt added, “We could not be happier that this rare and remarkable manuscript will be in the care of the Israel Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in perpetuity. One of the world’s most significant Hebrew manuscripts, the Mishneh Torah will add important new dimensions to both collections—and its shared homes in New York and Jerusalem will ensure the broadest public engagement with the work. Judy and I are also delighted for our role within the group of donors who are making this key acquisition possible.”

The manuscript was originally conceived in two volumes. The first volume, which contains books I-V, was purchased between 1838 and 1854 by the renowned Italian collector Giovanni Francesco De’ Rossi, whose manuscript holdings were later acquired by the Vatican Library. The second volume, which includes books VII-XIV and is often referred to today as the “Frankfurt Mishneh Torah,” reached Germany as part of the collection of Avraham Merzbacher of Munich until the end of the 19th century and was later presented to the Frankfurt Municipal Library. In 1950, a Frankfurt Jewish family acquired the manuscript, along with seven others, in exchange for property that the city wished to acquire for municipal development. It remained in the family until its 2007 purchase by Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sharan Newman