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The Rothschild Pentateuch acquired by The Getty

The J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired the Rothschild Pentateuch, a spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript from the late thirteenth-century.

Created by an unknown artist and dated 1296, the manuscript’s pages are filled with lively decorative motifs, hybrid animals and humanoid figures, and astonishing examples of micrography–virtuosic displays of tiny calligraphy in elaborate patterns and designs. The vibrant colors and gleaming gold distinguish this manuscript from most medieval Hebrew book production, which followed a largely textual tradition. It stands apart from other medieval examples through the appeal and extent of its illustrated program. The text contains features that indicate it may have been written in France for Jewish emigres who had been expelled from England in 1290. The illumination was likely completed in France or Germany.

Menorah of the Tabernacle (Book of Leviticus) from the Rothschild Pentateuch, France and/or Germany, 1296. Ms. 116 (2018.43), fol. 226v – photo courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

“The Rothschild Pentateuch will be the greatest High Medieval Hebrew manuscript in the United States, and one of the most important illuminated Hebrew Bibles of any period,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Its richly illuminated pages – a great rarity in the thirteenth century – make it a work of outstanding quality and importance that represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement of its day. It will be one of the most signal treasures of the Department of Manuscripts and indeed of the Getty Museum overall.”

The Pentateuch contains the central sacred text of Judaism–the Torah in the strictest sense–comprising the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The manuscript’s lavish illumination divides the text into sections to be read weekly so that the entire Torah would be read over the course of a year. The opening of each of the five books is celebrated with monumental Hebrew initials intertwined with lively marginal figures and, in one case, a full-page illumination.

With its seemingly endless variety of illuminated motifs ranging from the imposing to the whimsical, the Rothschild Pentateuch is a prime example of the heights of originality and magnificence that Hebrew illumination achieved and stands as the most extensive illuminated program of any northern European Hebrew Bible to survive from the Middle Ages.

Decorated Text Page (Book of Exodus) from the Rothschild Pentateuch, Ms. 116 (2018.43), fol. 130 – photo courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

In a rare deviation from the rest of the manuscript’s aniconic approach, there is one illumination featuring full human figures that was added at a later date. In the second half of the fifteenth century one page was replaced with a new insertion, carefully replicating the text and commentaries. The folio can be identified as the work of Joel ben Simeon, one of the most celebrated Jewish artists known from the period. The replacement miniature represents the sole figural narrative in the Rothschild Pentateuch, but was inspired with the same kind of ingenuity that characterizes the rest of the manuscript.

“This acquisition allows us to represent the three Abrahamic religions of the period, and for the first time brings a medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscript to the Los Angeles area,” says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator in the Manuscripts Department. “The cohesiveness of the visual program combined with its unbounded ingenuity shows how medieval artisans approached the complex problem of page design and tackled a project as ambitious as the Rothschild Pentateuch.”

The Rothschild Pentateuch was created in 1296 perhaps for a patron originally from England. It was carried through the centuries from France or Germany to Italy and Poland, and was eventually acquired by Baroness Edmond de Rothschild at some point before 1920, and then given after World War II to a German-Jewish family, who later settled in Israel, as a part of an exchange agreement.

Decorated Text Page (Book of Genesis) from the Rothschild
Pentateuch, Ms. 116 (2018.43), fol. 32v – photo courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

“The storied voyage of this manuscript follows the history of the Jewish diaspora across time and space,” Morrison adds. “This newest addition to our collection will allow us to present a more inclusive story of the Middle Ages at a time when the Getty is increasingly looking to a global approach in the visual arts.”

The Rothschild Pentateuch will make its debut at the Getty Center in Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an on view August 7, 2018 to February 3, 2019, an exhibition showcasing for the first time the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Please visit the Getty Museum website for more details.

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