Shared Motifs in Christian and Hebrew Books

Some Hebrew manuscripts were illustrated by Christian artists. Hebrew manuscripts often shared decorative motifs with Latin ones from the same region.


BREVIARY

Ferrara, 1470, 14 1/2 x 10 1/8 in. (36.8 x 25.7 cm), MS. Canon. Lit. 383, fol. 215r

Floral decoration of the kind seen here and in the Hebrew Pentateuch (MS. Canon. Or. 62) is typical of a Ferrara school of illumination. The historiated initial E (a letter containing a scene or figures) illustrates the text of 1 Kings 1–4: King David was so cold in his old age that young Abishag was procured to keep him warm, “but the king knew her not.” This Latin prayer book was intended for clerical and monastic use.

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HEBREW PENTATEUCH WITH MOTIF OF THE VIRGIN AND THE UNICORN

Ferrara?, northern Italy, 1472, 12 3/8 x 8 1/2 in. (31.4 x 21.6 cm), MS. Canon. Or. 62, fol. 1a

This manuscript, meant for synagogue use, comprises the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Rashi’s commentary, and additional readings. Most remarkable is the medallion at bottom, with an image of a unicorn resting in the lap of a virgin. It decorates the first page of the book of Genesis, together with Adam and Eve, who are portrayed as sinners bringing death upon the world. The images are Christian in their symbolism, alluding to the Incarnation and the New Creation: Christ is the unicorn and the second Adam; Mary is the virgin and the new Eve.



BOOK OF HOURS WITH MOTIF OF THE VIRGIN AND THE UNICORN

Delft, second quarter of the 15th century, 7 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (18.4 x 10.8 cm), MS. Douce 248, fols. 127v–128r

Books of Hours, popular in the Middle Ages, are private prayer books. They are named for the central text, the Hours of the Virgin—readings recited at each of the eight canonical hours of the day. They are often decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin and Christ, as in this example in Dutch. Below the text at right is a scene of the unicorn and the virgin, a medieval allegory of the Incarnation of Christ. At left the Holy Family flees to Egypt after Herod orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants (Matthew 2:13–23).



BOOK OF FATE WITH MOTIF OF THE VIRGIN AND THE UNICORN

Northern Italy, second quarter of the 15th century, 10 1/2 x 6 1/16 in. ( 26.7 x 2.4 cm), MS. Douce 241, fol. 4v

The "Book of Fate," written in Italian, was used for fortune telling by the casting of dice. It is open to a table with eighteen answers, headed by an illustration. The image shows a hunter spearing a unicorn as it rests in the lap of a virgin.



HOLKHAM HEBREW BIBLE

Naples, printed by Joshua Solomon Soncino, 1491 or 1492, 12 7/8 x 9 in. (32.7 x 22.9 cm), Holk. c.1, title page

The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century caused a revolution in the accessibility of texts and the spread of knowledge. Early printers often made their books look like manuscripts. In this luxurious printed Hebrew Bible the decoration has been painted by hand. The same border appears in reverse in "Aquila Volante," an Italian book. Jewish printers often borrowed woodcut borders from Christian printers.

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PSEUDO-LEONARDUS BRUNUS ARETINUS, AQUILA VOLANTE

Naples, printed by Ayolfus de Cantono, 1492, 11 x 7 3/4 in. (27.9 x 19.7 cm), Don. d. 104, title page

This work in Italian is a synthesis of world history viewed as if by an "aquila volante," an eagle in flight. It is full of quotations from Dante’s "Divine Comedy," fabulous and fantastic stories, medieval legends, and prophecies. The printer of the Holkham Hebrew Bible used the woodcut border seen here for his own title page, but reversed it to accommodate the right-to-left direction of Hebrew.

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