From Birds' Heads to Hidden Women: Marc Michael Epstein and the Medieval Haggadah

Marc Michael Epstein. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. xi + 324 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-15666-9.
Reviewed by Julie Harris (Spertus College)
Published on
H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by
Jason Kalman

"Those familiar with Marc Michael Epstein from the lecture circuit--both scholarly and popular--know him as an entertaining and facile speaker. These qualities are on display in Epstein’s recent book--The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination---even his art-historically gifted children appear here as they do in his lectures--but readers expecting a “synagogue circuit” text will be sorely disappointed. This is a serious book, with careful observations, robust opinions, and footnotes forged by years of reading and thinking about Jewish medieval imagery, manuscript illumination, and its historiography. Indeed, publication of Epstein’s book offers more proof that Jewish art history, so long in its infancy, has finally come of age.

As suggested by the title, the unifying thread in Epstein’s study is the haggadah, its place in Jewish ritual and imaginative life, and the choices made by its medieval patrons/artists while crafting its programs of illumination. Epstein makes no effort to trace the development of Jewish manuscript illumination or to center his study in one particular geographical area. The four manuscripts Epstein investigates (the Bird’s Head Haggadah, the Golden Haggadah, the Rylands Haggadah, and the “Brother” Haggadah) come both from Ashkenaz (the first), and Sepharad, (the following three). This is a work of interpretation; each manuscript forms the centerpiece of thematic essays prompted by careful study of its particular iconographic features within the larger umbrella of Jewish art-making and haggadah illumination."

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