What's a Virgin Mary-like Figure Doing in a Famous Medieval Haggadah?

The mystery of Zipporah’s pout.

Zipporah in the Golden Haggadah.

Zipporah in the Golden Haggadah.

Aug. 9 2018
About the author

Marc Michael Epstein is professor of religion and visual culture and director of Jewish studies at Vassar College. He is the author of, among other books, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (2011) and Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts (2015).

She sits on the donkey as a queen might sit on a throne. Yet she wears no crown, and with her shawl pulled up over her head she seems modest and unprepossessing. Her progeny, one slightly older than the other, lie swaddled in her arms, and as she looks down, her brow is slightly knit, and her tiny rosebud mouth forms a tiny but distinct pout.

In a work of Christian art, this solemn, modest woman could not but remind a viewer of the Virgin Mary. In fact, the whole scene in which she appears—seated on her donkey, offspring in her arms, led by her husband—recalls the famous depiction of an episode usually called “The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt.” In that episode, recounted in the second chapter of the New Testament book of Matthew, King Herod, having learned from astrologers that a child is to be born who will be the promised messiah of the Jews, is determined to hunt down and destroy him, thereby prompting Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus to flee Bethlehem for Egypt.

This story has been a popular theme in Christian art from the earliest times, rendered often in stained glass, sculpture, or manuscript illumination. So what is the scene doing here, in a Jewish book—a Haggadah—containing the home service for the eve of Passover? And what is it doing in this particular Haggadah, perhaps the medieval example, par excellence, of the form: the magnificent Golden Haggadah, written and illustrated (probably) in Barcelona around 1320?

I’ve been looking at this woman for a long time, nearly three decades now, and she continues to intrigue me as much as she did the first time I laid eyes upon her. At first, what caught my attention was her similarity to the Virgin Mary in those many Christian depictions of the flight into Egypt. But the image in the Golden Haggadah obviously cannot represent Mary, and the scene itself is emphatically otherwise: it shows the departure of Moses and his family from Midian, the place to which, as recounted in the book of Exodus, he had fled after striking and killing an Egyptian overseer and where he married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.

The figure on the donkey is thus Zipporah, Moses’ wife and the mother of their two sons. This journey into Egypt—for that is also their destination—is much less well represented in the history of art. But it represents a crucial moment for Jews: nothing less than the turning point in the life of Moses and of the entire Israelite people. For as Moses returns to Egypt, he meets up with his brother, Aaron, who is also present in this scene, and once back in Egypt the two of them will proceed to confront Pharaoh and proclaim the famous ultimatum, “Let My people go.”


If, initially, I was bowled over and perplexed by the apparent similarities between the Golden Haggadah’s image and depictions of the New Testament flight into Egypt, I soon began to puzzle over the differences. The obvious ones include the Haggadah’s donkey-that-looks-more-like-a-horse, the two babies instead of one, the young beardless Moses bearing a spear, and the presence of the family dog. Aaron, presented here as a dignified elder, makes an interesting contrast of his own to Mary’s husband Joseph, who, in representing Jesus’ earthly, Jewish ancestry, is often depicted by Christian artists in an undignified manner or subjected to outright mockery or belittlement.

But what, then, about the pout—the very thing that struck me about Zipporah in the first place? While her image is extremely rare in Christian art, that of the Virgin Mary is, of course, ubiquitous. And in nearly every Christian version of the flight into Egypt, beginning with the very earliest examples, Mary, too, whom we might expect to be radiating the happiness of new motherhood, is often shown downcast and, in a word, pouting.

In Mary’s case, the pout makes a specific religious point: she has prophetic foreknowledge not only of the future greatness of her newborn son but also of his terrible death. Her facial expression—both sorrowful and dutifully accepting—could thus be described as a prophetic pout.

By contrast, Zipporah’s children will suffer no such terrible fate, and there’s absolutely no reason to depict her with a pout. And yet, in the Golden Haggadah, her expression is identical to Mary’s. Which raises a question, or rather a series of questions: was this detail in fact intended—presumably by the patron who commissioned the volume—in simple imitation of the well-known Christian image, or with the aim of competing with it in some way, or of using it to say something completely new, or of doing all of the above simultaneously?

To these questions and their implications we can now turn. In doing so, moreover, we place ourselves in a very distinguished interpretive lineage. From the moment the Golden Haggadah left the illuminators’ workshop, every viewer for nearly 700 years has been free to speculate, to interpret, to contextualize, and to personalize the images it contains, Zipporah’s inscrutable pout among them.

In fact, it seems to me that Zipporah was given such an enigmatic expression precisely in order to make viewers ask “why?,” to engage in a creative process of answering that question, and thereby to fulfill the foundational goal of the seder night and of the Haggadah itself, which explicitly commands Jews “in each and every generation” to see themselves as if they had come forth from Egypt (or, in the variant of Maimonides, to present themselves as if they, personally, had left Egypt).


One thing is certain: a sort of competition has indeed been set up here between the two figures of Mary and Zipporah. Each religious community emphasizes that its heroine is a woman of importance in a narrative otherwise centered around a male figure (respectively, Jesus and Moses). The Jews, for their part, are polemically asserting that in the grand scheme of things, the married Zipporah is fully as significant in her role as the mother of two naturally conceived sons as are the Virgin Mary and her supernaturally engendered child.

We might therefore call this a battle between two models of religious womanhood. Zipporah is as modest and unprepossessing, as good and protective a mother as Mary. But while Christianity deifies Jesus and elevates Mary to a quasi-divine status, Judaism insists on the full humanity of both Zipporah and Moses. In that sense, the images of the two women function pictorially as soldiers in an interreligious conflict between Judaism and Christianity.

The Zipporah depicted in the Golden Haggadah demonstrates, as I say, the entirely human character of a woman experiencing specific emotions in the context of the particular circumstances in which she finds herself. After all, the scene of Moses’ family’s departure from Midian to Egypt constitutes a key element in a larger historical trajectory, which is the Torah’s narrative of the Exodus. If we are to imagine ourselves, too, as participants in that narrative, shouldn’t we consider what Zipporah’s emotional state might have been at the precise moment captured in this picture?

In other illustrated haggadot from roughly the same place and time (the Rylands Haggadah being an especially well-known example), the depiction of this particular episode, recounted in Exodus 4:20—”And Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt”—is linked to a depiction of the scene a few verses later in which, following God’s intervention, Zipporah circumcises her son:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered [Moses] and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.” (Exodus 4:24-5.)

But the illustrations in the Golden Haggadah skip over this latter episode altogether, instead combining the scene of Moses and his family leaving Midian with the scene following, in which Aaron meets them on their journey back to Egypt (Exodus 4:27).

One can readily imagine why the patron who commissioned the Golden Haggadah may have wished to omit the circumcision scene, perhaps regarding it as “inappropriate” in a manuscript intended to maintain a dignified, courtly style and tone. But the omission has the effect of making both the scene of the family on the road and the portrait of Zipporah more ambiguous. Chronologically, for example, we would naturally understand the onset of the journey as occurring before the undepicted circumcision episode, as it does in Scripture. But if so, why is Moses shown embracing his brother in a scene that in Scripture occurs after the circumcision?


I was once heavily invested in the idea that Zipporah’s pout, competitive with Mary’s, was also prophetic in nature: a glimpse of some future sorrowful event. In her case, that event would have been the circumcision—certainly ample grounds for discomfiture, as no woman enjoys witnessing the circumcision of her child. This was compatible with my view that the circumcision scene had been replaced by the amalgamated reunion scene out of the patron’s sense of propriety.

And yet other readings are possible, some of them prompted, in my case, by fruitful conversations with other scholars on how our understanding of images can be affected by the passage of time. If Zipporah’s pout is indeed prophetic, what exactly does she envision? In addition to compassion for her son, perhaps she foresees that Moses, by failing to circumcise his children himself, has committed a sin of omission that will merit a death sentence from God (as hinted in the enigmatic scriptural reference to the Lord’s attempt to kill him). Zipporah’s pout could thus be interpreted as an expression of anxiety or concern over her own ability to save Moses from divine punishment.

But perhaps Zipporah is pouting for reasons less theological than emotionally “real.” In that perspective, the pout might mark the very moment when Zipporah realizes that her husband has neglected his duty to circumcise his children, and is unnerved by the prospect of having to perform the duty herself with nothing more than a sharpened piece of flint. Or perhaps it represents something else altogether: anger or resentment at Moses’ dereliction, which has left her having to pick up the slack. A woman need not be a prophetess to be annoyed by what she regards as her husband’s obliviousness.

Viewing Zipporah’s pout as one of emotional reaction to a past or present event rather than as anticipation, prophetic or not, of some future event opens up a whole new range of additional interpretive possibilities. Thus, the pout may represent Zipporah’s general sadness, or bitterness, at having to leave her homeland of Midian. Or it may represent her other significant emotional burden—namely, the fact that, according to the Midrash and its later kabbalistic interpreters, Moses has broken off marital relations with her in order to be in a state of purity for his intercourse with the Sh’khinah, the (feminine) Divine Presence: intercourse, that is, in the sense of spiritual congress, but the metaphor itself is unambiguous and its consequences very real. Under such circumstances she might justifiably be harboring feelings of neglect, abandonment, unwantedness.

Finally—and this is the scenario I find most plausible, and in keeping with the sequence of the biblical narrative—perhaps, having already circumcised the child or children, Zipporah is now frowning petulantly at Moses and Aaron engaged in a fond brotherly embrace when it is only thanks to her proactive deed that Moses has survived to undertake his divinely mandated mission. “You made me circumcise your two children with a flint knife when you should have done it in the first place,” she seems to be saying, “and now you expect me to be all smiles when we meet your big brother?” Indeed, if there is any prophecy in that grimace of hers, it might reflect her foreknowledge that while Moses and Aaron will forever be celebrated as religious and national heroes, her name will be mostly lost to history, and her accomplishment relegated to a side note in a bizarre incident that seems peripheral, at best, to the larger Exodus event.


Of course, none of these solutions is satisfying in and of itself, and none can actually be proved. But multiple possibilities are better than exclusive solutions—at a minimum, they afford us more chances to be right. And, more importantly, engaging in this sort of analysis— inhabiting the story as if we were the ones experiencing it—is what makes the relationship between the viewer and that mysteriously pouting character come alive.

Which brings me back to my earlier point: the artist’s effort to portray so ambiguous an expression of emotion in so extraordinarily minuscule a passage of painting seems almost to have been deliberately calculated to move viewers to do exactly what we’ve been doing—to guess, to speculate, to consider and reconsider what the depicted emotion is and from where it arises.

At the time of the illumination of the Golden Haggadah, it was common practice for monks and nuns to meditate on an image in order to seek visual cues and clues for spiritual insight. Zipporah’s pout is just such an image in a uniquely Jewish key—not monastic, but domestic; not private (though it could be) but familial (think of grandparents and grandchildren conversing); not mystical, but oriented to aid in the performance of a particularly abstract but essential commandment of the Torah: that is, to recall and imaginatively to reenact the Exodus from Egypt.

Emotions, being subjective by nature, are notoriously slippery to talk about—ask anyone who is in a romantic relationship. An extra layer of trickiness is added when we attempt to deduce so much from a detail so microscopic and seemingly minor as Zipporah’s pout. But, as in scientific work, it is the close focus on details that yields the most rewarding results, even though, in this instance, the results take the form of a spectrum of possibilities rather than a single, monolithic, or irrefutable solution.

Thus, ironically enough, can the scientific method be harnessed in pursuit of imaginative results with halakhic applications: a tremendous return for considering two tiny wavering lines signifying downturned lips, created 700 years ago with a brush containing two or three squirrel hairs, on a face considerably smaller than a pinky nail, in a total space less than three inches high.

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