Solving the Mystery of the Brick and the Book

A professor of Jewish art finds himself turning from one explanation of a puzzling drawing found in an old manuscript to another—and then possibly back again.

From the Barcelona Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1340. British Library.

From the Barcelona Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1340. British Library.

Oct. 12 2021
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).

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein.
And look into it; And become gray and old therein; 
And do not move away from it,
for you have no better portion than it.
—Mishnah Avot 5:22

Shortly after the publication of my 2015 book The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination, I received a charmingly laudatory bit of fan mail. “Dear Professor Epstein,” it read, “After nearly a century of research on the manuscript, you have definitively solved the mystery of the so-called ‘Birds’ Head Haggadah.’”

I had two reactions: first, I was delighted by the writer’s use of “so-called” to qualify the phrase “Birds’ Head Haggadah.” This is the designation used by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for MS 150/7, a manuscript made in the southern Rhine Valley around 1300, containing the earliest surviving illustrated home liturgy for the seder, the ritual meal on the eve of Passover. By dint of the fact that the putative bird-headed figures shown in MS 150/7 are actually griffin-headed human hybrids, in my own publications, I have renamed the manuscript “The Griffins’ Head” Haggadah. So, I was pleased to find that my interlocutor concurred.

My other reaction, however, was a sort of impatience with the shortsightedness of my correspondent in spite of his kindly intended words. For when one believes that there are “definitive solutions” for iconographic problems, the field takes a step towards paralysis and ossification. So rather than simply basking in the adulation, I responded to the poor, well-meaning writer in a manner that—while not exactly nasty or brutish—was rather short, and which amply telegraphed my distress: “I’ve only solved it,” I dashed off, “until YOU solve it again.”


“Turn it over, and turn it over, for all is therein.” With these words, the Mishnah, the great epitome of rabbinic legal discussion, valorizes the perpetual return to the source of Scripture for material for scholarly rumination and inspiration. While contemporary academic scholars, like the ancient rabbis, are always seeking new insights, it is a sad fact that the material upon which we scholars of medieval Jewish art focus our interpretive lenses is in no way as broad or all-encompassing as Scripture. It simply cannot be: due to the subjection of Jews, only a relative paucity of such material survives.

Of course, even new insights have their limitations. Let’s say we explore a concept like the relationship between the physical materiality of manuscripts and their iconography, the images and symbols that lie upon them. Because we scholars mostly view our subjects in physical or digital facsimile, we have become distanced and alienated from the tactile sensation of the page. Even when privileged to find ourselves in libraries with the originals, we’re understandably discouraged from handling the material in any more than a highly regulated and distanced manner.

Thus, the fact that manuscripts are made of animals, while a topic of discussion for some time in the general field of manuscript studies, has been little discussed in the subfield of Jewish manuscripts. Like the revelation about the eponymous world-saving wonder nutrient at the climax of the 1973 ecological dystopian thriller flick Soylent Green (“Soylent Green . . . is PEOPLE!”), the acknowledgement of the fact that a manuscript page is, at the same time, an animal’s skin feels startling. It prompts all sorts of interesting questions about the likes of livestock economics and their implications for Jewish-Christian business relations, or about wealth dynamics, or commodities distribution, or consumption culture, or eco-criticism.

The acknowledgement that manuscripts are written on skin can spark fascinating or disquieting associations as well: a given book, being made from animals, might also contain multiple depictions of animals. The manuscript thus colludes in the reification of the subject depicted on its surface. This is a point that can be brought even more graphically home when the prepared but unpainted parchment is allowed to “come through” to stand in for animal skin in the images of animals. Other manuscripts contain multiple depictions of human-animal hybrids. Such books, made from animals, and used by humans, are therefore themselves hybrid, and on more than one level: they are both physically animal/book hybrids and conceptually hybrids as well, in that they represent a living text (Torah or other) and dead flesh at one and the same time.

The question such observations raise is, of course, how far to run with them. Conceptual questions have their limitations. There are manuscripts in which the iconography is more susceptible to such interrogations, and manuscripts in which it is less so. We should understand when we can and when we cannot apply these concepts. Otherwise we’ll end up where we did some years ago, with popular tropes of “the body” or “the other” applied to all manner of irrelevant, unhelpful, and even absurd contexts. It’s best to resist attenuating a great idea to an absurd extent just because the premise is compelling. No premise can apply to every monument, or in every circumstance.


“Turn it over, and turn it over, for all is therein.” Like real-estate agents, whose credo is to find for their clients the best of “location, location, location,” the aim and focus of scholars of art made for medieval Jewish patrons and audiences should be to “revisit, revisit, revisit.” Revisiting monuments on which we have worked, over years and decades, can yield new insight, both in general and in particular.

For instance, when I first started writing about “medieval Jewish art”—a term I have long abandoned in favor of speaking about “art made for medieval Jewish patrons and audiences”—I understood the Jewish-Christian encounter over visuality to be a perpetually and inveterately adversarial struggle. In this wrestling match over iconographic meaning, I thought of Jews as stealthy guerrillas pilfering iconography owned by Christians. Jewish patrons then flung this iconography back at Christians with hostile intent, in rhetorical (or pictorial) revenge for Christian denigration of their religion, their peoplehood, and their persons.

In retrospect, I think this perception on my part may have had as its origin in a gift received from some (obviously light-hearted and expansive) relative of mine, a book by Simon Wiesenthal, Every Day A Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom (1987). That volume contained a litany of every libel, attack, horror, massacre, pogrom, and expulsion ever perpetrated upon the Jews, anywhere, anytime, all arranged in the form of an actual daily calendar. At the time, I was becoming more conscious of my Jewish identity and validating my desire to live as an observant Jew, and the book became a touchstone for connection with a history fraught with pain, suffering, and sorrow. But as a view of Jewish history, it was more than merely lachrymose—it was actually intellectually inspiring. What it inspired in me was a view that posited that since Jews must have been very angry as a result of this terrible lot in history, that anger necessarily producing steam that required venting. Art, I eventually came to argue in my research, provided medieval Jews with a major safety valve, substantially concealed behind a veneer of conformity to apparently conventional iconography.

Somewhere down the line—as a result of my burgeoning historical studies beyond the Wiesenthalian ambit, and certainly culminating with my eager inhalation of Jonathan Elukin’s magisterial Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages (2007)I eventually came to the realization that one had to buy eggs. That is: although every day may very well qualify as a remembrance day for Jews, they also lived cheek by jowl with their Christian neighbors throughout medieval Europe, in many cases literally in the shade of the great cathedrals. They had Christian business associates, and sometimes friends; Christians bought eggs from Jewish women, and in one or two cases we know that they commissioned objects from Jewish craftspeople.

So rather than continuing to think of the Jewish-Christian visual encounter as a polemic-flinging dustup, I have since come to the conclusion that it was rather more like a mutual fishing expedition. Jews and Christians angled, so to speak, in the same cultural stream, they pulled out various iconographic motifs—a lion, a dragon, a hare, a unicorn. They then each prepared—that is, interpreted—those motifs in propria moribus suis, each according to their respective way. The interpretations were sometimes polemical, but they were equally likely to be neutral, or simply parallel, and sometimes even consonant with one another.

It is both amusing and humbling for me to contemplate this nearly 180-degree turnabout in my  thoughts. In my teaching, I attempt to be transparent about my intellectual trajectory so as to benefit my students. I regularly assign them anonymized versions of the introductory overview/methodology chapters of two books, one published about three decades ago, and one of much more recent vintage, and ask them to compare and contrast the attitudes and conclusions of the two scholars represented. I delight in their bewilderment when I reveal afterwards that both were, in fact, written by only one scholar—their very own instructor—who has altered his approach so very considerably over the years. But when their consternation passes, they find themselves liberated to espouse positions, to try on theories, to take speculative risks that they know they will have a lifetime to revise, without shame or misgiving, just as a consequence of intellectual growth over the course of time.

Whether Jewish-Christian relationships were hedged about with enmity, whether they surprise us with their amity, or they display a relative equanimity, one thing is indisputable: when it came to the production of cultural artifacts, differences in the meaning and interpretation of iconography inspired highly collaborative conversations.

After around 1280, a Jew with sufficient wherewithal could walk into the shop of a commercial manuscript merchant on a high or a cathedral street in most West European cities—streets that were often proximate to the Jewish neighborhoods—and commission a manuscript. Going by my own experience working with non-Jewish presses to publish distinctively Jewish texts, this is a process that I imagine began with conversations that went something like the following:

Jew: “I’d like to commission a haggadah.”
Merchant: “A ha-WHAT-ha?”
Jew: “A haggadah, it’s a sort of a prayer book. I have a scribe, so you don’t have to worry about the language, but it’s going to need pictures.”
Merchant: “OK, a prayerbook with pictures. You mean like a Book of Hours? A Psalter?”
Jew: “Well, it’s a festival prayerbook, for Pesaḥ.”
Merchant: “Pesaḥ?”
Jew: “Yes, um—Pasque? Pasca?”
Merchant: “Ah, you mean for Easter!”
Jew: “No, no, not for Easter! Well, sort of. For our Easter—the Jewish Easter.”
Merchant: “OK, I think I see. Well, what kind of pictures?”
Jew: “Well, for example, I’ll need a picture of Moses fleeing Egypt for Midian with his family after Pharaoh finds out he killed an Egyptian.”
Merchant: “Oh, so you mean Old Testament illustrations!”
Jew: “No, Ḥumash illustrations.”
Merchant: “Ḥumash?”
Jew: “You know, the Five Books of Moses. Oh yes, sorry, that’s what you call Old Testament, I guess. So yes! Do you have anything?”

The merchant shows the Jew a scene of the Holy Family’s “Flight into Egypt.”

Merchant: “What about this? Old man, young mother, you have the baby, the donkey, and they’re fleeing—from the Holy Land to Egypt, as it happens, but the scribe can just label it as you like.”
Jew: “Oh, that’s perfect! Just take out the haloes, give me two babies, make the father much younger, the donkey much more horse-like, and give me another figure—a happy old man—greeting them. And, oh yeah, give me a dog as well. And flip the model so it reads right to left, to fit the Hebrew. How does that sound?”
Merchant: “Fine with me, it will cost you at bit over. At least for the extra figure.”
Jew: “Sure, how much?”


Empiricism is important as a starting point for research, but it must never be the only goal or end point. We have not completed our task if we merely observe, catalogue, measure, count, and number or if we trace the pilgrimages of artists from one stylistic context to another. It is imperative, rather, that we speculate.

The prospect of doing so must not paralyze us. Some time ago, at an academic conference, I was introduced to a notable historian of art made for Jews. Freely confessing my admiration for this author’s work, I nonetheless expressed some puzzlement concerning an aspect of this scholar’s method. For, while engaging in extremely meticulous detection of the origins, history, and classification of various iconographic motifs—not to mention their parallels and analogues in a myriad of contexts and settings—the scholar had surprisingly little to say about the prospective meaning of the images. Yet more perplexing was the fact that the very few times an interpretation was ventured, the footnote invariably contained a reference to my own work. I was both flattered and flummoxed.

“But you’re so smart,” I ventured, “Don’t you have any of your own thoughts about what these images mean?” “Oh yes, I do!” came the answer, along with a slightly embarrassed, ear-to-ear grin of visible pleasure. “Then why,” I asked, “don’t you let us know what they are?” My interlocutor’s face fell into an attitude of something between shock and bashfulness, and, with knit brow and the sort of tone one might use if offered crème brûlée while on a diet, he replied, “Oh no—I couldn’t!”

I could not help myself. I blurted, “Then you are going to live a good deal longer than I am!” And in response to the puzzled look I received—academic conferences not being the usual venue in which to become one’s own Cassandra—I quoted Marvell: “For at my back I always hear Time’s wing’d Chariot hurrying near.” I explained that when I see something that captivates me in a work of art, I feel the need—in fact, the duty—to speculate upon why it should be as it is. Life is short, and I feel an urgency in sharing ideas freely and without fear or reservation.

Of course, the danger in engaging in speculation is that one may be—indeed, one often is bound to be—wrong. When the speculation is wrong about authorial intention, this is simply a result of the fact that, as my late mentor John Boswell used to put it, “the protagonists are no longer around to interrogate.” Aside from the work of art itself—which I believe we should trust more than we usually do—we have no proof of what the patrons or artists intended. Still, there are some cases where we can be really, self-evidently, embarrassingly, simply wrong.

Take, for example, the following image. This charming fellow seems to be reading a book on a grassy knoll under a tree, with a cheerful smile on his face. Indeed, so it was that I read the iconography for about twenty years, since I first encountered the Barcelona Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1340. London, British Library, MS Additional 14761, fol. 30v, detail).

Of course, given that this fellow appears on a page depicting the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, I was always rather puzzled at his cheerful appearance. “We were enslaved,” proclaims the central text rubric, and the page is crowned with a bit of mundus inversus (world turned upside down) iconography depicting a hare being served a drink by a dog, with the implication that although the Israelites/Jews were once enslaved to the Egyptians/Gentiles, one day the Egyptian “dogs” would serve them. Why, in that context, would an enslaved Israelite be happily reading a book?

This was a page I returned to time and again in my research. I thought about and discussed the elongated arm of the man treading the clay. I was intrigued by how the clearly decorative golden circles surrounded by little dots could also become planetary bodies, “luminaries” in the language of the Bible, when read in the context of the action on the page. The one in the lower margin is clearly the sun, baking the bricks in the brick mold, while the two at the top might represent the sun and moon shining with restored, equal light in the eschatological age of Israelite triumph and revenge (per midrash on Genesis and Isaiah 30:26, “then [e.g., in the Future To Come,] the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun”). I thought of the cock at the top left as proclaiming the dawn of salvation, the dog-heads spewing forth buds (not yet blossoms!) representing, likewise, the budding of the new era. As in several other examples in medieval iconography produced for Jews, the agent of persecution (here the dog) sets into motion the mechanism for—or in this case, produces the symbol of—redemption (the buds).

The image operates asynchronically, depicting multiple times simultaneously. The past is indicated by the phrase “we were enslaved,” and the image of the Egyptian enslavement. The present is adumbrated by the medieval clothing, and the fact that the phrase describing the enslavement is read on each and every seder night. And the future is signaled by the hare being served by the dog, by the cock crowing to announce a new dawn, by the sun and moon rising simultaneously with equal brightness, and by the buds of redemption flowering from the very jaws of the oppressor.

But that leaves one figure: our reader at the lower left. Who, then, is he, and what is he doing in his reading? In the course of years of wondering, all sorts of possibilities arose in my mind.

  • Does the reader turn our attention towards the next page, pausing in his reading to raise his eyes just as he comes to the words, “Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu—The Holy One Blessed Be He” which appears at the top of the next folio (31r) where he gazes?
  • Or is this reader, holding his book, gazing at the words, “V’afilu kulanu Ḥakhamim, kulanu n’vonim—Even if we were all wise, even if we were all understanding [we would still be required to tell of the Exodus]”?
  • Are the images on the opposite page—a hare surrounded by two dogs, two horsemen fighting with lances, and a hare who is chasing a dog—visions that are produced by, or emerge from, his reading? Are they perceptions, in the one case, of reality as it is, and in the other, of the world as, one day, he imagines it is destined to be?
  • Is the reader “the Jew with the book,” preserving the text even while suffering, transmitting it outside the page?
  • Note that the reader is not dressed in a scholar’s long gown, but in the short, practical tunic and head covering of a simple laborer. Is the reader, then, counter-rabbinic?
  • Is the reader, in fact, every Jew who has ever recounted the story of the Exodus? Every Jew who ever read the haggadah?
  • Note also that the book he is reading is blank. Is the reader us, writing the book not with words on the page but with images in the imagination—hands on the book, but eyes on Heaven, spinning allegories, striking similitudes, reflecting on the experience of enslavement and freedom, of subjection and salvation?

Sadly, the answer to every single one of these heady, fresh and stimulating questions is resoundingly “No.”

Why? Because the reader is actually not a reader at all.


A couple of years ago in a Vassar classroom, as I expostulated on the above points in a fervor of scholarly ecstasy, suspensefully attenuating my arguments, piling on my interpretations with dramatic flair, theatrically altering my pitch and tone, a student in one of the back rows raised a hand. “Mr. Epstein?” she asked, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but it looks to me as if what is going on in the bottom register is that the Israelite at the right is treading the clay, the one in the middle is forming the bricks, and the one at the left, well, he isn’t reading. He has two finished bricks in his hands, and he’s about to put them into the basket to be hauled to the middle register, where the Israelites are building the building.”

The student was correct. The little fellow was not a reader but a builder. Had I taken the time to read the descriptions of other scholars of this image, I would have recognized this immediately, but while I am of course interested in what my colleagues have to say about iconography, my tendency is not to depend on the observations of others when it comes to simple descriptions, but to make my own assessments and to trust my own eyes. In this case, my eyes clearly failed me. On realizing this, I felt completely embarrassed, like I should just pack up my hyperbolic rhetoric and head home. I don’t exactly remember how I reacted. I’m sure I praised the student and thanked her for her insight. But all the while my cheeks were, understandably, burning at the foolish way I had gone on. I, who have always made a virtue of underplaying jargon in favor of “telling it like it is,” had been caught spinning a web of words, words, words, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Once I recovered, however, I found myself genuinely grateful for my student’s observation, and for the wake-up call it proved to be regarding what we think we see and what, therefore, we think we know. I kept my chagrin fresh in my mind, right under the surface of my ego, as a corrective any time I sensed myself crossing the line into interpretive arrogance. And like the exercise revealing my shift in thinking about medieval Jewish-Christian relations, this humiliation proved a great teaching tool, revealing both my method and its fallibility. It humanized the process of scholarship and helped my students to see the fact that even their oh-so-erudite professor, after so many years of contemplating an image, could get it totally and utterly wrong. This meant that they, too, were liberated to re-evaluate long held assumptions about iconography and to turn it and turn it again in the course of their own careers.


At a recent conference, the mandate for each scholar was to discuss what he or she deemed to be the most important questions going forward for the field of art made for medieval Jewish patrons and audiences. I came up with a list of six fallacies to be avoided and six desiderata to be considered. As part of my presentation, I recounted the cautionary tale of the brick and the book.

As it happens, a Vassar alumna, Maeve Doyle, was in attendance. She wrote me in the private chat, and her comment once again turned my consideration of this image on its head. Her remark was this: “In your Barcelona Haggadah example, those bricks TOTALLY look like a book, and I can’t help but think the artist knew that.”

Well, if Maeve  saw the image the way I did before I was enlightened by my highly observant student, it was entirely possibly (though in no way provable) that the medieval patrons and audience of the Barcelona Haggadah themselves saw the object both as a brick and a book. The fact that they could have done this simultaneously and without contradiction accords with what we know of the inventiveness of the medieval symbolic universe and the polyvalency of the medieval imagination. As for me, if I espoused such a view, I could salvage all of my previous “brilliant insights” about the “book,” and about the subject-position of its “reader,” and those insights could coincide with the objective “material reality” of the narratologically-more-probable brick in the hands of a figure who was not a reader but a builder.

But if I did embrace this view, enlisting Maeve as witness and co-conspirator, would I not, perhaps be pushing the polyvalence to an unreasonable degree in order to save face, or, perhaps, to avoid “wasting” my “brilliant observations”? After all, as useful as the confession of a humiliating misreading might be as a pedagogical tool for boosting student confidence, what scholar does not like to rack up another innovative interpretation? In fact, in this case, I might be able both to demonstrate my humility and salvage my genius at one stroke!

One argument in support of the idea that the authorship of the Barcelona Haggadah knew what they were doing in limning a booklike brick (or a bricklike book) is the fact that the two “bricks” held by the figure lack volume, in distinct contrast with the bricks depicted as already in place in the structure in the middle register. The slightly reddish rims of these bricks give them a slight three-dimensionality that adds the illusion of substantial material bulk to the building shown being built. Additionally, the builder holds the “bricks” with fingertips alone—which makes them appear to be objects of booklike lightness, rather than bricklike density.

Finally, there is the little bit of learning with which every Jew in medieval Iberia would have been familiar, a verbal pun that parallels and perhaps bears upon this precise visual ambiguity. It is from the end of the additional service chanted each Sabbath morning in synagogue. The rabbis are quoted as having said of Torah scholars:

Students of Torah increase peace in the world, as the prophet Isaiah (54:13) said: ‘All your children (banayikh) shall be taught by ADONAI, and your children shall increase peace.’ Do not read the word as banayikh, ‘your children,’ but rather as bonayikh, ‘your builders.’

It is in the book of Exodus, after all, that the Israelite people, literally the “Children of Israel,” come into their own. They do so through the encounter with the other, which includes oppressive enslavement as a consequence for repeating ingrained patterns of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism.

The transformation of God’s children into enslaved builders demands the question of what they build. On the material/narratological level, certainly, they build “Pithom and Raamses, store cities for Pharaoh,” as we are told in Exodus (1:11). But on another level, the people of Israel have been plagued by sibling rivalry and parental favoritism throughout the book of Genesis. In Exodus, their experience in enslavement, their encounter with the other, is meant to develop their potential as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). They must become builders of “peace” through the study of Torah—in any and all straitened circumstances, and, eventually in each exile. The word “peace”—shalom—betokens the balance and reconciliation of polyvalent and therefore apparently incompatible elements (self, and other, primarily), and results in a conjunctio oppositorum, an ultimate completeness and equilibrium.

The possibility that our builder of physical buildings with actual bricks is also a reader, a student, and thus also a builder of peace through Torah study is a very moving one. If we read the figure in this way, it is indeed significant that he is positioned on the open bifolium, for he is a builder through study who has his eyes on Heaven, on Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu—The Holy One Blessed Be He” on the opposite page. He is a builder because, as his mind projects the image of knights in conflict and a hare cornered by dogs—manifestations of the present, oppressive reality—his heart intuits that there will be a time when the pursued will triumph over their pursuers and the buds of redemption will burst forth, as envisioned in the other, more hopeful illustrations on the page.

The lesson for us, as students of art? The material and spiritual, the practical and intellectual, humility and innovation, bricks and books—all are necessary elements in the construction of shalom—peace, stasis, equilibrium, balance between self and other. But although this completeness is our ultimate desire, it is a goal that is rarely achieved in a single blinding insight. It is more usually a process that unfolds slowly over time, the result of turning, of changing and growing, of shifting perception, again and again.

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