Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Epstein with essays by several experts, presents hundreds of examples of Jewish artistic creativity drawn mainly from the medieval period. As Sara Lipton notes, the volume gives the lie to the notion either that Jews have no appreciation for aesthetics or that Jewish art is “all caftans and camels or dancing violinists.” She writes (with images):
The gorgeously illustrated volume . . . should challenge almost all assumptions about Jewish identity, difference, or art. Its twelve instructive chapters and 287 full-color images survey a stunning array of illustrated books made for Jews from the 12th to the 21st centuries. There are legal works slathered in gold leaf, and haggadot and prayer books whose margins bloom with botanically accurate flora and fauna. Although such manuscripts served Jews’ religious needs, Epstein repeatedly emphasizes their similarity (in style, composition, quality, and cost) to books made for contemporary Christians and Muslims.
Skies of Parchment also contains a number of secular manuscripts that have nothing to do with the practice of Judaism. Only the Hebrew lettering tells us that the dashing, turban-wearing protagonist of the verse epic The Book of Conquest is a Jewish rather than Persian hero. . . .
In most cases, the figures depicted in these books share the clothing, habits, and surroundings of the majority culture. In a 13th-century French miscellany, King Solomon is arrayed like a Capetian king. A teacher chastising his pupil could be any university-educated Christian pedagogue, and an illustration from a Spanish Haggadah depicts Moses and his family returning from Midian in a way almost identical to (indeed, they are directly modeled on) Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt.
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