Currently on display at Columbia University’s Butler Library are a number of illuminated marriage contracts (k’tubot), alongside prayer books and other documents, produced by or pertaining to the Jews of the Greek island of Corfu (known in ancient times as Corcyra). Cathryn Prince describes some of the artwork found on these artifacts, and their historical backdrop:
When Abraham Shaptei wed Esther Kiridi on a Wednesday evening in 1820 on the island of Corfu, they displayed their richly illustrated k’tubah . . . for their guests to admire. Now, more than 200 years later, it’s not the abundance of gold leaf or the intricate vegetal tendrils that draws one’s eye. It’s the unicorn.
“People are very surprised to see the unicorn. The unicorn is Christian, but unicorns do show up in Jewish art; in the margins of Hebrew manuscripts and texts, on silver. Most often it’s a unicorn confronting a lion as a symbol of Jewish messianic hopes,” said Sharon Liberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Yet, unicorns, the zodiac, and endless love knots feature prominently on the ten k’tubot displayed in The Jews of Corfu: Between the Adriatic and the Ionian.
Forty miles long, Corfu lies between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. From the 12th century through 1944, when the Nazis sent 1,800 Corfu Jews to Auschwitz, two distinct, albeit small, Jewish communities called it home. The first to settle there were the Romaniote, or Greek-speaking Jews, from Byzantium. The Italian-speaking Jews arrived in the late 14th century when the republic of Venice seized control of the island.
Over the next few centuries, hundreds of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe found refuge on the island.