Composed in the city of Milan and richly illuminated, the Lombard Haggadah is the oldest known stand-alone Italian manuscript of the seder liturgy. Susan Moore describes the artifact, which will be on display in New York City next week:
[The Haggadah’s] seder illustrations are essentially domestic, familial images: we witness the preparation of the meal, prayers and blessings, the ritual of hand-washing, readings, and scenes of the table of seated figures and of the meal itself. Some 75 pale, delicate—and damaged—watercolor washes over pen and ink outlines occupy the margins of almost every page. . . . Particularly striking is one elegant servant in fashionable bi-colored garments—one pointed leg clothed in pink hose, the other in red—bearing an enormous bunch of maror, the bitter herbs that are an essential part of the sacred meal, intended to symbolize the bitterness of enslavement.
It seems probable that the manuscript was made for a wealthy Jewish individual during the last decade of the 14th century, a period that saw a wave of immigration of northern European Jews to Lombardy, but not to the city of Milan itself, as a result of the welcome extended by Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Its figures and imagery are entirely characteristic of the international gothic style, and what is fascinating is that it is essentially no different from Christian Latin manuscripts of the same period in terms of execution, presentation or detail, even if the script and specific narratives differ. . . .
The manuscript also peculiarly, if not uniquely, depicts the Labors of the Month, [a common medieval motif involving depictions of activities associated with each month]. The scenes of agricultural work represented in this visual calendar are a curious inclusion given that urban Jews [almost never owned land] and presumably did not slaughter pigs in December.