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A Passover Haggadah painted by an Englishman?

Follow us on the trail of a Christian English painter, and discover some unusual iconographical elements in an eighteenth-century Passover Haggadah

Dr Zsofia Buda, Hebrew Manuscripts Research Associate, writes:

Browsing the Manchester Leipnik Haggadah (a service book containing prayers and readings recited during the Seder meal on the eve of Passover), we discover a surprising element: the Tablets of the Law are written in English! (Fig. 1) This manuscript was copied in Altona, near Hamburg by a Jewish scribe-artist of Moravian origin called Joseph ben David of Leipnik. Joseph was a scribe-artist who not only copied but also illustrated his manuscripts. The Tablets of the Law in another of his Haggadot is inscribed in Hebrew. (Fig. 2) So why do we find “Thou shalt…” in the Manchester Haggadah?

From Hamburg to England

The story starts in Northern Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. This is the area where Joseph ben David, a Jew from the Moravian town of Lipník nad Bečvou (in German Leipnik; today in the Czech Republic) was most active during the 1730s. We know of sixteen manuscripts signed by him, almost all of which are Passover Haggadot.

According to his colophon, in which he provides details about the production of the manuscript, he copied the Manchester Haggadah in Altona. But was he also responsible for the images? No: although the choice of scenes in the Manchester manuscript follow those in Joseph’s other Haggadot, the style of the images with a few exceptions is very different, and must have been painted by someone else.

If you compare the Steps of the Seder in the Manchester manuscript with the same scenes in the Sloane Haggadah copied and illustrated by Joseph ben David around the same time (1739/1740), you will see they are very similar (Figs 3 and 4). These images of the Manchester Haggadah must have been painted by Joseph himself.

However, have a good look at the scene of Jacob and his household going down to Egypt in these two Haggadot. What a difference in style! One is a naïve style in exuberant colours, with plenty of details in the background, and with figures dressed in contemporary clothes. This is unmistakeably Joseph ben David’s work. The other is more classical with flying drapery and windswept hair, and the main characters wearing timeless robes and appearing against a monochrome setting (Figs 5 and 6). This must be a different, more trained artist. (Don’t miss though the pyramid which features in both and which you would have never encountered in medieval Haggadot.)

The other artist….

It seems thus likely that Joseph sold the Haggadah before finishing its illustrations and its new owner then took it to England, where an English painter completed the work. There are a few clues that suggest that this English painter was most probably a Christian. For example, none of the Hebrews wear any headgear. A more obvious hint is that our anonymous artist depicted Moses standing in front of Pharaoh with horns, a Christian iconographical element based on the mistranslation of an original Hebrew biblical verse (Fig. 7).

7. Moses in front of Pharaoh, Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 39, folio 15r.

Another “suspicious” image is the illustration of the story of the Four Sons: the wise, the wicked, the pious and the one who does not know how to ask. These symbolic characters in the Haggadah are often interpreted as representing four different attitudes to Judaism, and have been illustrated from medieval times.

Joseph ben David, like most eighteenth-century Haggadah illustrators, based his compositions on the etchings of the printed Amsterdam Haggadah (1695). Consequently, just like the artist of the latter, Joseph also placed the four sons next to each other in the same scene (Fig. 8). The English painter however, at the same place in the text, depicted an Israelite in conversation with three soldiers (Fig. 9). The Israelite looks very much like the High Priest himself wearing the priestly garment and the breastplate. How does this image relate to the Four Sons? Could it be that he misunderstood the model he used?

You can easily discover many more fascinating discrepancies in the iconography.

English book collectors and their Haggadot

It seems then that our anonymous English painter used a Haggadah illustrated by Joseph himself as a model (even if his style was greatly different and even if he did not always understand the context). This assumption is all the more likely, since we know of two more of Joseph’s Haggadot that were in the possession of English noblemen. Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) the physician and book collector acquired a newly finished Haggadah in 1740 (the so-called ‘Sloane Haggadah’, today housed in the British Library). Another of Joseph’s works has recently been identified in the Library of Blickling Hall, and most probably belonged to the collection of Sir Richard Ellys of Nocton (1682-1742).

Who was this mysterious Christian English painter? Who was the English nobleman who hired him to finish Joseph ben David Leipnik’s work? And why did Christian English noblemen such as Hans Sloane and Richard Ellys include Jewish liturgical manuscripts in their libraries? We cannot yet answer all the fascinating questions the Manchester Haggadah raises, but unlike the fourth son, at least we know how to ask!

Other Haggadot copied and illustrated by Joseph ben David Leipnik available online include:

Further reading

Emile Schrijver, “An Unknown Passover Haggadah by Joseph ben David of Leipnik in the library of Blickling Hall,” Zutot: Perspectives on Jewish Culture 2 (2002): 170-180.

Emile Schrijver, “‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’: A Haggadah at Blickling Hall,” Apollo 160, no. 513 (2004): 66-69.

Iris Fishof, Jüdische Buchmalerei in Hamburg und Altona (Hamburg: H. Christians, 1999).

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