Rothschild Pentateuch

Date: 1296
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Germany, France
Medium: Parchment, Tempera, Gold
Dimensions: 27.5 × 21 cm
Description: This Hebrew manuscript was completed in 1296 for the otherwise unknown patron Joseph ben Joseph Martel. It contains the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—with the Hebrew text flanked by columns of Aramaic translation and the commentary of Rashi (1040–1105). Joseph ben Joseph Martel may have been a Jewish man expelled from England in 1290 and forced to relocate to a Jewish community in Ashkenaz. The two scribes who wrote the book recorded their names, Elijah ben Meshullam and Elijah ben Yehiel. The former wrote the main text and the latter was responsible for the book's micrography.

Each page that begins a weekly Torah portion (55 in total) is marked with an elaborate word panel, and there are profuse marginal decorations of plants, animals, hybrid creatures, and aristocratic shields throughout the Bible. The manuscript’s visual repertoire is consistent with Jewish and Christian manuscript illumination from northern France and the Mosan region (Cologne is another possibility). The artist was certainly familiar with medieval bestiaries, which contained texts and pictures explaining the animal kingdom in accordance with ancient Roman tradition and Christian interpretation. This can be seen in the picture of the lion resuscitating its newborn cub after three days (fol. 32v, Vayera portion); Christians understood this as a reference to Jesus, the king, and his own resurrection. In the Rothschild Pentateuch, however, the picture marks the portion with the narrative of the Binding of Isaac, when Isaac was almost sacrificed on the altar (according to some Jewish homiletic texts, Isaac actually died and was resurrected).

In many cases, such as a duel between an animal on horseback with a shield and thin club and a nude homunculus riding a goat and holding a rough-hewn club, the relationship between the marginalia and the biblical text remains unclear (e.g., fol. 447r, Shoftim portion, from Deut. 16). Such ambiguity is also apparent in contemporary Christian manuscripts with comparable marginal decoration. It is not clear whether the artist of the Rothschild Pentateuch was Christian or Jewish, but when the figural illuminations have a narrative direction, it usually moves from right to left like the Hebrew text, which suggests that the artist was Jewish.

There is only one full-page image: a menorah preceding the book of Leviticus (fol. 226v). It is meant to refer to the Temple service conducted by the priestly tribe of Levi, several of whose duties are spelled out in that biblical book. Many illuminated medieval Hebrew bibles have such pictures, which communicate that these bibles were understood to serve in some way as a “little Temple”—a replacement for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, where the priestly service had been conducted daily.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 9
Image Credits: Getty Museum website

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Genesis 22, Vayera, Rothschild Pentateuch (Getty 2018.43), fol. 32v Deuteronomy 16, Shoftim, Rothschild Pentateuch (Getty 2018.43), fol. 447r Getty, Rothschild Pentateuch, menorah, fol. 226v