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Jewish elements in early Christian iconography
The following is a synopsis of a very interesting article by Elisabeth Revel-Neher which appeared in L'Arche No. 189 (novembre-decembre 1972).
Did there already exist in the first century an illustrated Jewish Bible which served as a model for the first Christian artists? Specialized research is pointing more and more in this directirn.
The finding in 1932 at Dura-Europos of frescoes dating from 244-245 A.D.has made possible the discovery of the origins of Jewish figurative art. The style of these frescoes, the variety of their themes and the iconographical elements of hellenic origin prove that they have a long tradition behind them. * Research has shown that the iconography of these frescoes was elaborated from manuscript models, themselves copied from earlier manuscripts and afterwards used to build up an original work. At Dura the manuscript model was Jewish; this is proved by the fact that some of the details can be explained only by reference to midrashim. The originals of the Dura discovery are to be found in illuminated manuscripts made in the diaspora, possibly as material for proselytism.
The first biblical illustrations were probably made in the diaspora about 300 B.C., very soon after the translation of the Pentateuch. It was only several centuries later that they were used as models for the decoration of synagogues. In order to illustrate the Old Testament the Early Christian artists of the third and fourth centuries A.D. had only to use this material.
This theory could have remained a mere hypothesis, because, in spite of important archeological finds, no illuminated Jewish manuscript of this period has as yet been discovered. The most ancient Jewish illuminated manuscripts are the Cairo fragments dating probably from the tenth or eleventh centuries. However, iconographers in the United States, Europe and Israel have found traces of Jewish prototypes in Early Christian manuscripts. The earliest date from the fifth century and are presumably copied from a Christian archetype of the fourth century. These first illuminated Christian manuscripts have been closely studied. They gave rise to many queries: certain of them contained miniatures, even scenes, which had no visible connection either with the Bible or with any known patristic text. They were explained away as artistic digressions, but the discovery of Dura raised the hypothesis of a prechristian prototype common to both Christian and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. If this hypothesis is correct, it should be possible to discover the traces of the prototypes in the miniatures of the Jewish manuscripts. This led to the possibility of the midrashic explanation of Christian iconography.
Thus K. Weitzmann has been able to clarify a certain number of iconographical problems, notably the episode of the « snake-camel ».
The Octateuch preserved in the Seraglio library in Istanbul, and dating from the sixth century, illustrates in folio 43 the sin of Eve (Gen 3:4-6). On the left of the picture the naked Eve stretches forth her hand to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the other side of the tree the serpent sits on the humped back of a four-footed animal. Weitzmann found a passage in the Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer which says: « The serpent was like a camel and Satan was astride him ». Obviously the artist must have copied this detail from an already existing manuscript. Weitzmann considers that the solution of this and of all similar problems is to be found in the manuscripts illustrating aggadic literature. The number and the dissemination of these texts makes research long and difficult but each new explanation helps to prove the existence of Jewish illuminated manuscripts of the Bible.
Research by Elisabeth Revel-Neher at the Centre d'Iconographie Biblique of the Institut d'Histoire de l'Art of the Faculte des Lettres of Strasbourg, in co-operation with the Institut d'Etudes Hebraiques of the same faculty, has made possible some fruitful discoveries of which the following are examples.
In the Greek manuscript of Genesis in the National Library of Vienna there are still many uncertain points, among them the illustration of the drunkenness of Noah. He is depicted on the left of the manuscript seated, his right hand raised, addressing his sons who are standing before him. Canaan is portrayed as a child. On the right hand side of the picture Ham is telling his brothers that their father is drunk, and is lying naked. They arg seen advancing backwards with a cloak to cover him. The miniature follows the biblical text very closely, except for two points: the child, Canaan, and the order of the scenes, which, if read from left to right, as with the other series of the same manuscript, are not chronologically correct.
The presence of Canaan is explained in the commentary on a midrash (Bereshit Rabba 36. 7.) where it is stated that Canaan was the first to see Noah; he went to tell his father, Ham,and this is why he was mentioned and subsequently cursed. Once it is admitted that the left-hand side of the picture represents the cursing incident it is clear that the reader must go from right to left. This miniature must have been copied from a Jewish manuscript; only thus can the presence of Canaan and the fact that it is painted from right to left be explained.
Another example is from the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. On the left-hand side of the upper part of the manuscript (folio 16) Potiphar's wife is seated on a golden bed, holding onto Joseph's cloak. Joseph, turning towards the door, steps out of his garment. He is seen again on the other side of the door in an attitude of anguish. The rest of the scene has given rise to all sorts of conjectures. It depicts women going about their daily tasks and also children. In the lower section is seated a woman dressed like Potiphar's wife; she is turning towards a child whose dress is patterned like that of Joseph. New light is thrown on this scene by a midrash (Bereshit Rabba 85. 2). It recalls the stories of Tamar and of Potiphar's wife; the intentions of both were pure. Potiphar was a eunuch and his wife wanted children. She knew from the stars that Joseph was to have a son, but she did not know whether she or her daughter was to be its mother. Joseph was on the point of giving way when he had a vision of his father and fled. In the miniature Joseph shows a regret which corresponds well with the description in the midrash. Afterwards Potiphar's wife is depicted raising the children she would like to have born to Joseph. The interpretation of this miniature becomes perfectly clear when it is linked with Jewish iconography through rabbinic texts.
In folio 17, page 33, Joseph is depicted in prison. Outside the prison is a young woman whose identity is contested. Her head and shoulders are covered with a palla and she is bowing graciously towards the prison. Joseph is looking beyond the prison in her direction. This has been interpreted both as an allegory and as a personification. The young woman has also been identified as the jailor's wife, as the wife of Potiphar, and as Osnath (Asenath), Joseph's own future wife (cf. Genesis 41:45). According to oral tradition, Osnath was the daughter of Dinah who was dishonoured by Sichem; she was adopted by Potiphar and his wife. In folio 16 she is depicted holding a child, while the « Joseph-child » is standing near Potiphar's wife, her adoptive mother. This accords perfectly with the midrash that stated that Potiphar's wife did not know whether she or her daughter was to give birth. Osnath appears again beside Joseph at the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. The manuscript from which the Vienna Genesis is copied could have come from a Jewish milieu only.
Results so far obtained from the study of several manuscripts of different styles and periods confirm the hypothesis of the existence of Jewish illuminated manuscripts anterior to the Christian. It is evident from discoveries already made that the iconographical tradition to which they belong was a very rich one. The Jewish prototype of the Christian Bible probably belongs to a Syro-Palestinian tradition with important midrashic centres. The commentaries could have been used for illustration only, but more probably the entire biblical text was reproduced together with targumim, Aramaic paraphrases of texts or midrashim. Thus the miniatures would have been understood, even in their details. This is the exact opposite of Early Christian manuscripts, where pictures could replace the text.
Christian artists did not understand the absolute primacy given by Judaism to the « letter », so they copied the miniatures without the text, and thus lost the link between the two.
The discovery of this link between Early Christian biblical illustration and the original Jewish manuscripts proves without doubt the existence of Jewish miniatures before the emergence of Christian iconography.