Arts and Culture | Passover

Priceless 14th-century Spanish Haggadah will be big draw at New York museum

Detail from medieval Spanish Haggadah (Courtesy University of Manchester)

A fourteenth-century Jewish religious book, preserved by experts at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, [was] hand delivered to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be on exhibit through Sept. 30.

The masterpiece from Catalonian Spain will feature in a special installation called Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context.

It was painstakingly conserved over eight months and is also to be made available as a narrated eBook facsimile this Spring thanks to the Rylands’ digitisation team.

Comprising 57 lavishly decorated vellum leaves, the treasure will be flown to the United States accompanied by Rylands’ conservator Steve Mooney.

James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford, sold the Haggadah to Enriqueta Rylands in 1901, as part of the world famous Crawford collection of manuscripts.

Rylands Collections and Research Support Manager John Hodgson said: “This manuscript is one of the finest Haggadot in the world.

“It is important for its intrinsic beauty and for various textual details, but it is also a key source for the study of the illumination of Hebrew manuscripts in general.

“It shines a light on the tradition of Biblical illustration among the Jews of the Middle Ages and on the cross-fertilisation between Jewish and non-Jewish artists within the medium of manuscript illumination.

“The Rylands Haggadah is among the top ten individual items of greatest significance within the JRUL’s Special Collections, in terms of its research, cultural, heritage and financial value.”

Conservator Steve Mooney spent eight months securing the areas of pigment and gold leaf which had started to crack and flake.

To maintain the high level of concentration needed, Steve could work on the manuscript for only two to three hours a day, viewing the damaged areas under a microscope.

He said: “This has been a fascinating job – and I got a real sense of achievement when I’d finished.

“But it was a bit nerve-wracking: one slip of the hand and you could remove a fragment of gold leaf or pigment by mistake.

He added: “My job [was] to take it to the museum by hand into a secure area where it will acclimatise before going on display. I shall inspect it to make sure the conditions are exactly right.”

Dr Yaakov Wise from the University of Manchester’s Centre for Jewish studies said: “The Haggadah is one of the central texts of Rabbinic Judaism. Its use on the first nights of Passover by Jews all over the world from Alaska to Zimbabwe continues a tradition over 3,000 years old.

“It connects the Jews of this generation to their ancestors who left slavery in Egypt for a life of freedom in their own country and is the story of the first national liberation movement in history.”

For the installation at the Metropolitan Museum, works of art from its medieval collection – made for Christian use and telling the history of the Hebrew people – will suggest the larger context of biblical storytelling in which the Haggadah was created.

Jan Wilkinson, University Librarian and Director of the John Rylands Library, said: “We are immensely proud of the Rylands Haggadah, and we are delighted to share it with an international audience, by loaning it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and through the eBook digital facsimile.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “The Rylands Library is one of the few institutions in the world that possesses a masterpiece of Hebrew manuscript illumination such as this.

We greatly appreciate the opportunity to showcase it in our galleries against the backdrop of our world-renowned medieval collection.

“The conservation work necessary to realize this loan was carried out thanks to funding from the UK’s National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and Dorothy Tapper Goldman.

“None of this would have been possible without the conservation project, and we are grateful to the funders who shared our vision and enabled it to be realised.”

The installation in New York [was] made possible by The David Berg Foundation.