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Golden Haggadah

The extravagant use of gold-leaf in the backgrounds of its 56 miniature paintings earned this magnificent manuscript its name: the 'Golden Haggadah'. It was made around 1320, in or near Barcelona, for the use of a wealthy Jewish family. The holy text is written on vellum pages in Hebrew script, reading from right to left. Its stunning miniatures illustrate stories from the biblical books of 'Genesis' and 'Exodus' and scenes of Jewish ritual.

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Golden Haggadah

Golden Haggadah. Biblical scenes based on Genesis, 19-37. Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c.1320
British Library Add. MS. 27210, ff.4v-5
Copyright © The British Library Board

What does this page show?

Anticlockwise from top right: Adam naming the animals, the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Temptation, Cain and Abel offering a sacrifice, Cain slaying Abel, and lastly Noah, his wife and sons coming out of the ark. God's image is forbidden in Jewish religious contexts, and is totally absent in all the miniatures here. Instead, angels are seen intervening at critical moments.

What is a haggadah?

A haggadah is a collection of Jewish prayers and readings written to accompany the Passover 'seder', a ritual meal eaten on the eve of the Passover festival. The ritual meal was formalised during the 2nd century, after the example of the Greek 'symposium', in which philosophical debate was fortified by food and wine.

The literal meaning of the Hebrew word 'haggadah' is a 'narration' or 'telling'. It refers to a command in the biblical book of 'Exodus', requiring Jews to "tell your son on that day: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt".

Perhaps because it was mainly intended for use at home, and its purpose was educational, Jewish scribes and artists felt completely free to illustrate the Haggadah. Indeed it was traditionally the most lavishly decorated of all Jewish sacred writings, giving well-to-do Jews of the middle ages a chance to demonstrate their wealth and good taste as well as their piety. The man for whom the 'Golden Haggadah' was made must have been rich indeed.

What is Passover?

Passover commemorates one of the most important events in the story of the Jewish people. Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism traces its origins back to Abraham. He was leader of the Israelites, a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. Abraham established a religion that distinguished itself from other local beliefs by having only one, all-powerful God. According to a Covenant made between them, the Jews would keep God's laws, and in return they would be protected as chosen people.

The Israelites were captured and taken as slaves to Egypt, where they suffered much hardship. Eventually, a prophet called Moses delivered the Jews from their captivity with the help of several miraculous events intended to intimidate the Egyptian authorities. The last of these was the sudden death of the eldest son in every family. Jewish households were spared by smearing lambs' blood above their doors - a sign telling the 'angel of death' to pass over.

Who made the Golden Haggadah?

The illumination of the manuscript - its paintings and decoration - was carried out by two artists. Though their names are unknown, the similarity of their styles implies they both worked in the same studio in the Barcelona region. The gothic style of northern French painting was a strong influence on Spanish illuminators, and these two were no exceptions.

There is also Italian influence to be seen in the rendering of the background architecture. Differences between the two artists may be attributed to their individual talents and training. The painter of the scenes shown here tends towards stocky figures with rather exaggerated facial expressions. The second artist has a greater sense of refinement and achieves a better sense of space.

Why was a Jewish manuscript made in Spain?

The wandering tribes of Israel finally settled in the 'promised land' after their delivery from captivity in Egypt. But the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah were to fall to the Assyrians and Babylonians. Then, in 63 BC, the region came under the governance of the Roman Empire. In 70 AD, the Roman army destroyed the Second Jewish Temple and sacked Jerusalem; in 135 AD they crushed a Judaean uprising. As a result of this many Jews went into exile.

Some migrated across north Africa to Spain. For many centuries, these 'Sephardic' Jews lived peacefully and productively under both Christian and Islamic rulers. The Jewish community in Barcelona had been established since Roman times and was one of the most affluent in Spain by the time the 'Golden Haggadah' was produced.

Jews acted as advisers, physicians and financiers to the Counts of Barcelona, who provided economic and social protection. They grew attuned to the tastes of the court and began commissioning manuscripts decorated in Christian style. Though the scribe who wrote its Hebrew text would have been a Jew, the illuminators of the 'Golden Haggadah' are likely to have been Christian artists, instructed in details of Judaic symbolism by the scribe or patron.

How did the 'Golden Haggadah' come to the British Library?

Islamic rule in Spain came to an end in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the Catholic Monarchs) defeated the Muslim army at Granada and restored the whole of Spain to Christianity. Months later the entire Jewish population was expelled. The manuscript found its way to Italy and passed through various hands, serving as a wedding present at one stage. In 1865, the British Library (then the British Museum Library) bought it as part of the collection of Hebrew poet and bibliophile Giuseppe (or Joseph) Almanzi.

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