Illustrating Jewish prayer

July 27, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The book is open to a page with a text of the supplication said on the Ten Days of Penitence between the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The decorations of the page are at once beautiful, charming and mysterious: flowered borders with gold studs; urns holding arrangements of lilies and carnations; birds and animals including rabbits, partridges, a peacock, a cheetah and a lion; and who are the two richly dressed people shown in border medallions, one with long blond hair wearing a feathered headband and one a Moor wearing a turban? No one seems to know.

This is but one page of the Rothschild Mahzor, a beautifully illuminated manuscript book of prayer of the Jewish year, executed in Florence in 1492. A 1966 gift to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, it's spending part of its 500th birthday on loan to the Walters Art Gallery, where it's being shown in the manuscript gallery.

A book on exhibition can, of course, only be open to two pages, and the actual mahzor is open to the page described above and the one opposite, with a shaped text giving the rules for Rosh Hashana and a rich border of flowers with two putti. But besides the book itself, a dozen more pages are reproduced on backlighted transparencies, so one gets a fair idea of the book's decoration.

One of the things that makes this manuscript of unusual interest is its decoration was done by three separate workshops, quite different in their approaches. The one identified as Workshop A apparently had no knowledge of the Hebrew manuscript, for its flowered borders and putti have no relation to the texts of the pages on which they appear.

Workshop B, on the other hand, relate in some detail to the text. The page dedicated to the beginning of the "Song of Songs," for instance, is illustrated with a depiction of King Solomon.

Workshop C, the most sophisticated of the three, specialized in lifelike floral borders and gold ornamentation.

The Rothschild Mahzor is being shown in the Walters' third floor manuscript gallery, right around the corner from the much larger book and map exhibit "A World of Foreign Lands," celebrating Columbus' voyage of 1492, the very same year in which this book was executed and in which the Jews were expelled from Spain.

Rothschild Mahzor

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 4.

Admission: $4 for adults; $3 for seniors; free to members, students, people 18 and younger; everyone free Saturdays, 11 a.m. to noon.

Call: 547-9000.

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