contributor.author: Pamela Patton

title.none: Mann, Art and Ceremony (Pamela Patton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.002 07.11.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Pamela Patton, Southern Methodist University, ppatton@mail.smu.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Mann, Vivian. Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life: Essays in the History of Jewish Art. London: The Pindar Press, 2005. Pp. 336. 1-899828-96-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.02

Mann, Vivian. Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life: Essays in the History of Jewish Art. London: The Pindar Press, 2005. Pp. 336. 1-899828-96-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Pamela Patton
Southern Methodist University
ppatton@mail.smu.edu

This diverse and accessible anthology brings together sixteen essays written by Vivian B. Mann, Chair of Judaica at The Jewish Museum of New York, over the course of her nearly three-decade career. It includes newly revised articles, catalog essays, and scholarly papers spanning the period 1982-2004, as well as a number of new essays. The work's title, "Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life," aptly characterizes the collection's general theme, but it also hints at the remarkable scope and variety of its studies, the topics of which range from early rabbinic texts on art to eighteenth-century ritual objects, and from the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities of the medieval and early modern West to their coreligionists in the Islamic world.

The collection is organized into three main clusters. A freestanding introduction, entitled "Art and Spirituality through the Rabbis' Eyes," sets the stage for the first and longest section, which centers on how various forms of evidence-rabbinic writings, surviving works of art, and the occasional portrayals of such objects in Jewish manuscripts-can be drawn together to provide a fuller sense of the nature and place of art in medieval Jewish religious life. In some essays, analysis is directed primarily toward identifying and characterizing specific genres of objects that in the past have lacked synthetic study: one essay, for example, constructs a corpus of Torah ornaments from antiquity to the sixteenth century, while two others offer successive surveys of Ashkenazi or Sephardi ceremonial art. Other essays elucidate the provenance and medieval reception of individual objects, such as a group of twelfth-century chess pieces possibly made for a Jewish patron, or a late medieval box that was later retrofitted to hold circumcision instruments (discussed further below). Still other essays in this cluster reviews questions that have been central to the field: in one, inspired by Richard Krautheimer's arguments regarding the "iconography" of medieval architecture, Mann traces the increasing identification, among medieval Jews living in diaspora, of the local synagogue with the Temple in Jerusalem, while in another she draws together texts and signed works of art in an effort to reconstruct the activities and identities of Jewish artists in the late Middle Ages. As is often the case in anthologies of this kind, successive references to certain favorite texts and objects can bring a slight repetitiveness to this section, but this is unlikely to hamper most readers, who probably will pick and choose essays according to their interests.

The book's second section shifts to the topic of Jewish life in Islamic lands during the medieval and early modern periods with a trio of essays that are among the most wide-ranging of the collection. The first, a comparative study of the various forms of protective covers used by Christians, Jews, and Muslims to protect their sacred books, highlights similarities in such works that suggest not just shared practices, but shared techniques and artists among the three faith groups. The second, a study of Jewish ceremonial art produced in the Ottoman Empire, reveals the strong acculturation of Jewish patrons and artists to their host community, while the third juxtaposes paintings made by nineteenth-century French artists visiting Morocco with surviving objects of material culture to craft a stronger sense of the daily realities of Moroccan Jewish life. While the thematic unity of this cluster is not so strong as in the previous section, the intriguing moments of cultural interaction and contrast that are brought to light in each essay underline this subfield's rich potential for future study.

The third cluster of essays is also diverse, ranging from a focused study of Ashkenazi metalwork in early modern Frankfurt to a lively examination of forged majolica seder plates, apparently produced in response to the collecting appetites of a modern European Jewish bourgeoisie. The final essay of this group, which serves to conclude the collection as a whole, examines the adaptation of two Christian prayer book covers into bindings for Jewish books as examples of the numerous instances in which secular or non-Jewish objects were reconfigured as "Jewish" art. Mann's conclusion that an object's function, rather than its appearance or the religious identity of its maker, defines it as Jewish echoes a line of argument that in other contexts has been much debated. Yet it works well in the case of these ritual objects, for which function is, after all, a defining feature on many levels.

This collection is made enjoyable by Mann's confident familiarity with the works of art themselves, many of which pertain to the collections of The Jewish Museum or to exhibitions mounted there. It is refreshing to be reminded that the objects of these studies are, in fact, objects, with unique physical features and complicated provenances that necessarily shape any modern interpretation of them. The impact of these factors is most evident in the essays that undertake close scrutiny of single works of art, such as that concerning a box for circumcision implements now in The Jewish Museum. Under examination in the conservation lab, this fifteenth-century container is revealed to have begun life as a secular New Year's gift, akin to the German Minnekastchen, only to be redecorated and modified in the sixteenth and then the eighteenth century, when it came to serve the function it does now. This is curatorial detective work at its best, the kind of investigation that can only be undertaken when serious scholarly expertise coincides with extensive access to the physical work of art.

Such close investigation, of course, is bound to introduce even more questions than it answers. Who decided to recycle this box, and precisely why? How common was this kind of reconfiguration, and what does this tell us about Jewish attitudes about the making and nature of art in this period? A similar open-endedness characterizes many essays in this collection: ritual objects are introduced, reinterpreted, or redefined in potentially exciting ways, but the book's short-essay format allows scant room to ponder their attendant historical implications. Whether the reader will find this frustrating or tantalizing will depend on the individual; no one, however, can deny the importance of such essays as a foundation for future work.

Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life has much to recommend it for readers at different levels. Mann's mastery of her field is well known; her versatility is impressive; and the works and issues she introduces are necessarily of interest to those who study medieval Jewish art. At the same time, she has gone to great lengths to make the collection accessible to a non-specialist readers, adding a short glossary after the final essay and making a point of introducing and defining religious objects and practices, such as kiddush cups or the havdalah ceremony, for those to whom they might be unfamiliar. The result is a book that will be of interest and use to an unusually diverse audience, from specialist to student to the everyday reader.