The Washington Haggadah, an illuminated medieval manuscript and, since 1916, a principal treasure in the Library of Congress, is spending Passover in New York City on a snug reading stand in a display case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Haggadah, the collection of prayers and songs that tells the story of exodus that is the Passover Seder, lies open to the Dayenu (“If He had given us Shabbat and not led us to Mount Sinai, it would have been enough . . .”), a thousand-year-old song that’s unusually sprightly for its age, perhaps because it can function as a cue to cooks and celebrants that it’s nearly time to serve the meal.
The scribe reinforces that cue with a drawing at the bottom of the page: A man, apparently a beggar invited to help with the feast, turns a rack of lamb while two women, well dressed in the Italian style, stir soup and offer him a cup.
(Joel ben Simeon) - Joel ben Simeon’s work includes this illustration of a man turning a rack of lamb.
You could easily miss “The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” an exhibition that consists of just two vitrines and a wall display in a hallway in the Met’s department of medieval art. But the modest display fits the artifact — the mix of homey scenes and exquisite items was a trademark of the scribe and illustrator, Joel ben Simeon (approximately 1420-95), and suited the taste of his wealthy Ashkenazi clientele in Germany and Italy.
Although this exhibition does not display the manuscript’s individual pages — as the Met did successfully last summer with the utterly bloodthirsty and not-safe-for-work exhibition of the Book of Hours of Jean de Berry — the museum’s medievalists have vividly conjured the world of medieval European Jewry, surrounding the small manuscript with luxurious objects similar to those in the drawings. A pale yellow glass with a decorative band is a close match for the one the woman offers the man turning the lamb. A brass ewer from Germany is practically identical to the one in the hands of the red-hatted man filling cups, who is beside instructions to pour the service’s second glass of wine.
“The Washington Haggadah,” on view through June 26, is the first installment in a three-year series devoted to Hebrew manuscripts and their contemporary context, a clever strategy that pairs valuables from the Met’s stronger collections with loan items in one of its weakest areas (illuminated Hebrew manuscripts).
“Our colleagues in the textile department are thrilled,” said curator Barbara Boehm, standing beside a silk-velvet swatch that looked like it could have been cut from the skirt of a fashionable woman who shows up later in the Haggadah. “I don’t think these have ever been shown. They’re not great big pieces, but they’re exquisite and such a nice match.”
Scribes are typically anonymous artisans, but ben Simeon signed and dated this illuminated Haggadah. It was an unusual move, but some 20 years before, German publisher Johannes Gutenberg had printed his first Bible, and illuminators were scrambling to come up with marketing strategies to compete with the burgeoning book trade. Ben Simeon created this work not on commission but as a salable stock item that could appeal to the broadest possible tastes. He left the last few pages and many of the margins blank, in case the buyer, most likely a wealthy banker, doctor or merchant, had any special requests.