The Rose Haggadah – Ancient Technique, Modern Sensibility

Each year the ancient story of Passover is told through the Haggadah, “the telling” of the story. The Haggadah includes prayers, biblical passages, stories, and songs, all designed to make the participant feel as if he or she were actually moving from slavery to freedom. Many remember the Haggadah provided by Maxwell House® Coffee. Over the years, many wonderful Haggadot have been published. Some have featured beautiful art.

Others link the contemporary struggles of women, LGBTQ people, African-Americans and Palestinians to the plight of the ancient Hebrews. Some are designed to be especially welcoming to interfaith families. Many families cherish their worn Haggadot, complete with wine and food stains of past seders.

On display at The Morgan Library and Museum through May 3, the exhibit Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff is an important and beautiful addition to the tradition of Hebrew manuscripts. Commissioned by Joanna S. and Daniel Rose, The Rose Family Illuminated Haggadah was designed and illuminated by Barbara Wolff. The Hebrew text was written by Izzy Pludwinksi and the English text was written by Karen Gorst.

Of special interest is the video, featuring Barbara Wolff, which accompanies the online exhibition. It is a fascinating window into the making of an illuminated manuscript. Wolff begins by pointing out that just as the Haggadah follows an order, so does the production of a manuscript. It begins with the selection of parchment. In this case, calf is the preferred source and both quality and quantity are important. Enough parchment must be secured for the entire project. Watching the Hebrew calligrapher Izzy Pludwinksi write the letters of the text is almost hypnotic. Wolff herself describes the work as “almost a meditative process.”

Creating an illuminated manuscript is not only art but science as well. The video features the painstaking process of first creating gesso, the mixture used for attaching gold to the parchment. Gesso contains white lead and takes several weeks to dry. It creates the illusion of solid gold letters on the page. Gilding is the process of creating the bright gold that seems to bounce off the page. Before artificial lighting, the bright sheen of the gold captured and reflected the light of the sun and candles to create the effect of illumination. Shell gold is the flatter, soft shade of gold. Requiring numerous steps, it is made from gold powder, honey, and salt. Rather than shine, it creates a soft glow, perfect for creating a background for more vibrant colors.

Ultimately, it is the art that makes this Haggadah so unique. The art includes both contemporary and traditional imagery. While some of the art is evocative of Chagall, other motifs and colors are inspired by ancient Egyptian artwork and statuary. Throughout the Haggadah, extensive images of plants and flowers remind us that Passover is a Spring holiday.

The Rose Haggadah is a one-of-a-kind work, and this special exhibit provides a chance for everyone to enjoy its beautiful artwork. During the intermediate days of Passover, savor the memorable manuscript and marvel at how 14 century techniques have been employed to create a modern Haggadah.

Rabbi Victor S. Appell is the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Marketing Director.

Submitted by Brian Schnitzer

Posted on April 10, 2015, in 2015, April, Ram's Horn and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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