December 19, 2022

Illuminated Creatures

         Each year during Hanukkah I think about posting some Hanukkah-themed wood block prints from renaissance Jewish prayer books.  But the iconography of these illustrations doesn’t vary much, and I think I’ve exhausted them as a topic of interest.  While I was thinking about these beautiful old prayer books, though, I was reminded of the really wonderful illuminations in some of the pre-print versions.  So today, having nothing at all to do with Hanukkah after this magnificent opening menorah, I celebrate by sharing some of the marvelous magical marginalia I’ve discovered in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.
        As with all kinds of marginalia in medieval manuscripts, the illustrations may have no connection with the subject and content of the text.  These creatures are, for the most part, akin to doodles: whatever the artist felt like at the time, although perhaps informed by larger themes associated with the work or the patron who commissioned it.  I certainly don’t know any particular background to these examples I’m 
sharing today, and take them at face value as magical monsters.
        My favorite is the green dragon, painted in the fifteenth century, which fits quite well with my modern ideas of how a dragon should look, despite being a little furry around the chin.  It’s got nice details, including a triple-forked tongue, sharp little fangs, and touches of gold to highlight the edge of the wing.  It looks like it might be suitable for a pet dragon, because although there’s really no indication of scale, I picture it being relatively manageable in size, and it’s got a grin like a dog.
        The next piece has four creatures (plus feline heads in the four corners), and although the one on the right is probably a pretty ordinary antelope, and the one on the left may be a panther or some such big cat, but the two on the 
top are definitely marvels.  The winged dragonoid has ears and eyes like a hound, and a wispy beard and tail.
        Next (topped by another panther/lion) is another selection of winged wyvern-like beasties.  They have botanical tails adding to the fantastical mix.  The monsters in the inset have an even wider variety of parts, including human arms on the antlered, plant-breathing thing to the right, while the thing on the left has two human heads, a crocodilian tail, and odd webby hands (or perhaps they’re feet).  The one in the center has gorgeous wings, great curly horns, feet worthy of a T. rex, and a beautiful pattern down its neck.  I’m hoping the one on the left doesn’t manage to hurt it with the enormous club!
        And I end with another illumination from the same thirteenth-century prayer book with which we began, and another detailed and complicated illustration fully inhabited by interesting critters.  I like the architectural framing of the whole things, like a castle full of magic.  There are lions, dogs, and a crane/egret, but also a variety of creatures with heads like lions or “serpents,” tails sprouting into leaves and flowers, and some with wings.  The one on the top right actually has more bat-like wings, unlike the bird-like wings more common for medieval dragons.
        Well, it may not be a traditional Hanukkah gift, but I hope you enjoyed today’s magical monsters.

[Pictures: Menorah, folio 226v from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum);

Dragon, folio 44v from Mahzor festival prayer book, 1450-1474 (Image from British Library);

Assorted creatures, folio  294 from Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, 1300-1325 (Image from British Library);

Marginalia, folio 5v from Northern French Pentateuch, 1277-1286 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 106r from Festival Prayer book, 1300-1329 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 130 from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum).]

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