The Birds' Head Haggadah is so named for its unusual figural illustrations in which Jewish people are depicted with large griffin-like heads rather than with human features. Also known as the Marum Haggadah for its last owner, Ludwig Marum, it was created in southern Germany around the year 1300. The work is the earliest known illustrated Ashkenazi Haggadah, a manuscript tradition that would continue through the end of the Middle Ages.
It contains thirty-five narrative illustrations of historical scenes from Exodus and contemporary scenes of the preparations for the Passover seder. Two images, the first and the last, are full-page while the rest are marginal scenes around a central text block written in Ashkenazi Square script.
Three of the original fifty parchment folios are missing, however, the strong black outlines and colorful clothing of the characters remain in good condition. This lively and enigmatic work continues to engage the imagination and preserves an unusual aspect of medieval Jewish artistic expression.
Earliest Illustrated Ashkenazi Haggadah
The Passover stories and readings that comprise a Haggadah were originally part of more extensive prayer books, however after ca. 1000, dedicated manuscripts for Haggadot were produced.
This manuscript, dating to ca. 1300, is the earliest known illustrated Ashkenazi Haggadah and reveals the cultural practices of Jewish people in southern Germany in dress and ritual. It marks an important change in the use of manuscripts for private devotion and religious practice within medieval Jewish life.
Birds' Heads and Blank Faces
The thirty-five pages with narrative illustrations are populated with humans of two types: bird-headed Jewish people and blank-faced others. The reasons for this particular way to depict the historical stories and scenes of preparation for the Passover seder are complex and not fully known.
The heads may be griffins, as indicated by their pointed ears, indicating the exalted and righteous status of the Jewish people and the blank faces serve to remain within an aniconistic tradition that avoids depictions of the divine. The results remain a stunning example of a legacy of multi-layered signification in medieval Jewish art.
Centuries of Additions and Revisions
Although the way in which humans are depicted is startling, the owners of this manuscript continued to use and cherish it as evidenced by several additions and revisions made to it over the years. Some were made within a generation of its creation while others were made considerably later.
These include annotations, captions, and even adding and then later removing faces from some of those left intentionally blank, such as the sun and the moon. Its final private owner, Ludwig Marum, received it as a wedding gift from his wife's family in the 1930s.
White parchment with metal clasps.