A Hebraic treasure from fourteenth-century Spain, the Golden Haggadah is one of the most richly decorated books for the celebration of the Passover Seder. It features an extensive cycle of seventy-one biblical images illustrating narratives from Genesis and Exodus and the manuscript is so named for the shimmering gilded backgrounds of these miniatures. The rest of the manuscript is equally as dazzling with gilded letters surrounded by colorfully patterned frames, zoomorphic script, and monstrous hybrid marginalia. The style of these decorations is primarily Gothic, but elements of Islamic and older Romanesque art reflect the multicultural nature of medieval Spain.
The text is a collection of various texts compiled for the celebration of the Passover Seder including poems, scripture, hymns, and rabbinic literature. The pages are arranged with multiple columns of Sephardi Square script. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the manuscript had moved to Italy and additional artwork was added in a later Italian Renaissance style. The Golden Haggadah is a magnificent work that attests to centuries of tradition upheld and observed by the Jewish diaspora in Europe.
Richly Illustrated Biblical Stories
The most spectacular feature of the Golden Haggadah is the fourteen-page biblical picture cycle that begins the book. The cycle contains seventy-one separate narrative scenes from the Creation in the book of Genesis through the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
The background of each miniature is beautifully gilded with blind-tooled diapering. Additional illustrations include depictions of the first cup of wine, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herb, important symbols of the Passover. Gilded lettering, zoomorphic initials, and hybrid marginalia further decorate the manuscript.
A Golden Treasure of Jewish Tradition
The Haggadah (plural Haggadot) is a service book containing a collection of literary works, scripture, blessings, and rabbinic literature used in conjunction with the first two nights of Passover Seder, the traditional feast that marks the beginning of the week of Passover to commemorate the Israelites escaping bondage in Egypt.
Haggadot became separate texts sometime during the thirteenth century in a similar manner to other books designed for private devotion and spiritual education. The Golden Haggadah is one of the most lavishly decorated medieval Haggadot and testifies to the rich Jewish culture that was present in medieval Spain.
Created in Spain and Embellished in Italy
The majority of the Golden Haggadah was created in fourteenth-century Spain in the Gothic style, but further artwork was added to the manuscript after it was taken to northern Italy around 1600: an Italianate frontispiece and armorial crest, both commemorating a marriage for which it served as a gift. It remained in Italy until 1864 when it was sold to the British Museum as part of the book collector Joseph Almanzi’s library.
Of seventeenth-century northern Italian origin, the current binding is blind-tooled brown leather Morocco binding with remains of clasps.