The famous Kennicott Bible is one of the most lavish mediaeval Spanish manuscripts in existence.
This completely vocalised Bible with massoretic notes, hand-written in a clear Sephardi script of the Middle Ages, was lavishly illuminated and bound into a morocco goatskin box binding, blind-embossed on all six sides.
The Knowledgeable Author
This treasure of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is named after Benjamin Kennicott, the English Hebraist (1718-1783) who continued the English tradition of studying the Hebrew bible. A canon of Christ Church, Oxford, Kennicott spent his life comparing textual variants of hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. His findings were published in his Dissertatio Generalis.
In the course of his work Kennicott acquired this manuscript for the Radcliffe Library from where it was transferred to the Bodleian in 1872. While the text of the Bible is the traditional massoretic text, it is the elaborate, imaginative decoration for which it is treasured. The Bible is astonishingly well preserved for, in 235 years, only 30 art historians and scholars have been privileged to study it.
The History of a Incredibly Decorated Bible
The history of the manuscript began in La Coruña (Corunna), north-western Spain, in 1476 when Isaac, son of Don Solomon de Braga commissioned a famous scribe, Moses Ibn Zabara to write the Tenach (Old Testament) together with Rabbi David Kimchi’s (RaDaK) grammatical treatise Sefer Mikhlol.
Moses Ibn Zabara states at the end of the biblical text, in a lengthy colophon, that he finished the work in the town of La Coruña, in the province of Galicia in north-west Spain, on Wednesday, the third day of the month of Av in the year 5236 from the creation (24th July 1476).
He says that he was wholly responsible for the entire text of all twenty-four books of the Bible: he copied it, added the vocalisation marks, wrote all the notes of the massorah, and finally checked it against a traditionally accurate Bible and corrected his text.
Directly from the Book
He wrote the Bible for the admirable youth, Isaac, son of the late honourable and beloved Don Solomon de Braga, [may his soul] rest in [the Garden of] Eden. The blessed Lord grant that he study it, he and his children and his children’s children throughout all the generations, as it is written (Joshua 1:8),
"This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein." And God enable him to produce many books, in order to fulfil the saying (Ecclesiastes 12:12), "and moreover take care, my son, to produce many books, books without end" Amen, God grant that it be so.
The Importance of the Bible
Executed almost twenty years before the final Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, at a time when they were already being harassed by the Spanish Inquisition, this manuscript shows what great importance Jewish communities attached to the perpetuation of their heritage by investing in the production of an accurate and beautifully adorned Bible.
From its inception the manuscript was planned as a lavish work. Two hundred and thirty-eight of the 922 pages of the Bible are illuminated with lively colours, burnished gold and silver leaf.
In a unique statement at the end of the manuscript, the Jewish artist Joseph Ibn Hayyim writes his own colophon. While the scribe was always the more important (and well-paid) of the team, it is rare to find a Hebrew manuscript with a flamboyant Jewish artist whose extraordinary colophon appears in huge letters at the end of the book.
Art Like No Other
The highly stylized figures - almost modern in their abstract rendering - delight the eye with the richness of their colours and their varied compositions. The zoomorphic and anthropomorphic letters in the artist’s colophon are a manifestation of his rich imagination.
Joseph Ibn Hayyim created in his own individual and distinct style a unique masterpiece. King David on his throne, Jonah being swallowed by a fish, or Balaam as an astrologer consulting an astrolabe, are but a few of the text illustrations in the Kennicott Bible.
Even RaDaK’s grammatical treatise Sefer Mikhlol was not copied as an austere text, but written within magnificently decorated arcaded pages, placed at the beginning and end of the Bible, possibly because the manuscript was commissioned for the youthful Isaac, in the hope that it might encourage his interest.
The production of the entire manuscript, from the preparation of the parchment leaves to the ultimate phase of binding, bears witness to the close co-operation between the scribe, the illuminator and the patron.
Cecil Roth considered the Kennicott Bible "A masterpiece of Mediaeval Spanish Jewish art...- and one of the finest Hebrew manuscripts in existence.
The manuscript contains the entire Tenakh (Old Testament) together with RaDaK’s (Rabbi David Kimchi) Sefer Mikhlol, a grammatical treatise on the Tenakh.
The original manuscript is still housed in its contemporary morocco box binding, blind-tooled and embellished with cut-out endpapers using motifs similar to the intricate, colourful carpet pages which divide the Bible into its three main sections: Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographa.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Kennicott Bible": The Kennicott Bible facsimile edition, published by Facsimile Editions Ltd., 1985