The Codex Choumach
A formerly missing picture bible
Warsaw, Jewish Historical Institute, Codex 1164, Venice, 16th century
he Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo is a Hebrew picture Bible telling the story of the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch). Unlike a pictured Bible in which the Word of God is explained by means of images, it holds a series of illustrations complete with explanatory legends and Bible verses as headings. The only Jewish parallels to this method of illustration are the Sephardic Pesah-Haggadot.
The Warsaw codex is the unique copy of a series of woodcuts, now lost, by Moses dal Castellazzo. Some bibliophile, probably not Jewish but a Christian humanist, had it made in the mid-16th century. The pictures in this manuscript, which is outstanding in cultural history, are simple pen drawings coloured only occasionally in red, brown or green tones. The illustrated cycle begins with the Creation, followed by narratives of the five books, and ends with Moses’ death.
In the Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo several pictorial traditions melt to a harmonious whole. The work not only drew the attention of contemporaries but still catches the interest of many even today, because of its originality. It is considered a monument which lowers the curtain on a dying epoch.
A biblical picture book
The main feature of the Picture Pentateuch is not its text but its pictures whose meanings are explained in a few lines. Moreover, the individual biblical events are not portrayed in a single illustration but are frequently reproduced in a sequence of scenes showing the same protagonists at several stages of the narrative, in the manner of an illustrated chronicle. In line with Hebrew tradition, the pictures are to be read from right to left.
The recto pages of the leaves usually have two separate pen drawings set in a frame, while the verso pages have been left blank. The upper margins in nearly all the pictures are filled with one or two lines of Hebrew text, passages of verses from the Bible referring to the picture below.
The much larger lower margins of the pages almost always show legends in Italian, consisting of several lines and explaining or completing the picture situated immediately above. Occasionally, the text refers to particularities of the rabbinical tradition represented in the picture. The language is a 16th century Venetian dialect and the letter form also indicates the mid-16th century.
Moses dal Castellazzo
Moses dal Castellazzo was well known in Jewish circles as a painter who enjoyed great reputation. In a letter addressed to the Venice ”Council of the Ten” in 1521, he mentioned that he produces woodcuts and requested the exclusive right to print and sell a woodcut series of the Pentateuch,
a privilege that was finally granted to him.
The printing method for woodcut had already been in use for half a century, when Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Latin Bible between 1452 and 1455. Moses dal Castellazzo used the same printing method to render the first five books of the Old Testament intelligible by means of pictures. He employed multiple sources, several picture Bible manuscripts and woodcut illustrations from early Venetian prints, to which he added contemporary elements, especially costumes.
By doing so, Moses dal Castellazzo successfully saved the picture Bible tradition for the new age of printed books and, with the help of the new technology, created a printed, instead of a painted, picture Bible. The great enthusiasm for this woodcut series is not least evidenced by the existence of the Warsaw codex which represents a copy of this unique document of the end of an era.
The commentary volume
The comprehensive scholarly commentary was written by experts of Jewish book production, Ursula and Kurt Schubert. It describes the codex itself, the environment in which it was made and the cartoons used for its production.