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The Darmstadt Pessah Hagada
Magical atmosphere of great Jewish illuminations
Darmstadt, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek, Codex orientalis 7, Danmark, 1769



Further Pictures


The Pesah-Haggada, Hebrew for ”Passover Narration”, provides the liturgical chronology of a Jewish religious meal held before the commencement of the Pesah festival. Like the Bible and the Mahzor, it is among the most eminent illustrated Jewish religious manuscripts, since the Torah was never embellished with pictures.
During the 18th century, the Pesah-Haggada was virtually rediscovered by the arts, particularly by Danish artists working predominantly on this subject. The fact that in modern times, long after the invention of print, books – among them Jewish liturgical texts – were still copied by hand and lavishly decorated with the greatest care is hardly known but impressively documented in this manuscript.

The Darmstadt Codex made in 1769 in Copenhagen was both written and artfully decorated by Yehuda Leib ben Eliyya Ha-Cohen. Its illustrations of the relevant text passages represent ritual, biblical and eschatological aspects of liturgy. The miniatures by Yehuda Leib Ha-Cohen resemble small paintings and illustrate topics from the Pesah-Haggada with great enthusiasm for details and precision, while also providing an insight into the lives and times of this period.

A Danish Haggada

The rise of Jewish communities in Denmark goes back to the 17th century when King Christian IV encouraged Jews to move there for economic and political reasons. One of the larger communities was Copenhagen, with approximately a hundred thousand members. This community offered a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a wide range of cultural and economic activities.
The Jewish population in Denmark lived in relative peace and prosperity due to the flourishing economy, which also provided a basis for numerous artists’ commissions. Jewish scribes and painters thus discovered a favourite in the Pesah-Haggada as an object for exquisite decoration.

A liturgical book for the Pesah feast

The Pesah-Haggada commemorates the liberation of the people of Israel from servitude in Egypt and their exodus to the Promised Land, the main intention being to pass on this message of liberation from one generation to the next, as ”every person in whatever period they live has the obligation to consider themselves as being part of the great exodus from Egypt”. The prospect of final deliverance is drawn from a messianic perspective.
The Pesah festival begins on the 14th day of the month of Nisan, i.e. on the first full moon in spring, and lasts for eight days. At night, every family has their paschal lamb and unleavened bread (matza), bitter herbs and wine. Over the years, a fixed order (seder) was established for this religious meal, according to which the liturgy was held. The basic form of this order is about a thousand years old. It was later compiled in a small book called Pesah-Haggada.
This book comprises biblical texts, hymns and psalms, verses and records of religious customs. The head of the family reads it on the first and second evenings of Pesah. As this happens during the ceremony and the meal, most manuscripts show marks of use, such as stains of wine.

Yehuda Leib ben Eliyya Ha-Cohen

The scribe and painter Yehuda Leib Ha-Cohen was born in Lissa, Poland. We know of two Haggadot that he produced in Denmark, the Darmstadt Codex from the year 1769 and a second one from 1779. Jewish illuminators have as a rule always worked in a very traditional manner. In contrast to his colleagues, Yehuda Leib was primarily concerned with European artistic creation, particularly with the Danish tradition and acquired a new painting style bridging the gap between the Baroque–Rococo and the classical periods. He was clearly inspired by other works, such as the Icones Biblicae by Matthäus Merian and the Haggadot of Amsterdam. He was also influenced by the etchings of Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki.
Leib’s landscapes remind us of pictures from the French classical period and his architecture of the Baroque buildings in Copenhagen, while his interior scenes are conversation pieces typical of the Rococo. His nuances in effects of light and shade conjure up a magical atmosphere. In spite of his having been influenced by other artists, Leib developed an innovative style of his own, which makes his pictures truly unique.

The commentary volume

The scholarly commentary by Ulf Haxen is in English and provides an introduction to the historic background of the manuscript. It also explains the significance of the author and painter of the manuscript for the history of art, describing every single page separately.

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