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Xanten Bible: selected folios from vols. 1 & 2

Collection History

Undoubtedly commissioned by a German Jewish community for the use of its cantor, the Padua Ashkenazi Mahzor, in more recent times, was in the possession of the Jewish community ("Università Israelitica") of Padua. There it served as a paradigm of the Ashkenazi (i.e., Central European) rite for the research of Samuele Davide Luzzatto, preeminent modern Jewish theologian, founder of the field of Jewish liturgiology, and revered teacher at the Padua rabbinical seminary. His comprehensive autograph collation appears at the end of the manuscript and is dated 1848. A century later, the codex was presented to The New York Public Library, together with the Padua Italian Mahzor (another exquisitely executed manuscript festival prayer book, also in two volumes and on vellum, but this time dating from the Renaissance and following the Italian rite), one of many munificent gestures to the Jewish Division on the part of New York corset manufacturer and bibliophile Louis Rabinowitz.


This large folio festival prayer book, or Mahzor, according to the Ashkenazi rite, records the elaborate piyutim (poetic interpolations) composed throughout the Middle Ages to enhance public worship on the holidays and special sabbaths of the liturgical year. Lacking a date or a place, the manuscript seems nonetheless to reflect the codicological and ritual practices of 14th-century Germany, although many of the texts it preserves are unknown from any other source.

Although 1,156 pages of this massive vellum codex survive, the manuscript is lacking at both ends, and apparently was bound into two volumes during the 19th century. The place and date of production may once have been identified in the text, but the only explicit information that has survived is the name of the scribe and decorator. A pair of illuminated letters on folio 506a incorporate the signature "I, David bar Pesah the scribe."

David bar Pesah's iconography is straightforward. Thus, the flowery opening hymn of the additional service for the Day of Atonement, Shushan emek uyamah ("The rose in the valley is quivering": the rose is symbolic of Israel in the traditional Jewish allegorical reading of the Song of Songs), has its initial word illuminated with rosettes. Similarly, the full-page illumination for the opening of the Day of Atonement hymn, Shaare rahamim ("Gates of mercy"), takes the form of a Gothic gateway. This context of simplicity is what makes the full-page illumination of "Kol," the initial word of the Kol nidre formula for the annulment of religious vows that opens the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, seem relatively problematic. Assuming that the artwork is not arbitrary, which it may well be, it becomes necessary to explain the presence of those ubiquitous images of medieval Europe, a crusader and a Saracen in combat and a (zoomorphic) hunting scene. While alternative interpretations are encouraged, it may perhaps be surmised that warfare and field sports share with Yom Kippur a heightened sense of life and death.

Collection Data

An early and very rare illuminated manuscript in Hebrew, the Xanten Bible is the first Hebrew manuscript to enter the Library's Spencer Collection. This two-volume manuscript on vellum of the entire Hebrew Bible carries the colophon: "I, Joseph of Xanten, son of Kalonymus from Neuss have written and illustrated these twenty-four books for my friend Moses, Son of Jacob." It was completed on Monday, the twenty-first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan "in the year 5054 of the creation of the world [i.e., 1294 of the Common Era]." The Hebrew text is arranged three columns to the page, with scattered historiated initials and charming pen-and-ink miniatures of flora and fauna both realistic and fantastic (the artist seems especially fond of rabbits). Accompanying the text is the Masorah, the body of notes related to the accurate presentation of the text. The Masorah Parva, or Little Masorah, mostly in abbreviated form, is found to the right of each column; the Masorah Magna, or Great Masorah, appears at the top and bottom of the page. Volume II of the manuscript opens with the Book of Jonah; the page is decorated with a miniature showing Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. This was a favorite subject for illustration in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Bibles. The note in the left margin of that page, added in an Ashkenazic semi-cursive script, is a reminder that this is read at the afternoon service of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1294
Library locations
Spencer Collection
Shelf locator: Spencer Collection Heb. Ms. 1
Type of Resource
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 1af6b210-c6f7-012f-9576-58d385a7bc34
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x Xanten Bible: selected folios from vols. 1 & 2
Date Range
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