Why the decorated pages of the ‘Rothschild Pentateuch’ are so special

The Torah was traditionally composed in scrolls, but the Rothschild Pentateuch is gathered together in codex form

The Rothschild Pentateuch
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You may not have heard of the Rothschild Pentateuch, but the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles considers it one of its most important acquisitions in decades. The Rothschild Pentateuch is an illuminated manuscript, completed in 1296, of the first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – of the Hebrew Bible, or Torah, the central sacred text of Judaism.

The Torah was traditionally composed in scrolls, but the Rothschild Pentateuch is gathered together in codex form. And this example is particularly rare because of the elaborate illustrations and embellishments to the letters in gold and other vibrant colours – the illuminations – that adorn many of its parchment pages, including three full-page paintings and 56 large illuminated text panels. More than 150 of its 1,000 pages are decorated.

The majority of Hebrew Bibles from this period followed a more textual tradition. “This is the most spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript that has come to market in over a century,” Getty Museum director Timothy Potts says. “It’s the greatest example of its kind.”

The Rothschild Pentateuch

The Getty Museum is now displaying the Rothschild Pentateuch, alongside illuminated manuscripts of the Christian Bible and Quran, in an exhibition called Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Quran, which celebrates the art of illumination. All three religions trace their belief in the singular God to a common patriarch, the figure of Abraham (Ibrahim). It is worth noting, however, that, much closer to home, at Louvre Abu Dhabi, visitors can see a Yemeni Torah next to a sixth-century Quran and a Gothic Bible in the museum's Universal Religions room.

“This landmark acquisition fulfils one of the museum’s long-standing goals of adding to our collection a Hebrew manuscript that can stand comparison in quality and importance to our finest illuminated manuscripts of other languages and faiths,” says Potts.

Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum, adds: “The three objects on display are exceptionally beautiful artworks that we hope will spark meaningful dialogue among various audiences.

"The cohesiveness of the visual programme combined with its unbounded ingenuity shows how medieval artisans approached the complex problem of page design and tackled a project as ambitious as the Rothschild Pentateuch."


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On each page, you can see the text in both Hebrew and Aramaic, which is surrounded by illustrations and notes on how to pronounce the words. Illuminated manuscripts such as the Rothschild Pentateuch were circulated in northern Europe during the mid-thirteenth century to serve the Ashkenazi Jewish community, who lived along the river Rhine.

It is thought that the illumination of the Rothschild Pentateuch would have most likely been completed by a Christian artist, however, since Jewish artists were banned at the time from joining painting guilds in Europe. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about the Rothschild Pentateuch is how much we know about its creation.

The names of the two scribes – Elijah ben Meshullam and Elijah ben Jehiel – can be found on the manuscript, along with the name of the patron, Joseph ben Joseph Martel, who may have come from England. “Since Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and the date on this is June 17, 1296, the thinking is this was created by or for Jewish emigres from England,” says Potts.  

Almost all of the illuminations in the Rothschild Pentateuch, which is divided into sections designed to be read weekly, so that people could complete the text within a year, are of animals or plants. But one does feature human figures, specifically a scene where Moses addresses the Israelites. This particular illumination was added in the second half of the 15th century by a well-known scribe from that period, Joel ben Simeon.

The Rothschild Pentateuch

“To find a 13th century manuscript of such art historical significance is something that may not happen again for a number of decades,” says Morrison. “Many illuminated Hebrew manuscripts were lost or destroyed over the centuries. And most of those that remain today are already in national European collections or in Israel. The few that are still in private hands are often not made available for sale or cannot obtain an export licence.     

“Probably less than 10 with this level of decoration have been offered on the open market since I started at the Getty Museum 22 years ago.”

The Rothschild Pentateuch was sold to the Getty Museum by, according to the museum, "the heirs of a Frankfurt-based Jewish family" now living in Israel. It was previously held at the University Library in Frankfurt, which received it as a donation from Baroness Adelaide de Rothschild in the early 1900s.

In the wake of the Second World War, the family agreed a deal with the German government in which they were compensated for property seized by the Nazis with 10 Hebrew manuscripts. In the centuries prior to this, though, the manuscript travelled around Europe and has been recorded in France, Poland and Italy.  

“At the Getty Museum, we are thrilled and honoured to be the next link in the long chain of caretakers of this precious treasure,” says Morrison. “I am giddy with excitement. To be able to share it with the world is such a privilege.”

Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Quran is at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles until February 3, 2019. www.getty.edu