A Mahzor from Worms: Art and Religion in a Medieval Jewish Community, written by Katrin Kogman-Appel

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Author: Ilia Rodov 1
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  • 1 Bar-Ilan University

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Katrin Kogman-Appel, A Mahzor from Worms: Art and Religion in a Medieval Jewish Community. Cambridge MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2012. x+308pp., 21pl., $52.50.

The publication’s strictly scholarly (and fashionably bipartite) title, laconic chapter headings, and meticulous narration suggest another merely pedantic monograph about a medieval manuscript and its historical whereabouts, but the facile impression belies the reality. Over and above its remarkably profound scholarship, the book offers fascinating reading and intellectual delight. While vigorously revising many time-venerated conventions about medieval Jewish visual culture, it gives us a glimpse of extinct human behaviors and bygone ideas.

Even the title testifies to the author’s challenge to heretofore indisputable statements. Although it could have been confused with the “Worms Mahzor” (1272), Katrin Kogman-Appel decisively coined the name “Mahzor from Worms” (c. 1310) to manifest her proposed attribution of the patronage, ideological program, and long-time use of what is commonly called the “Leipzig Mahzor” to the Jewish community of Worms.1

The collegial recognition of the book speaks for the cogency of its method and arguments. Shortly after its publication in 2012, A Mahzor from Worms was named a finalist of the Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award in Scholarship of the North American Jewish Book Council and earned complimentary reviews.2 Kogman-Appel’s recent research is already being referred to in scholarly literature and included in bibliographies of academic courses relating to medieval Jewish art. As the publication, whose pages are losing the scent of fresh print, needs little introduction, the current review focuses on the book’s contribution to the field.

Kogman-Appel’s work reaffirms that a researcher can make a true discovery without unearthing a lost treasure or finding a forgotten chef-d’œuvre in a dusty loft, but just by inquiring more attentively into what is already generally known. A facsimile edition of the illuminated pages of the prayer book for Jewish holidays held in the library of Leipzig University was published with commentaries by Bezalel Narkiss more than half a century ago,3 and various illuminations from this manuscript have been examined in more recent publications. Nevertheless, Kogman-Appel is the first to question whether the particular narrative images constitute an integrated program, and if so, what does that program pursue? She resourcefully turns the frustrating unconformity of the Mahzor’s paintings into a clue for puzzling out the implicit plan of the manuscript’s design. She proposes that the loose relationship of the images to the accompanying texts in the manuscript indicates that these images reflect and express certain ideas associated with but not explicated in the Mahzor’s contents. She argues that the illuminations addressed a complex of social, legal, and mystical concepts that related to the synagogue liturgy and contemporary communal life. She unravels the seemingly random repertoire of scenes as a purposeful choice made by the anonymous designer(s) of the manuscript’s illuminations.

Kogman-Appel’s work creates a channel from the contemporary “information age” to the pre-Gutenberg epoch. Appealing to the reader who increasingly advances from tangible “mechanical reproduction” (using Walter Benjamin’s parlance) of texts and images to intangible digital publications, she reclaims the sense of uniqueness and corporeality of a manuscript codex, which cannot be fully attained through reproductions.4 It is clear from the text that Kogman-Appel experienced a sense of excitement, evoked by the “solemn dignity” of a large-scale, lavishly colored manuscript each time that she paged through it in the university library in Leipzig (1, 11). She likens her aesthetic experience to the emotional impact that the Mahzor would have engendered in the medieval congregation in the Worms synagogue (37, 187).

The methodological turnabout proves to be efficacious. Kogman-Appel investigates the Leipzig Mahzor as a “ritual object, an object that helps the congregation perform a public ritual” (36) and notes that medieval Jews revered communal prayer books as sacred and were convinced that they possessed supernatural powers (37, 82). She stresses that the Mahzor was not a once-and-forever completed artifact, for it was deliberately altered each time that the owners wished to enhance its adjustment to the synagogue liturgy. Kogman-Appel reconstructed the codex’s original layout through a painstaking analysis of the physical peculiarities of the manuscript’s two volumes, their textual contents, and the style of their paintings. She argues that rather than being a mere illustration of the poetry, the Mahzor’s primary design triggers the reader’s association of the sections flagged by the figurative paintings with the pivotal concepts of the Jewish community in Worms concerning their collective identity, rituals and customs, piety and ethics, prayer, and religious catharsis. Beginning with the chapter on the empirical “Facts about the Leipzig Mahzor,” the discussion repeatedly returns to the same selected images to reveal multiple layers of meaning: literal and documentary, allegoric, homiletic, and—in the final chapter “Sod: Mystical Dimensions”—esoteric. An allusion to the exegetic method known as the PaRDeS lends a taste of literary wit to Kogman-Appel’s semiotic discourse on the rabbinical hermeneutics.5

Kogman-Appel traces the roots of ideology—relating the original illuminations of the Mahzor from Worms back to the Qalonymide Pietists, who lived in Worms and other Jewish communities in the area a century or more earlier. At the same time, she points to the discrepancy between those who conveyed Pietism-related ideas in the Mahzor’s paintings and the Pietists, who kept their teaching strictly esoteric and objected to illuminating prayer books (183, 285 notes 2 and 3). She assumes that several generations served to gradually modify Ashkenazi Pietism into a more popularized post-Pietist Ashkenazi culture, which allowed promulgation of the Pietist legacy through a visual medium.

It is noteworthy that Kogman-Appel’s theoretical model suggests a plausible explanation for an even more extensive expansion of images into the ritual space, which seems to have taken place in the Worms synagogue from c. 1355 to 1623/24, the years largely overlapping the period when the congregation had possession of the Leipzig Mahzor (c. 1310–1615). Whereas the congregants standing close to the prayer leader could occasionally see the illuminations in the Mahzor, which was open on the pulpit near the Torah ark during the course of the festival services, the entire congregation would always have been able to see a dragon carved on the Torah ark itself. The dragon relief both alludes to the demonology and magic in the teachings of the Ashkenazi Pietists and ignores the prohibition of Judah the Pious regarding any image in the synagogue, especially near the ark (183, 284 note 183), as well as the Mishnaic ban on an implement bearing a dragon image.6

Kogman-Appel’s perception of the illuminated manuscript as an object that cannot be fully understood if detached from its functions apparently goes beyond the long-standing traditions of iconographic analysis and art historical connoisseurship. Indicative is the contrast between the Machsor Lipsiae facsimile reproducing sixty-eight decorated folia and the reviewed book containing nine images from the Mahzor.7 Kogman-Appel’s selection precisely serves her book’s cynosure, which she defines as “an insight into the mentality of the people” who created these images 700 years ago (2). This objective is achieved without compiling an illustrated catalogue raisonné of the Mahzor’s paintings, or providing reproductions of iconographic models for each discussed visual motif.8 It is not the first recent attempt of experts in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, including Kogman-Appel herself, to revise conservative methodologies. Nevertheless, A Mahzor from Worms is perhaps the first among these studies to mark the watershed of the transition between the iconography and phenomenology of visuality so programmatically.

Emancipated from the presupposition that the narrative images in manuscripts are always semantically subordinated to textual contents, Kogman-Appel considers the pictorial and literary expressions as equally instructive and mutually complementary. She employs scrupulous formal analysis of the visual language as a tool to confirm the profound informativeness of the Mahzor’s illuminations. Representative of this modus operandi is her interpretation of a half-shaded man and his fully lit female consort, who are portrayed side by side in the title panel of the liturgical poem recited on the Great Sabbath (vol. 1, fol. 64v). Kogman-Appel convincingly argues that the painting has little to do with the mimetic rendering of natural lighting effects, but rather symbolically implies the ultimate luminosity of the shekhinah (divine presence) as opposed to the duality of good and evil in the human soul (157–159).

Further, she credits images as being reliable testimony regarding both abstract ideas and the customs of the times. Thus she posits the depiction of the allegoric couple as a hitherto unnoticed proof for the conveyance of the teaching on the feminine shekhinah from the Jewish mystic circles of Iberia to the Jewish esoteric scholars in the German lands (159–164). She suggests that the Mahzor’s illuminations showing medieval customs—for example, the scalding of vessels before Passover (vol. 1, fol. 68v) or the initiation of pupils (vol. 1, fol. 131r)—furnish visual evidence that goes “beyond what the copious written records from the period can provide” (104–105).

A Mahzor from Worms does not conceal the researcher’s doubts and avoids authoritative postulations. As self-reflective as it is, the discourse does not fall into the irony or narcissism habitual in post-modern studies, inclining instead to the mindset that contemporary culturologists call “meta-modernism,” which “oscillates between a postmodern doubt and a modern desire for sense.”9 Kogman-Appel involves us in a train of thought starting from the artifact and passing through concise critical reviews of an immense corpus of scholarly literature, and her innovative insights lead toward ever deeper—but never exhaustive—understanding of the object under discussion.

1

“Worms Mahzor” (1272), Jerusalem, The National Library of Israel, MS Hebrew 4⁰ 781/I–II; “Mahzor from Worms” (c. 1310), Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek, MS Voller 1102/I–II.

2

See Pamela Patton, “Kogman-Appel, Katrin. A Mahzor from Worms: Art and Religion in a Medieval Jewish Community,” The Medieval Review 9 (2012), accessed May 29, 2016, scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/tmr/article/view/17641/23759; Maya Balakirsky Katz, “Katrin Kogman-Appel. A Mahzor from Worms [. . .],” AJS Review 36.2 (2012): 343–345; Pinchas Roth, “A Mahzor from Worms [. . .],” Jewish Book Council, accessed May 29, 2016, www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-mahzor-from-worms; Roth, “A Mahzor from Worms [. . .],” Jewish Book World, 31.3 (2013): 70; Evelyn M. Cohen, “Katrin Kogman-Appel. A Mahzor from Worms [. . .],” Studies in Iconography 35 (2014): 245–247.

3

Machsor Lipsiae: 68 Faksimile-Tafeln der mittelalterlichen hebräischen illuminierten Handschrift aus dem Bestand der Universitäts-Bibliothek Leipzig, ed. Elias Katz, introduction by Bezalel Narkiss, 2 vols. (Vaduz: Société pour le Commerce Intercontinental Trust, 1964).

4

It should be noted that unlike the publisher of this book review, the publisher of Kogman-Appel’s book did not follow a common contemporary practice of issuing a digital twin of the printed edition. As a result, each reader of her book experiences its materiality by feeling the solidity of the printed volume and touching its matte cream-tint paper, which one may associate with either yellowed pages of old books or parchment of manuscripts. Even very few editorial and printer’s faults in A Mahzor from Worms (e. g., the captions of figures 12 and 13 are exchanged and in my copy, the pages with the reproductions are loose), which could disappoint one in the not distant past, nowadays evoke in me a nostalgic sense of irreversibility and the fragility of this medium.

5

The Hebrew acronym, PaRDeS, is for four dimensions of text: Peshat (plain), Remez (hint), Derash (homily), and Sod (mystery).

6

Ilia Rodov, “Dragons: A Symbol of Evil in Synagogue Decoration?” Ars Judaica 1 (2005), 63–84. On the Mishnaic ban on dragon images, see Avodah Zara 3:3.

7

On the Machsor Lipsiae facsimile see above, note 3. The other 12 of the 21 reproductions in the book show comparative material. The number of images in A Mahzor from Worms looks especially modest in relation to many dozens or even hundreds of reproductions in the comparable academic publications in the field.

8

Kogman-Appel attached the list of the Mahzor’s decorated pages as an appendix (199–203). My only reservation regarding her choice not to provide reproductions for each discussed visual motif concerns the depiction of Moses on Sinai (vol. 1, fol. 130v). The book brightly elucidated the thematic and visual relation of this scene to the initiation ritual shown on the opposite page, folio 131r (100–104). However, the reader cannot compare these two images: although the caption to fig. 15 mentions both adjacent folia, the figure only reproduces folio 131r.

9

Timotheus Vermeulen, “Timotheus Vermeulen Talks to Cher Potter,” TANK Magazine 7.4 (2012): 215. For an example of “meta-modernism,” see Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010), DOI: 10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677.

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