Iconography and Materiality of a 15th-Century Jewish Prayer Book: Expressions of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’

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This paper explores the iconography and materiality of the Oppenheimer Siddur
(Oxford Bodleian MS Opp.776), an illuminated book of daily prayers produced in Germany in 1471 by a Jewish scribe, Asher ben Yitzḥaq. The colophon tells us that the scribe copied it for use by his own family, but there is evidence that not only did he copy the texts in this siddur, he also participated in the design and execution of its abundant artwork. Analysis of material and codicological features of the manuscript have uncovered aspects of this scribe-artist’s working methods and materials, revealing evidence that copying and application of pigments for illustrations and text decoration occurred concurrently rather than sequentially, and that the same pigments were used in both scribal copying and artwork. Evidence from multi-spectral imaging work on the manuscript strongly supports the hypothesis that the scribe was also the artist. The scribe-artist’s choice of subjects in the illuminations, their symbolism and contextualisation in relation to the prayer texts of the Western Ashkenazic rite (minhag rinus), also give us insight into his sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’. Significant in this regard is the contrast between the manuscript’s pervasive musical imagery, a theme that runs throughout the prayerbook, and several unusual images of the medieval wild man. This creates a vivid opposition, one in which music is associated with Jewish prayer, and the violent and debased wild men with non-Jewish ‘others.’ This suggests that the manuscript’s scribe-artist not only understood the meanings of such images in medieval Christian visual culture, he deliberately transformed them for his private Jewish audience. As a material object, as well as an illuminated prayer book designed for functional use, the Oppenheimer Siddur therefore offers a window into an individual's 15th-century Ashkenazic Jewish worldview.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2021
EventInternational Congress on Medieval Studies - Kalamazoo-Online, United States
Duration: 9 May 202114 May 2021
Conference number: 57th


ConferenceInternational Congress on Medieval Studies
Abbreviated titleICMS
Country/TerritoryUnited States


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