Musicians and Wild Men: Signs of Identity in a 15th-century Hebrew Illuminated Prayer Book

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This paper explored the depiction of musicians and wild men as opposing symbols of identity in the Oppenheimer Siddur (Oxford Bodleiean MS Opp. 776), a 15th-century book of daily prayers made in Germany by a Jewish scribe-artist for use by his own family. This manuscript contains the largest number of illustrations of musicians in any medieval Hebrew manuscript and two unusual illustrations of wild men. Jewish medieval illuminated manuscripts share many iconographic conventions with Christian art, including musical imagery that is often used to express conceptions of the sacred and profane and attendant notions of model and anti-model. Wild men or women also occur frequently in Christian medieval and Early Modern art and literature and are usually identifiable by the fact that they appear au naturel, with a tell-tale, full coat of body hair or leafy garb that is their only covering. Though variously depicted—from humorous foliage sprite to fearsome giant—the wild man is often portrayed as anti-model “other”: bestial, uncivilised and sub-human. Unlike musicians, images of wild men appear in only a few Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Some of these are known to have been produced in Christian workshops or to have relied on conventional artists’ models that were widely circulated, but there is no known precedent for the way wild men have been rendered in the Oppenheimer Siddur. The contrasting images of pretty, colourful musicians and ugly, violent wild men, and way they have been contextualised in relation to the prayer texts where they occur, suggest that the scribe-artist who made this manuscript created an intentional and vivid opposition between the musicians, identified with Jewish prayer, and the wild men, representing non-Jewish “others.” This implies that the manuscript’s creator not only understood the meanings of such images in medieval Christian visual culture, he deliberately transformed them for his private Jewish audience.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventBelonging and Detachment: Representing Musical Identity in Visual Culture: 19th International Conference of Association RIdIM - University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
Duration: 13 Nov 201915 Nov 2019


ConferenceBelonging and Detachment: Representing Musical Identity in Visual Culture
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